ORLANDO, Fla. – Joe Flacco grew up as a towering state champion high school baseball pitcher in New Jersey capable of intimidating batters with his powerful fastball.
Now, the Baltimore Ravens’ strong-armed quarterback has returned to his baseball roots in an concentrated effort to improve his football skills.
In the latest move to try to provide Flacco a boost heading into his third NFL season, Ravens offensive coordinator and new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn had Flacco spend a week at the University of Southern California earlier this month where he trained with a pitching coach.
The baseball workout was intended to strengthen the smaller muscles surrounding his throwing shoulder to try to upgrade his arm strength, accuracy, durability and longevity.
Between the new approach to training, signing wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Donte’ Stallworth and hiring Zorn, a former NFL quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks, to replace Hue Jackson, it has been a multi-pronged effort to try to propel Flacco into the elite passer level.
“I want Joe to be a championship quarterback,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday morning during the NFL owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. “There are terms like ‘elite quarterback’ and ‘franchise quarterback.’ All of those things are where we expect Joe to go. He does even more so than we do. You know how Joe is. He already thinks he’s the best quarterback in the NFL. ..
“But he knows that he’s always going to have a lot of work to do. I know physically he needs to get stronger. Mentally, he needs to get sharper. Technique-wise, he needs to get more pronounced. But the expectation is to be the winningest quarterback in the NFL.”
Flacco has already proven to be capable of winning.
In two NFL seasons, the former first-round draft pick from Delaware has spearheaded the Ravens to two consecutive playoff appearances.
He has won three of five career playoff games.
Last season, though, Flacco dealt with several painful injuries, including a sprained ankle and a badly bruised thigh and hip.
Although he wound up completing 63.1 percent of his throws for a career-high 3,613 yards and 21 touchdowns, Flacco didn’t thrive at times the way he was expected to.
He fell off toward the end of the season, slumping to uncharacteristic 53.9 percent accuracy during the last four games of the season, including the postseason.
His passing average dipped to 122.7 yards per contest during that span, including a 4-for-10, 34-yard, one-interception performance in the Ravens’ playoff win over the New England Patriots.
Traditionally guarded about discussing injuries, Harbaugh acknowledged that Flacco endured major bruises up and down his left leg during the latter portion of the season that caused swelling.
Flacco was obviously hobbling around and didn’t have normal mobility or mechanics.
"It affected his mobility, it wasn’t affecting his performance to the extent that he couldn’t win for us or that he wasn’t our best option," Harbaugh said. "Joe is tough. He was fighting through it, and he was very courageous about it."
Harbaugh expressed confidence that Zorn’s arrival will aid in Flacco’s development.
Flacco was extremely close with Jackson, but the low-key 25-year-old is expected to mesh well with Zorn, who was fired as the Washington Redskins’ coach after last season.
“Hue did a great job,” Harbaugh said. “I think Jim has a chance to grow Joe to the next level, the next phase of the progression. The fact that he played the position is a plus, but you don’t have to have played the position to be a great coach.
“He’s got some wisdom from inside the position. His personality is a natural fit for Joe. Jim is an out-of-the-box thinker. He’s got a real easy personality. He’s a very thoughtful guy. That’s kind of how Joe is, too. I think they’re going to hit if off personality-wise.”
In two NFL seasons, Flacco has passed for 6,584 yards, 35 touchdowns and 24 interceptions with an 84.9 quarterback rating.
A Philadelphia reporter wondered if Harbaugh draws comparisons with Flacco to Brett Favre.
Eagles coach Andy Reid used to make that link between Favre and Donovan McNabb.
"That’s not Joe, he’s been asked about Brett Favre,” Harbaugh said. “He refuses to go there. He’ll go, ‘I’m Joe Flacco. You’ll be talking about me in a couple of years.’ He does it in a low-key way, but that’s what he is basically saying. He refuses to be compared to anybody. I wouldn’t have the audacity to do that."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital