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Joe Flacco's fall from Super Bowl MVP to 31st-ranked passer

BALTIMORE -- Joe Flacco looks as if he has endured the worst year of his NFL career, even though the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback isn't even halfway though the season.

Flacco appears worn down and beaten up both physically and mentally, an image reinforced at this week's question-and-answer session with reporters when he acknowledged accepting the conservative mindset of settling for field goals. It's quite the contrast from the confident, deep-ball thrower who bet on himself and came away with a Lombardi Trophy, a Super Bowl MVP award and an NFL-record contract five years ago.

He has gone from throwing the Mile High Miracle during the championship run to not being able to complete a simple screen pass. He's a shadow of that Joe Montana-like performance in the 2012 playoffs, and now statistically ranks below the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer, both of whom have been benched this season.

Flacco's epic free fall will be magnified on the national stage Thursday night, when the reeling Ravens (3-4) host the Miami Dolphins (4-2). His impatience in the pocket and mistakes not befitting a 10-year veteran have resulted in him being the NFL's 31st-rated passer.

NFL observers say it's just unfair to place all of the blame on Flacco's increasingly slumping shoulders. Widespread injuries and an organizational failure have given Flacco a skeleton crew of a supporting cast, which further explains why the 32-year-old ranks 28th in passing yards (1,189) and 28th in interceptions (eight) this season.

"If you just look at the stat sheet and you don't have any context, you go, 'Joe sucks,' " said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst and former NFL personnel executive. "Sometimes he does, quite honestly like he has said himself, he does suck. But it's not the point where, all of a sudden, the guy has just fallen off the cliff, and you need to go scorched-earth and go, 'Get his ass out of here and let's get someone else.' "

The two most devastating injuries that derailed Flacco's success occurred in the first two weeks of the season, and the loss of guard Marshal Yanda and running back Danny Woodhead were compounded by how Baltimore tried to replace them.

Woodhead, who presented the biggest mismatches for defenses, aggravated his hamstring injury on the season's opening drive. The Ravens had to turn to Buck Allen, who was a healthy inactive for the final four games of 2016.

The situation was more challenging when Yanda, the anchor for an offensive line in flux, broke his ankle in Week 2. Baltimore went from a six-time Pro Bowl lineman to a practice-squad player in Matt Skura at right guard.

The Ravens essentially paired the NFL's seventh-highest-paid player with a bargain-basket offense.

"I think Joe Flacco needs to play better, there's no question about that," said Matt Bowen, an NFL analyst for ESPN.com who played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL. "But a major part of that is the complete offense in Baltimore right now with the injuries [and] the lack of development at key positions. He's not in a spot that is immediately going to create production. He's not. He's in a tough spot to be in."

That spot became even tougher when Flacco and the Ravens had to play six top-10 defenses in their first seven games. Baltimore has managed only one offensive touchdown in the past 10 quarters and an overtime period, and that came on the meaningless last play in Sunday's loss in Minnesota.

It has placed a lot of heat from fans and media alike on the quarterback who was once affectionately known as Joe Cool.

"There's been a lot of adversity, and for the quarterback to shoulder that ... Joe is mature, he's tough, he's tough-minded, and he just deals with it," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's something that people in Baltimore are proud of. They understand that about Joe, and there are good times ahead. There are going to be a lot of good times ahead for Joe Flacco. Stick with him. It's going to be fun to watch."

Flacco hasn't helped himself

Joe Flacco has caused himself as much trouble as pass-rushers at times.

A couple of weeks ago, Flacco faced a crucial third-and-10 late in the third quarter and the Chicago Bears showed Cover 2 before the snap. Instead of waiting for that window behind the corner and in front of the safety to open up -- which is an easy read for a quarterback -- Flacco checked down to tight end Ben Watson, giving Baltimore no chance of picking up the first down.

"Flacco has got the arm and the vision to rip that ball into the hole all day," Bowen said. "Why isn't he doing that? Is it a situation where he's lost confidence in his offensive line and his receivers? What I'm seeing on film, from my perspective, that's what it's telling me."

In Bowen's film study, Flacco has struggled with his anticipation and accuracy. He watched Flacco throw wide on typically high-percentage passes such as crossing routes, and he missed receivers for touchdowns because he tossed the ball behind them into coverage.

Is this surprising for a quarterback who has played in the NFL for a decade?

"A little bit," Bowen said.

Dropping the ball in the offseason

Flacco's decline in play extends back beyond this season. He hasn't been the same since winning the Super Bowl and earning a $20 million-per-season contract.

From the start of the 2013 season to the end of last season, Flacco had thrown the second-most interceptions in the NFL (trailing only Eli Manning) and ranked 36th in passer rating.

How did the front office help him this offseason? The Ravens didn't draft an offensive player with their first four picks and didn't draft an offensive skill-position player for the first time in their history. In free agency, the Ravens signed Woodhead, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, offensive tackle Austin Howard and backup quarterback Ryan Mallett for a total of $15.75 million in guaranteed money, which is dwarfed by the $56.75 million given to the defense.

"I played with Joe and I know the talented quarterback he is. He's really, really good," said former tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught passes from Flacco for six seasons. "A lot of that is lost; he just doesn't trust the protection. He doesn't have a ton of playmakers who are healthy and not playing up to the level that they should be playing."

The Ravens' wide receivers have produced the third-fewest catches (60) and receiving yards (652) while dropping the fifth-most passes (seven). Maclin can't stay healthy, Mike Wallace hasn't been as dynamic as last season and Breshad Perriman has yet to come close to looking like a first-round pick from two years ago.

"He doesn't seem like he has a rapport with anybody in this receiving corps," Riddick said. "Every top quarterback has somebody who they go, 'That's my guy.' Joe just doesn't have that."

Perhaps what's even more vital to Flacco's production is the lack of investment in the offensive line. This year, the season-opening line was composed of one first-round pick (Ronnie Stanley), a perennial Pro Bowl blocker (Yanda), two first-year starters at their position (James Hurst and Ryan Jensen) and a free-agent signing (Howard) right at the start of training camp. In 2012, the Ravens had Yanda, two first-rounders (Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher), a second-rounder (Kelechi Osemele) and a former Pro Bowl center (Matt Birk) protecting Flacco.

"You look at Joe when he had a really good offensive line and what he was able to do," Pitta said. "We won the Super Bowl."

Heir apparent?

Joe Flacco is no longer Baltimore's football superman in terms of durability.

Since his streak of 122 consecutive regular-season starts ended -- the fifth-longest streak in NFL history -- Flacco missed six games at the end of the 2015 season because of a knee injury and sat out all of training camp and the preseason this year because of a lower-back injury, which has continued to be an issue in the regular season.

"I would be remiss to say it wasn't a factor because I know it still bothers him," Pitta said. "I know he's sore and it's something he has to deal with. If you ask him, he wouldn't make that as an excuse."

Flacco's age (he turns 33 at the end of the season), declining passing numbers and increasing aches will spur questions as to whether the Ravens need to think about his heir apparent.

The Ravens are tied to Flacco through the 2018 season because of salary-cap ramifications, but that would allow Baltimore some time to groom a young passer if general manager Ozzie Newsome decided to buck the team's trend next year and take a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. Baltimore has drafted two quarterbacks in the past nine drafts, and Tyrod Taylor and Keith Wenning were both selected in the sixth round.

"There's no question that I'm sure that's going to be a priority for them," Riddick said. "I'm not going to second guess Ozzie or Eric [DeCosta, Ravens assistant general manager], but I think it would be foolish to not be thinking down the road. They know Joe can't play forever and they know at this point in his career, his longevity and his durability and his availability is starting to become a question. It just is."