As far as Cameron was concerned, Flacco’s rookie season was over after five games and he expected the towering first-round draft pick to perform with the expertise and skill of a veteran passer.
"If we had dumbed down our offense at the beginning of the season, we wouldn’t be as good," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "Cam told Joe the night before the Miami game that, ‘We’re not going to treat you like a rookie, your rookie season is over.’ Week in and week out, Joe was able to handle the offense and the better we got as a group. Joe has made some big throws."
Since Cameron’s bold declaration, Flacco has displayed the maturity and passing capabilities the Ravens envisioned when they drafted him out of Delaware last spring and has led the Ravens to an AFC wild-card game Sunday against the Dolphins.
After the Ravens got off to a 2-3 start with Flacco throwing one touchdown with seven interceptions and a 60.6 passer rating in the first five games, he has enjoyed a surprisingly smooth transition to the NFL with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 90.2 rating over the final 11 games as Baltimore went 9-2 and earned the sixth and final playoff berth in the AFC.
All season, Flacco has maintained a low-key demeanor and never seems to be rattled by defenders accustomed to intimidating 23-year-old rookies.
"It’s football," Flacco said. "As long as you have trust in the other guys that they’re going to do the job for you, you just have to go out there and hold up your end of it. And that’s what we’ve done all year."
Although Flacco was strangely ignored with no votes in NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year balloting from a national panel of media that selected Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan for the honor, his contributions haven’t gone unnoticed in an appreciative Ravens’ locker room.
Not after the poised rookie completed 60 percent of his throws for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a respectable 80.3 passer rating.
Not after helping Baltimore win big games against the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins down the stretch.
And not after displaying his mobility by rushing for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
"Everybody else wants to say he’s just a rookie," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Joe, to me, is a very mature kid. He’s a guy who understands the game of football. If you watch him play enough, that’s what you can appreciate about Joe Flacco."
Flacco has proved to be instrumental in helping the Ravens engineer an 11-5 turnaround after last year’s 5-11 setback.
And he enters the postseason on a hot streak, especially on the road where he has thrown a touchdown pass in six consecutive games with nine touchdown passes in those games and just two interceptions for a 101.8 rating.
Flacco capped the regular season by completing 17 of 23 passes for 297 yards, including 48, 39, 36 and 25-yard completions, with no interceptions in a 27-7 win over the Jaguars to clinch a playoff berth.
One week earlier, he endured five first-half sacks in a 33-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys and completed 17 of 25 passes for 149 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Flacco has essentially won over even his toughest critic in Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who suggested earlier this season that backup Troy Smith should be playing before later backing off those remarks.
"Joe, he’s been playing really well," Suggs said. "We just hope he doesn’t start playing like a rookie in the playoffs."
Against the Jaguars, Flacco looked off the defense on a 16-yard flea-flicker pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason when he recognized that his primary option, Mark Clayton, was closely guarded.
Flacco’s progression since he was installed as a last-minute starter against the St. Louis Rams in the preseason to now has been remarkable.
"It’s like night and day," said former starting quarterback Kyle Boller, who’s on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that required surgery. "Joe has come a long way. Seeing him now, he’s ready for the playoffs."
Although Flacco won the job by default when Smith suffered a tonsil infection and Boller incurred a torn labrum, he has definitely seized the opportunity and surpassed expectations.
Now, Flacco is primed for the postseason and the Ravens are a three-point favorite against the Dolphins. And he has ambitious designs on making a Super Bowl run.
"To grow like we have, it’s really good to see," Flacco said. "We’re going to try to continue that over the next four weeks. Five weeks from now, hopefully, I’ll be able to look around and say, ‘Is this for real?’
"I haven’t done that yet, and I’m not really planning on doing that until then. Now, we’ve got to continue to prove that we’re a Super Bowl team, that we’re the best team in the NFL."
NOTES: No NFL teams have contacted the Ravens yet to ask for permission to interview director of pro personnel George Kokinis or director of college scouting Eric DeCosta, according to general manager Ozzie Newsome. Kokinis and DeCosta have been rumored as potential candidates for the Kansas City Chiefs’ general manager vacancy. … There is a window next week when teams can interview defensive coordinator Rex Ryan for head-coaching positions. "I think Rex is more than qualified to be a head coach in the NFL," Newsome said. … Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s brother, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, is reportedly a candidate for the Oakland Raiders’ job with Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson also linked to Oakland in NFL circles. … The Ravens re-signed linebacker Robert McCune and placed wide receiver Marcus Maxwell (hip) on injured reserve. … During his weekly radio show, Harbaugh downplayed running back Willis McGahee’s remarks where he subtly blamed the coaching staff for his injury-plagued, unproductive season. Harbaugh praised the team’s strength and conditioning staff. … The Ravens’ staff painted a team logo on the grass surrounding at City Hall and Federal Hill. … In 2009, the Ravens’ home games are against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis with road games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland, New England, Chicago, Minnesota, Green Bay and San Diego.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.