CLEVELAND — The answer to one of the biggest questions about the 2013 season is almost clear now.
Did Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco earn the $120.6 million contract he signed during the offseason? Absolutely. Can he carry a team? No.
If he could, the Ravens would have beaten the Cleveland Browns here Sunday, especially following the bye week. Instead, the Ravens lost and looked like other Super Bowl champions that won and then faded for a year or two after the title.
It is impossible to put all of the Ravens problems on the shoulders of Flacco. Atlas couldn't handle this workload. But everyone wanted to know if he could pick up where he left off in the postseason and carry the Ravens through this year.
Unfortunately, the answer has been a resounding no. In fact, Flacco has played like he has throughout most of his career where he has been inconsistent and streaky. He has been far from elite. Overall, he is a good quarterback, but his play varies from game to game, half to half and even quarter to quarter.
On Sunday, he wasn't very good. He completed 24-of-41 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns, but just about everything he threw was either behind or over the head of his receivers. His one interception could have been mistaken for lunar moon shot.
"Yeah, it was just a terrible ball," Flacco said. "It didn't come out of my hand right or something; it was really a bad ball. I threw it up in the air and it just got up there and didn't do anything. It probably wasn't a great decision anyway."
A better pass here or there would have made the difference like the 46-yard pass he threw behind Torrey Smith. If he leads Smith, that's a touchdown. If he had led Jacoby Jones in the first half, that would have kept a drive alive. If he hadn't thrown so high to tight end Ed Dickson in the third quarter that would have kept another drive alive deep in Cleveland territory.
"You've got to be positive, you have to keep your head and eyes forward and that's what we're going to do," Flacco said. "You have to stare it right in the face and must meet it. It's obviously a little frustrating on Sundays and we just have to continue to work."
There are a number of Flacco supporters out there who will say he just had a bad game or every quarterback makes mistakes. Let's not make excuses any longer.
Even on a bad day, the quarterbacks who make Flacco-type money deliver. Nearly three weeks ago, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was having a bad day, but he still completed that 64-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in the third quarter. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is having a bad year compared to Brady standards, but the Patriots are still in first place in the AFC East.
That's what elite quarterbacks do, and that's why they make the big bucks. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning doesn't have a bunch of household names at receiver but he makes them better. He carries that team.
Flacco, though, isn't that accurate. Manning puts balls in places where only his receivers can catch them so they don't always need separation. Flacco needs a better cast, he has to have acrobatic receivers like Anquan Boldin or Dennis Pitta.
Smith is great outside the red zone, but disappears in it. Jones has great speed, but would be a No. 3 receiver on most NFL teams. Guys like Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson or Marlon Brown would be more successful with a Manning or a Brady than with Flacco.
In Flacco's defense, he is doing the best he can under trying circumstances. He got sacked five times Sunday and hit eight other times. The middle of his offensive line is like a revolving door when it comes to allowing linebackers and defensive linemen to get to him.
The Ravens have no running game. They had 55 yards rushing on 21 carries Sunday and 25 of those came on scrambles by Flacco. Which running back looked slower, the Ravens' Ray Rice or Cleveland's Willis McGahee?
Flacco's performance Sunday wasn't just one game. Before Cleveland, Flacco was No. 22 in the NFL with a 78.8 quarterback rating and 29th in third down passing at 59.5.
The loss to the Browns dropped the Ravens to 3-5 and things could get worse before they get better. Once you pay out big money to a quarterback, it takes away from being able to pay other top notch talent.
Most of the teams at the top in the NFL like Denver, Green Bay or New England already have paid their quarterbacks and the other ones like the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers are more balanced because they haven't.
The Ravens are in line with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have paid quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but he can't carry a team either. It's probably going to take some time to regroup, and it appears that period has started in Baltimore.
Flacco earned his money to become one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL, but he isn't playing like it.