OWINGS MILLS – Joe Flacco celebrated his 26th birthday last week, one year removed from becoming eligible to legally rent a car.
As far as the Baltimore Ravens are concerned, the towering quarterback has reached another milestone in his maturation.
They no longer regard him as a young quarterback.
After three years in the NFL, 48 regular-season starts, seven playoff games, 10,206 career yards, 60 touchdowns and 34 interceptions, Flacco isn’t a kid anymore.
By professional standards, he’s seasoned and more is expected of him.
“No, he’s not a young quarterback,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “He is in his third year. He’s not performing like a first-year quarterback in my estimation. What I have been able to see over the past three years is a guy that can make all the throws, a guy that has poise, a guy that has command of his offense.
“But I also [see] a guy that can be inconsistent, not get it done at times. It’s upon all of us to take him to the next level. What that next level is, I don’t know. But he’s got to be a better quarterback in 2011 than he was in 2010. And I think that’s all I would ask him: Be better than you were last year. I think Joe will be willing to do that.”
Last season, Flacco registered career-highs for passing yards (3,622), touchdown passes (25), passing yards per attempt (7.41), passer rating (93.6) and threw a career-low 10 interceptions.
Flacco has gone 32-16 as a starter during the regular season and 4-3 in the postseason, but hasn’t been able to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl.
And he faltered in the Ravens’ 31-24 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, completing only 16 of 30 passes for 125 yards, one touchdown and an interception he threw into heavy traffic that was intended for tight end Todd Heap.
The Ravens squandered a 21-7 lead, ending their season primarily because of three turnovers.
“We’re going to have to learn how to win these close games,” Flacco said. “When we get a chance to put a team away, we have to do it and not make the mistakes to beat ourselves. We lost to a good football team.
“Obviously, we don’t feel good about it right now. It wasn’t our year. It’s a tough business. You’ve got to take the positives and move on. We’ll have our time.”
Flacco became the Ravens’ all-time leader for passing yards, touchdowns and completions.
And he became only the second quarterback since 1990 to win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons.
The other quarterbacks to start a playoff game in each of their first three seasons are Bernie Kosar and Dan Marino. Kosar won two of his five playoff games, and Marino went 3-3.
Sacked 40 times while dealing with uneven pass protection, Flacco drew criticism for holding the football too long and for missing open receivers downfield.
Flacco’s worst game was a career-high four interceptions in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the second game of the season.
From that point on, though, only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady posted superior numbers.
Over the final 14 games, Flacco was the second-ranked passer with a 103.4 passer rating with 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions as the Ravens went 11-3 during that span. He finished as the seventh-ranked passer in the NFL.
Who ranked ahead of him?
Brady (111.0), Philip Rivers (101.8), Aaron Rodgers (101.2), Michael Vick (100.2), Ben Roethlisberger (97.0) and Josh Freeman (95.9).
“We think Joe has the ability to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and we’ve got to do what we can do to help him get there,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. “It’s fluid, it’s ongoing, and it’s constant, and his star is rising. You can compare stats to make any point that you want. So, I can tell you that he’s got better numbers than Matt Ryan in the playoffs, and you can tell me that Matt Ryan’s got something better than he does.
“We have three elite quarterbacks in this league, and everybody knows who they are. Is Joe ever going to be in that conversation? We think so. We hope so. We’re going to work to get him there. It might take killing off Peyton [Manning] or something like that to accelerate that process. If we didn’t, we’d cut bait. We’re not cutting bait with Joe. We have high hopes for him.”
One issue that Flacco dealt with was a lack of timing and chemistry with his new wide receivers, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth as Baltimore finished just 20th in passing offense.
They averaged only 208.4 passing yards per contest.
“I’m sure it’s not just the passing game,” Flacco said. “I think we would all like to perform better. We’re going to look at the tape and see what specific things I can improve on. I’ve got to continue to lead these guys and give it my all every day. I’m sure there will be a lot of new faces next year, but I haven’t thought too much about it. “
The much-hyped wide receiver corps wasn’t nearly as prolific as anticipated.
Boldin caught only 64 passes for 837 yards and seven touchdowns after being acquired in a March trade.
Houshmandzadeh caught 30 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns after signing right before the season opener against the New York Jets, who made it to the AFC title game.
And Stallworth was signed in February, only mustering two receptions.
“If we’d have all the pieces in place at the beginning of March, the success of all of those guys would be increased," Newsome said. "If you can build continuity at the beginning of the offseason and build it all the way through, I think the production is there. That’s the way I look at it. That’s why I can take some of the blame.”
Over the history of the franchise, the Ravens have had a rough track record under center with the exceptions of Vinny Testaverde, Steve McNair and, to an extent, Trent Dilfer since they won their lone Super Bowl with him.
There’s also been many disappointing quarterbacks like Elvis Grbac, Kyle Boller, Scott Mitchell, Tony Banks, Eric Zeier, Stoney Case, Chris Redman, Jeff Blake and Anthony Wright.
So, the Ravens aren’t complaining about Flacco.
“Clearly, he improved and I’m still very happy to have Joe Flacco as our quarterback,” Bisciotti said. “After what Baltimore has been through since 1996, I think we’re in pretty good shape. And I did also talk about Joe’s commitment to being better, and we saw all of that and more.
“So, I think he’s where we want him to be. Does he have holes in his game? Yeah. We all do. We all have holes in our game, and our job in the offseason is to shore them up in every capacity.”