Benching Lamar Jackson for Joe Flacco wasn't going to save Ravens, so stop crushing the rookie QB

Kimberley A. MartinSenior NFL writer

With Lamar Jackson, there’s always a chance.

A chance to pull off the improbable. A chance to defy expectations. And a chance, most importantly, to win.

It’s why the stage still belonged to the Ravens rookie quarterback late in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers. And it’s why Joe Flacco, a former Super Bowl champion MVP, was left sitting on the bench.

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The moment — and the future — belongs to Jackson. For better or worse. And on Sunday, it was worse for Baltimore before it got better, and suddenly it all ended in crushing fashion.

Jackson can be his own worst enemy — evidenced by his three fumbles that bookended an erratic and electrifying effort in Baltimore’s 23-17 loss to the higher-seeded Chargers. With 1:51 left on the clock, Jackson had rebounded from a double-digit deficit and thrown more passing yards than Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. With 45 seconds to go, the Ravens were back on the field with a chance to complete a storybook comeback.

Lamar Jackson’s comeback efforts fell short on Sunday as the Ravens lost to the Chargers, 23-17 on Sunday in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson’s comeback efforts fell short on Sunday as the Ravens lost to the Chargers, 23-17 on Sunday in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)

But Jackson’s final fumble of the game sealed a victory for the Chargers, who now will face the perennial power New England Patriots in an AFC divisional-round game next week.

But what’s more maddening than Jackson’s carelessness with the football are the constants criticisms of the former Heisman trophy winner.

Let me guess: You still think Joe Flacco could have saved the day?

Is that right?

Flacco, the 33-year-old quarterback, who hasn’t played in two months because of an ailing hip, was somehow going to have better luck evading the Chargers’ relentless pressure? Flacco, who lost his job because of injury and never reclaimed it, was somehow going to thrive behind a Ravens offensive line that was playing so poorly its starting left guard had to be benched?

Is that what you think?

Whether he agreed or not, Flacco said he understood the decision to keep Jackson in the game and offered support for the rookie.

“No, no, you can’t even go there, man,” the once elite quarterback told reporters, when asked if he thought he could have made a difference in the final score. “I thought Lamar did a great job of just hanging in there. You know, he gave us a chance at the end.”

It’s why Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was so irritated by fans booing and clamoring for Flacco behind their bench that he felt compelled to remind them of one simple truth: “I love Flacc, but No. 8 got us here.”

There was only one rookie quarterback in this playoff field — and it wasn’t Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold or Josh Allen or Josh Rosen. It was Jackson, a soon-to-be 22-year-old dual-threat quarterback who didn’t get his first start until Week 11. With Jackson as their new leader, the Ravens finished 6-1 and won the AFC North title. But Baltimore’s playoff magic didn’t last long.

Thanks to woeful offensive line play, the Ravens struggled to get its run game going, and without the threat of a rushing attack to set up play-action, the Ravens’ offense stalled for three quarters. Behind Jackson’s escapability and arm strength, more aggressive play-calling, key defensive stops and momentum-shifting special-teams plays, Baltimore rebounded from a double-digit deficit and had a chance to pull off the improbable comeback late.

In the end, though, Jackson’s fourth-quarter stats (169 yards on 11-for-20 passing, 14 rushing yards, two touchdowns) weren’t enough to overshadow his first three quarters of work (25 yards on 3-for-9 passing, 40 rushing yards, zero touchdowns and an interception). But it’s naive to think Flacco — a veteran on the downside of his career who went 4-5 with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions this season — would provide the second-half spark Baltimore needed.

In the locker room Smith explained his rational on talking back to those select fair-weather fans, saying: “When things got rough, you turned your back on him. That just got under my skin a little bit. I went to them and told them, ‘Yo, you either ride or die or you get the hell out of here.”

Those doubters have always been there.

They existed long before former team executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian inexplicably touted the notion that Jackson was better suited to be a wide receiver in the NFL. And those same detractors will use Jackson’s performance as more proof of his inability to be a pocket-passer in this league.

Why are people so determined to squeeze Jackson into the mold of what they perceive a quarterback should be, rather than marvel at Jackson’s God-given ability to beat a defense any number of ways?

He is only eight starts into his NFL career, yet so many seem to judge Jackson more harshly than other rookie quarterbacks. Why are some people so quick to forget that he’s not a finished product? Why is it so difficult to give him time, to wait and see how he develops as a passer, to expand one’s view of how a quarterback should look on the field?

The Ravens have moved past the Joe Flacco era. (AP)
The Ravens have moved past the Joe Flacco era. (AP)

Jackson may not be your prototypical stand-in-the-pocket quarterback, but he already has shown an ability to beat teams with his arm and his legs. No, he didn’t win Sunday. And no, the Ravens’ playoff run won’t continue. But Baltimore has reason to be excited about this offseason and what lies ahead with Jackson at the helm.

“Lamar is our quarterback going forward – no question about that,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who added that his call to stick with Jackson late in the game was “the right decision. … Joe can still play, and I think we saw that first half of the season. Joe is going to have a market. A lot of teams are going to want Joe.”

But not the Ravens.

The “big picture” is far bigger than what the aging Flacco might possibly have produced coming off the bench.

Jackson got the Ravens to the postseason, and he deserved to see this game through to the end. Because that’s what you give your quarterback: A chance.

A chance to try to pull off the improbable. A chance to defy expectations. And a chance to win.

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