When the Steelers lost to the Cowboys last night, the Baltimore Ravens, officially and mathematically, made the playoffs. I don’t care. As many fans noted while our offense dazzled the world with its stankness, “Somewhere, Cam Cameron is laughing.” I wouldn’t doubt it. One game is a small sample size, but if yesterday was any indication, there is something wrong with our offense that runs deep—profoundly deep, poisonously deep—and it is so bad, so monstrous and humiliating that it cannot be solved by scapegoating one coordinator out of town. There are three entities responsible for this beatdown at the hands (hooves?) of the Broncos, and none of them is an offensive coordinator named Cam Cameron. Two of them are the offensive line and the coaching staff, Harbaugh in particular, who as a special teams expert on a team with terrible offense and middling defense is a glorified caretaker, some type of motivational speaker who hands out game balls and yells at journalists. The other one is the reason you’re reading this blog post.
Ask any old football head and they’ll tell you that the foundation of a team is the “big uglies,” the unsung burly dudes who make up the offensive and defensive lines. Our line is shoddy and in a constant state of flux and re-evaluation, with pieces coming and going, being rotated, being doubted, sitting out, getting old. The best thing I can say about our tragic collection of fat guys is that one of them, center Matt Birk, went to Harvard. Also, I am somewhat convinced that the only reason Michael Oher continues to be shoe-horned into the all-important left tackle position is because he starred in a movie about his supposed ability to do it. I’m not going to say anything you don’t already know at this point: Disarray on the line creates disarray in general, as the backs don’t have holes and the quarterback is too busy dealing with defenders to notice receivers downfield. That is a huge problem for this offense. We want to run more than we throw, we want to base our throws off play-action—but when your line can only run-block for two yards at a time, you don’t have a running game and you’re forced to throw. That’s not good when said line also can’t really pass protect, and you have a QB who can’t decide between plays (not between games, not between series, but between INDIVIDUAL PLAYS) if he feels like being Mark Sanchez or Matt Ryan.
A lot of quarterbacks can succeed in spite of inadequate guys up front. Flacco is not one of them, but that’s not why I’ve soured on him: After all, it’s a very special kind of athlete who reaches his (or her) ceiling in a way that never totally depends on the talent of others, and football is a team sport. Flacco has never had sure-handed receivers, consistent play-calling, or a good line, and he still is the best quarterback in franchise history, if only because the Ravens have otherwise had a dismal peanut gallery. But I’m all out of qualifiers. I’m all out of reasons to defend my quarterback. Yesterday was not, technically, the worst game I have ever seen Flacco play, and he for sure has had worse stat lines (thanks to Dennis Pitta’s two garbage touchdowns). It was, however, the most shameful game I have ever seen from him. I don’t know how to put this is in a way that doesn’t sound overwrought, but if you saw the Ravens play the Broncos on Sunday, you saw an existential crisis. You saw the soul of a team shredded and sucked out before its own eyes, and you saw a fan base starting to question everything it has believed for five years. Flacco, pretty much, caused all of that.
Truth be told, I was embarrassed for Flacco—a feeling I have never before had for a professional athlete. This is his contract year. He, (in)famously, has called himself elite. His huge albatross had just been fired. He was playing at home for a playoff spot. And he responded in, literally, the worst way imaginable. On our opening drive, after we had dangerously deferred the first possession to Peyton Manning and won the small battle of making Denver punt, Flacco fumbled a sneak after picking up the first down. This killed all momentum, leading the offense toward its drought of zero first downs and 23 TOTAL YARDS through 22 minutes of play. And after our injury-riddled defense limped and gut-checked and sacked its way to limiting Manning to 10 points through two quarters, Flacco threw a pick-six of atomic devastation, ending the game before halftime (!) and turning a potential 10-7 deficit into an impossible 17-0 hole.
It’s weird to be embarrassed for someone you don’t even know, but through my TV I did feel Flacco’s own crushing disappointment in himself. I knew that he could already feel the sting of the critics; for the first time in his life, he would have no answer when they shamed him. It was as if, after the pick-six, Flacco came to the haunting realization that he might not be as good as he always thought he was. His eyes were downcast and searching. His lip was bleeding from when he skidded to the turf as he tried to shoe-string tackle the guy who ran his pick back for a touchdown. Suddenly, purple faithful everywhere (including me) were wondering if this season could get any worse, if Flacco has the mind or the talent to be the quarterback we’ve always wanted, if we really have been giving him too much credit. I was not only embarrassed for Flacco, but by him. He couldn’t even pull off the last two meaningless plays of the game without getting crunched by blitzers, a startling demonstration of his, Harbaugh’s and the line’s ineptitude, all in one. (Seriously, Harbaugh: WTF? Was your GOAL to give Flacco two more shots at getting injured?)
It was more than a bad day at the office. It was a day that was frighteningly indicative of many other days, one that encapsulates everything about Flacco. He is good enough to shotgun hurry an offense to the goal line against an elite defense—Denver is Top 10 in points, total yards and passing yards allowed—and head-scratchingly bad enough to rush a throw to a covered receiver. Counting the Redskins game, this was the second week in a row that his turnovers single-handedly sunk the Ravens, the team that has invested so much in him, whose fans have spent years memorizing stats and records to protect him. For the time being, my vehement defending of him is done. Meanwhile, the Ravens will have at least three more games (counting the one playoff game we will probably lose at home to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati) to determine how much he is worth. The lone silver lining of this three-game losing streak—the first of the HarFlack Era—is that the asking price for Flacco’s new contract has gone down tens of millions of dollars.