Despite praise for Jackson, Flacco's the key to crucial year for Ravens
Evan Habeeb / USA TODAY Sports

It didn't take long for Lamar Jackson to turn heads.

Quarterbacks guru Marty Mornhinweg, who's presided over NFL offenses since Jackson was in diapers, recently gushed about the development of the Baltimore Ravens' second - but most important - first-round pick in the 2018 draft.

"He's done an outstanding job up to date," Mornhinweg said earlier in the week. "He's way ahead of the curve."

Mornhinweg's comments stoked the false notion that the former Louisville star is coming for Joe Flacco’s job - that there's some genuine jockeying taking place this summer between the incumbent and rookie.

But consider the source. Mornhinweg, a known coddler of quarterbacks who comes from the coaching tree of the league's most notorious quarterback coddler, Andy Reid, has a history of blowing smoke in order to shield his signal-callers.

As offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, he offered high praise for then-rookie QB Kevin Kolb in 2007, suggesting Kolb "may be one of those quarterbacks that progresses pretty quickly." Kolb won nine of his 21 career starts for the Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. He completed under 60 percent of his passes and retired in 2014 with a career 78.9 passer rating.

In the same position with the New York Jets, Mornhinweg used some familiar rhetoric when appraising then-rookie Geno Smith during training camp in 2013, saying, "He's way ahead of the pace of a normal rookie." There's that "way ahead" again.

Ravens fans certainly hope Jackson fares better than Smith, who went 12-18 as a Jets starter with a 72.4 passer rating, though the point isn't to question Mornhinweg's credibility. There's a reason he's entering his 16th season as an offensive coordinator (not counting two years as Detroit Lions head coach). If he's pointing the spotlight at Jackson, however, it's worth wondering who he's trying to point it away from.

Flacco closed 2017 strong, but the 33-year-old is still shadowed by several disappointing seasons. The Ravens have missed the playoffs four times in the last five years, including the past three. It's a marked change in fortune from the first five years of the John Harbaugh-Flacco era when Baltimore made five straight playoff appearances, culminating in a win over Harbaugh's brother in Super Bowl XLVII.

Flacco hasn’t finished in the top 10 in passer rating since that brilliant postseason run, which included road upsets over the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots and forced the Ravens to make him the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback at the time of his extension.

He also underwent ACL surgery in 2015, which limited him to 10 starts, and labored through a back injury last year that sidelined him for much of training camp in 2017.

However, in the final five weeks of last season, Flacco passed for the league’s eighth-most yards and threw nine touchdowns - tied for the most over that span, with only two interceptions. The Ravens scored more points than any other NFL team over that stretch (10 more than the next-best Rams).

It was an encouraging sign for Flacco, who hasn't faced this kind of scrutiny since he was playing on a one-year franchise tag in 2012 - the season he went on to win a ring.

"In order to make it in this league, period, you have to be able to tune out some things and believe in yourself and go play, so I don't know if this situation is any really different than just making it in this league," Flacco said at camp last week. "That's what it’s all about, is being able to believe in yourself and go out there and play and rely on other guys and have that trust."

Though Flacco may be adept at tuning out the noise, he knows the Ravens weren't simply targeting the best available player in April when they forked over two second-round picks (one in 2019) and a fourth-rounder to select Jackson 32nd overall.

Jackson won’t be ready to overtake the veteran by the opener, of course, but Harbaugh's already said Jackson’s athleticism and mobility are too good to stash on the sideline for an entire season.

The Ravens coach remains on the hot seat entering 2018. Team owner Steve Bisciotti admitted in February that he considered firing Harbaugh after last season, so look for the long-tenured coach to pull out every stop as the Ravens grapple with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and improved Cleveland Browns for the AFC North title.

Harbaugh's introduced the same run-pass option concepts that the Eagles brilliantly executed en route to their Super Bowl title. Finding ways to take advantage of Jackson's talent - especially as a runner - makes sense while the Ravens look to boost an upgraded offense that added receivers Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead and first-round tight end Hayden Hurst. With their jobs likely at stake, Harbaugh and Mornhinweg have plenty of motivation to maximize their weapons.

The Ravens missed the playoffs last year thanks to a heartbreaking, last-minute loss to the Bengals in Week 17. There's no recourse for Flacco or Harbaugh this year: It's postseason or bust.

"The name of the game is getting to the playoffs and giving yourself a chance to win," Flacco added at camp. "And especially with the environment of us not making it the last few years, it doesn't matter that we were this close, this close, this close. I don't care if you're in the AFC Championship Game, one game away, one play away from the Super Bowl. 'This close' is not good enough."

Geoff Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter, radio host, and TV personality with more than 20 years of experience covering all major sports and leagues. He also hosts regularly on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and co-hosts 'The Sports Shop' on Facebook. You can find him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.

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Despite praise for Jackson, Flacco's the key to crucial year for Ravens
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