Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has flown mostly under the radar this Super Bowl season. It's a bit of a surprise given that he has thrown for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions through three playoff games, but even that sort of performance can be overshadowed by the media juggernaut following linebacker Ray Lewis.
So despite the never-ending coverage of Sunday's big showdown you may not have heard that Flacco is in the final year of his rookie contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent. That leaves the Ravens with the difficult decision of what to do with their strong-armed star.
It's worth noting here that all signs point to Flacco staying in purple and black. Baltimore drafted Flacco 18th overall in 2008 to be the team's longtime franchise quarterback, and general manager Ozzie Newsome has already said that Flacco will be starting under center for the team next season. But the question that remains is whether Baltimore will have to sacrifice any chance of a competitive future by keeping Flacco.
Flacco's camp is reportedly looking for a deal that will rival Drew Brees' $20 million-per-year contract, the NFL's richest in terms of annual payout. That's a staggering amount of money, especially considering that Flacco comes nowhere close to Brees in terms of on-field performance.
The Saints' quarterback led the league in passing yards and touchdowns in each of the last two seasons and ranked third in both stats in 2010. He annually ranks among the league's best in terms of completion percentage. Flacco, meanwhile, has failed to crack the top ten in completion percentage, yards or touchdowns in either of the last two seasons, and he barely made the cut in 2010. This isn't meant to denounce Flacco, who is obviously a very talented and successful quarterback, just to show that he doesn't yet deserve the sort of money paid to Brees, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
But the worse news for Baltimore is that, even if the front office agrees that Flacco deserves such an exorbitant contract, the team simply can't afford to lock so much money into a single position, particularly because that position hasn't been integral to the Ravens' success.
The Ravens have thrived on a balanced approach to both sides of the ball. In 2012 the team ranked around the middle of the league in yards gained (16th) and points scored (10th) on offense, as well as in yards surrendered (17th) and points allowed (T-12th) on defense. Unlike the Saints or Patriots, who often succeed exclusively by the passing game and pay their quarterbacks accordingly, the Ravens can't rely solely on their offense to win.
And to be sure, signing Flacco to a monster new contract will come at the expense of the team's defensive performance. Key defensive players like Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents (not to mention that Ray Lewis is retiring). The team's defense will be awfully anemic if those players are all allowed to walk, but Baltimore may not have any other option when what little cap space it has is eaten up by Flacco's new contract.
The Ravens head into next season with around $107 million in cap commitments against a salary cap that's not expected to be much higher than this year's $120.6 million. Even if Baltimore adds some cap room by restructuring a few existing contracts, the majority of that potential budget will go toward keeping Flacco - and that assumes the two sides agree to a reasonable, longterm contract. Should the Ravens and Flacco fail to see eye-to-eye on a new deal, Baltimore's only option will be to franchise Flacco for a deadly $14.6 million cap hit in 2013.
Obviously the team and its fans are focused on the lone goal of winning a Super Bowl this weekend, and rightly so. But win or lose, the Ravens have quite the decision looming before them, and choosing to stick by their young quarterback could put the team's future success into jeopardy.