Flacco primed for sophomore season

Flacco_fires_at_OTA
OWINGS MILLS — The stoic demeanor is real, an unbending approach that defines Joe Flacco as a throwback to an earlier era of football.

 

It hearkens back to when quarterbacks could fold up their leather helmets and stuff it in their back pockets as they trudged off a muddy field.

With his strong right arm rifling spirals, towering stature in the pocket along with rare mobility to elude defenders when things get chaotic, Flacco represents the ideal combination of physical tools with intelligence and savvy.

Finally, after over a dozen years of retreads, busts and journeymen, the Baltimore Ravens have discovered and developed their first real homegrown franchise quarterback. 

Now, the Ravens are confident that they’ve finally identified a true leader that makes them competitive in the NFL arms race and an annual Super Bowl contender.

"Joe is light years ahead of where he should be, just like last year as a rookie," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Now, he understands that he is the quarterback of our team. He’s always trying to fix something, tweak something that the guy should be working on. Joe is going to be Joe. Joe is staying humble."

Last season, Flacco became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to ever win two playoff games.  

Over the final 11 games of the regular season, Flacco spearheaded the Ravens’ 9-2 run as he registered a 90.2 quarterback rating with 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

His remarkable run was ultimately halted by the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game as he finally faltered with an unprecedented three interceptions and an 18.2 quarterback rating.

Instead of sulking or trying to forget about an ugly performance, Flacco attempted to learn from it. Rather than hustle out of the Ravens’ training complex the following day, Flacco spent hours poring over the film, searching for clues about what went wrong.

"This is his life," said University of Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, Flacco’s college coach. “Joe has that philosophy of not being flustered by anything. Joe isn’t afraid to fail. That core belief is what makes him so good. He has all the ability in the world. It’s the mental components that make him special. He’s not a rock star.

“You don’t have to worry about Joe getting in at 2 ‘o’clock in the morning from the nightclubs. That’s not Joe. He has respect and love for the game. He has a very unique leadership style. He’s not going to pound on the table. When he speaks, everybody listens because they know he speaks from the heart and that he’s going to say something important."

During minicamps, Flacco’s improved accuracy, mechanics and fundamentals were on full display.

There was better touch on passes across the middle, a shortcoming last season as he completed less than half his throws in that direction.

His sideline passes had plenty of zip. And his chemistry and timing was obvious, launching several deep passes that connected with his receivers’ outstretched fingertips in stride.

"Joe looks great," tight end Todd Heap said. "He has come out taking ownership of this offense.  His improvement and leadership have proven he can make plays and see the field out there. I think everyone notices it. It’s fun to watch.

“It’s fun to see him make throws. I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about the ball being where it’s supposed to be on time this year. Last year he showed he can do it. I think that he’s going to be even better this year.”

The primary emphasis for Flacco this year is honing his ability to throw on the run when the play breaks down and working on his placement on intermediate to short throws across the middle. He completed less than half his throws over the middle last year.

On the sidelines, Flacco stays busy talking about the last play and the next play. He operates with intensity as if it were a regular-season game.

It’s a more active, vocal approach than Flacco employed a year ago when he was just getting acclimated to his new surroundings and had coaches barking orders into his ear.

"I’m a guy who likes to come in here and mind my own business, let everybody do their own thing and not really step on anybody’s toes," Flacco said. "And now I know who everybody is, I know everybody better, so I feel more capable of having a real relationship with a lot of the guys. So, therefore, that helps me grow as a leader."

From a leadership standpoint, Flacco’s style is usually found subtly.

There’s a dry sense of humor that cracks up teammates in the locker room.

He’s no longer the silent rookie that dutifully deferred to veterans. He’s beginning to voice his opinion.

"Last year, he was just feeling everything out," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "As the season went on, you could see him open up more and more. Now, he knows he is the guy.

“As the guy, you have to be able to interact with everybody, but that’s his personality. Now, he’s just full-fledged Joe."

Flacco spends countless hours haunting the film room, especially those three bitter losses to the Steelers.

For the Ravens, none of this is new ground regarding Flacco. Nonetheless, they find it refreshing and encouraging.

"Joe really hasn’t changed a whole lot," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "He’s led since the day he got here, in his own way. If you go in the locker room, the players may tell you something different. 

“I just sense that the guy is a year more mature, a year more familiar with what he’s doing. Guys know what he’s about. I think he understands that you’ve got to let your leadership flow naturally, not force it."

Not to mention how Flacco avoids the beckoning spotlight.
 
The small-town New Jersey native routinely turns down lucrative endorsement offers.
 
And he tends to frequent less glitzy restaurants than one would expect from a $30 million quarterback.

He also demonstrated his loyalty to his college coaches, driving down from New Jersey to attend a rookie minicamp even though he wasn’t required to when the Delaware coaches visited practice.

Months before, Flacco had volunteered to throw during the Delaware senior’s NFL audition.

"I knew Joe would never change," Keeler said. "Joe takes pride in being Joe. I try to tell my son about that philosophy of not being afraid to fail or be yourself. Joe has grasped that, and it’s a powerful thing. He was just raised a certain way."

Now, Flacco is intent on avoiding the so-called sophomore jinx.

His typical reaction when the subject is broached is to smile and shake his head at the notion.

"It’s hard to say because a lot of times you get that sophomore jinx thing going, but sometimes the second year is the biggest year," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "I think he will make a big improvement.”

During a rough start last season, Flacco didn’t get rattled when he threw one touchdown and seven interceptions in his first five starts.

By the end of the season, Flacco had overcome his early struggles and was regularly calling audibles at the line of scrimmage with confidence.

It had truly become his offense, a rare statement in Baltimore for a quarterback.

"I feel a lot different now," Flacco said. "It’s so much more comfortable. You have a comfort level with all of your teammates, with your coaches, with the offense. Last year, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anybody. Now, I have that comfort and it’s a lot easier.

"I’m not really worried about what I look like right now. I’m worried about going out there and trying to get better. I expect to do well."

This entry was posted in The Beat with Aaron Wilson by Aaron Wilson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson
Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and Ravens24x7.com. He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best...more

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