CINCINNATI -- The first time John Harbaugh said the magic words, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn't flinch. Didn't show any emotion. Stared straight ahead, blankly, as if he didn't hear his coach at all. But Harbaugh kept saying those magic words.
And Flacco started to flinch.
"You can't have four turnovers," Harbaugh was saying after the Ravens' 15-10 loss Sunday to the Bengals. Ten feet away stood Flacco, waiting miserably for his turn in front of the media.
"Four turnovers, not going to win ..."
"Well, four turnovers ..."
By the end of Harbaugh's news conference, Flacco was no longer staring straight ahead. He was staring at the wall. He was running his hand across the paint, looking for lint or bugs or something, anything that would take his mind off the mental hell that Harbaugh was putting him through.
It wasn't intentional. Harbaugh wasn't trying to torture his quarterback. Harbaugh was simply answering questions, though he didn't answer mine. (More on that in a second.) And most of the questions for Harbaugh revolved around the Ravens' offense, which was two rungs below rancid.
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The Ravens had four turnovers. All were by Flacco, who threw a career-high four interceptions. This was Flacco's 34th game as an NFL starter, and only once has he posted a lower passer rating than his 23.8 stink bomb from Sunday. That came late in his 2008 rookie season, when he had a 22.2 rating in a 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh.
In 2008, the Steelers led the NFL in scoring defense and won the Super Bowl. That season, Pittsburgh's defense was sensational. This season, Cincinnati's defense is not -- not as far as we know. But the Bengals' defense looked sensational Sunday. Well, check that. Joe Flacco made the Bengals' defense look sensational Sunday. There. Better.
"It's not a good feeling," Flacco said. "You don't like going out there, turning the ball over, feeling responsible for why you lost."
Flacco is a good soldier, taking one for the team, but he's wrong. He wasn't solely responsible for this loss. Make no mistake, he was awful. And the Ravens didn't need much more than awful quarterback play to steal a victory Sunday. The Bengals' offense was horrific itself, gaining just 253 yards -- six less than the Ravens' 259 -- and going 3 for 18 on third down.
It's no longer accurate to call Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer "a shell of himself." This is himself. For whatever reason -- injuries to his knee and elbow, the mental anguish of trying to please the psychos in his huddle -- Palmer has regressed from playmaker to caretaker. He's Trent Dilfer, is what he is. On Sunday, Trent Dilfer was enough to beat the Ravens.
Dilfer Palmer aimed 20 of his 35 pass attempts Sunday at Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, not because they were constantly open -- they weren't -- but because they spend time between offensive series whining to him, and to coach Marvin Lewis, if he doesn't. And of those 20 attempts to OwensCinco, just seven resulted in completions. Meanwhile, Palmer was 5 for 6 on passes thrown to third receiver Jordan Shipley, and 4 for 6 on balls to tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Reggie Kelly. Interesting, huh?
|Considering his toubles throwing the ball, Joe Flacco might have been better handing off more often. (US Presswire)|
But the Ravens couldn't muster much of anything, and while it was noble of Flacco to take the blame, he had company. Specifically, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron -- nice guy, mediocre coach -- has some explaining to do. With Flacco clearly struggling, throwing interceptions all over the place and putting several other balls up for grabs, Cameron kept calling pass plays. Even when the Ravens led late in the fourth quarter. Even as tailback Ray Rice was gaining 50 yards on his first 10 carries. In the game's final 29 minutes, Rice had six carries. One of them went for 30 yards. After that, he got just one carry the rest of the way.
So I asked Harbaugh: "Are you comfortable with how much Rice ran the ball, considering Flacco was struggling and ..."
Harbaugh cut me off.
"Where are you from?" he wanted to know.
Thinking we were bonding, I answered honestly:
"I was born in Hawaii, grew up in Oklahoma, went to high school in Georgia. Not sure what that has to do with Ray Rice getting 16 carries."
Harbaugh: "Because our [media] guys wouldn't ask that question."
That's an issue for Baltimore's media guys. Anyway, I'm going to read between the lines and assume that Harbaugh's junior-high duck job of an obvious -- and fairly worded -- question means he was as baffled by Cameron's play-calling as I was.
Whatever the case, the Ravens don't have much time to fix an offense that has scored 10 points in each of its first two games. AFC North games with Cleveland and Pittsburgh are next, with games against Denver and New England after that. The Ravens need to get Flacco going, and they need to get him going now. Harbaugh and me, we're on the same page there.
"You cannot win in this league -- it's been proven time and time again -- with minus-four [turnovers]," he said. "It's not going to get it done. We got it done last week [a 10-9 win against the Jets] with minus-two, but we've got to get it straightened out."