The only thing worse than Joe Flacco's play this month has been his timing. Some of the worst moments of his career are happening in the final games of his current contract.
Flacco can become an unrestricted free agent in March, but the Ravens aren't going to allow him to hit the market. Yes, the Ravens just fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with three weeks remaining in the regular season, so we can't rule out anything with this bottom-line Baltimore team. But the best bet is that Flacco will be under center for the Ravens in 2013 and the foreseeable future.
Right now, Flacco isn't playing like a franchise quarterback or one who deserves a new deal. In the Ravens' three-game losing streak, he's completed 54 percent of his passes and has averaged 208 yards passing. He's fumbled in three straight games, including one that cost Baltimore a win over the Steelers. His interception that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown Sunday will be remembered as one of the worst passes of his career. These aren't the plays a quarterback wants flashing in everyone's heads at the negotiating table. Although Flacco won't acknowledge it, sometimes he must regret not taking the Ravens' offer this past summer, especially after this dismal December.
Flacco's erratic play has undoubtedly lowered the Ravens' confidence in him. But it hasn't lessened his chances of returning. The Ravens won't -- and honestly can't -- let him walk. This isn't necessarily an endorsement of Flacco. It's just the reality of the situation. Although Flacco's play has been frustrating, a look at the quarterbacks who will be available this offseason makes Flacco seem like Tom Brady. Would the Ravens do any better with Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Kevin Kolb or Ryan Fitzpatrick? The same goes for the draft, where there's no prospect a team would take over Flacco. Plus, the Ravens know how long it took to find a quarterback with the talent of Flacco (think back to the days of Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright and Jeff Blake and Chris Redman).
The question isn't whether the Ravens will keep Flacco. It's how much it will cost them to keep Flacco. The Ravens can use one of two tags on him or sign him to a new contract. The exclusive franchise tag (which would stop him from talking to other teams) is expected to be a little more than $16 million for quarterbacks in 2013, and the non-exclusive tag probably will be $14.5 million. Paying Flacco more than $14 million for one season would force other decisions, because Baltimore has less than $15 million in salary-cap room in 2013.
The alternative would be a long-term deal with Flacco. The sides couldn't come to an agreement for seven months last offseason before talks were shelved at the start of the season. The difficulty is agreeing on the correct value for Flacco. There's a large gap between the top-tier quarterbacks -- Ben Roethlisberger (eight years, $102 million) and Eli Manning (seven years, $106.9 million) -- and the middle-tier ones such as Fitzpatrick (six years, $59 million with $24 million guaranteed).
Flacco repeatedly said this summer that his contract status wouldn't become a distraction. But something is obviously off with Flacco these days. This is the quarterback who has more wins than anyone else in the NFL since 2008 (including playoffs). This is the first starting quarterback in NFL history (since the 1970 merger) to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. And this is the quarterback who was supposed to take the next step after coming within one completed pass of leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl last season.
The season started perfectly for Flacco in a 44-13 win over the Bengals. Ravens coach John Harbaugh jokingly said after the game: "Pay him whatever he asks for. Pay the man. Hear that, [owner] Steve [Bisciotti]?”
Now all Flacco hears these days is booing at his home stadium. But no one should be surprised if Flacco bounces back, just like no one should be surprised when he fails to complete half of his passes after a 300-yard passing game. If we've learned anything about Flacco in his first five seasons, it's that he's a streaky quarterback. Most forget that he didn't throw for more than 180 yards in three straight games before his memorable performance in the AFC Championship Game in New England.
"We’re a team that believes that we can step up and win games," Flacco said. "That’s all we have to do. It will be part of our character and toughness, and all that will be tested -- mine, our team’s -- because there’s always pressure on us, and if there’s a little bit more now, then there is. I think that’s part of being a tough person, pushing through.”
How Flacco handles the pressure probably will determine how he plays in the final games of the regular season and in the playoffs.