OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As he worked diligently for more than a month to return from a potentially dangerous hip injury, Joe Flacco watched the Baltimore Ravens flourish without him.
Now that he’s healthy, Flacco must adjust to a role he’s never experienced during his 11-year NFL career: backup quarterback.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday selected rookie Lamar Jackson as his starter, opting to play the hot hand rather than a former Super Bowl MVP who’s been starting since his inaugural season in 2008.
After Flacco hurt his right hip in a loss to Pittsburgh on Nov 4, the fleet-footed Jackson took over as the starter following a bye week. Under his guidance, the Ravens ramped up their running game and went 3-1, the only loss in overtime last Sunday on the road against the powerful Kansas City Chiefs.
With Baltimore desperate to end a three-year playoff drought, Harbaugh decided the Ravens would be best served with Jackson running the offense.
“Every decision is based on making us the strongest possible team we can be,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s quarterback or defensive line, that’s the bottom line. That’s what it boils down to. That’s how we feel about this decision, and we’re rolling.”
Jackson will start Sunday when the Ravens (7-6) host Tampa Bay (5-8).
The 33-year-old Flacco has 163 career starts compared to Jackson’s four and has guided the Ravens into the playoffs on six occasions. He was Super Bowl MVP in 2012, when he led Baltimore past San Francisco to cap a postseason in which he threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
But in a league that doesn’t give a hoot about the past, Flacco realized his future in Baltimore would be in jeopardy as soon as the Ravens selected Jackson out of Louisville with the 32nd overall pick in April.
“They drafted Lamar in the first round. At some point, something was going to happen between the two of us,” Flacco said. “Who knows what that was going to be? This is just what it is at this point.”
Flacco retained the starting job until he banged up his hip against the Steelers. He finished the game and wanted to play in the next one, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it.
“The risks of going back out there and playing were just a lot,” Flacco said. “If I just let it play the course and get to where we are today, the risks are nothing.”
He was talking about his health, not losing his grip on the starting job.
“I’ve obviously had five weeks to think about and prepare myself for this situation and the possibility of it,” Flacco said. “And yeah, I’m disappointed I can’t be in that locker room in the same capacity that I’ve always been. But this is my situation right now, and I’m going to do my best to handle it the right way.”
Cleared to practice at full capacity for the first time since his injury, Flacco returned to work Wednesday with the second-team offense. His role now is the same as every backup he’s had for years, from Troy Smith in 2008 to Jackson in the early stages of this season.
“Always got to be ready and stay sharp,” Flacco said.
With Jackson running the offense, the Ravens have racked up an NFL-best 914 yards rushing over the past four weeks. More importantly, they’ve won three of four to put themselves in the middle of the playoff picture. Baltimore trails Pittsburgh by a half-game in the AFC North and currently holds the No. 6 wild-card spot.
And that is why Flacco returns to a role on the bench.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” he said.
Jackson was the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner because of his ability to run, a skill he’s carried with him to the NFL. His 336 yards rushing are most by a rookie quarterback in his first four starts during the Super Bowl era. Still, one misstep could put an end to his run of success.
“They always tell me to protect myself, but I’m going to put it all on the line. I want to win,” Jackson said.
Harbaugh and Flacco have been a team since the quarterback entered the league as a first-round pick soon after Harbaugh was named Baltimore’s coach. They’ve won 15 playoff games together and hoisted the Super Bowl trophy on one memorable evening in New Orleans.
So, it was probably a bit uncomfortable for both when Harbaugh called Flacco into his office Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t know if it was the hardest conversation,” Flacco said, “because in both of our minds we probably knew that the talk was coming at some point.”
And now, for the first time since his college days, Flacco is a backup.
“You have to be a professional about it. It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I just have to go out there and prepare and be ready to go.”