INDIANAPOLIS — The Baltimore Ravens recently huddled with quarterback Joe Flacco, and now they’ve called an audible by granting him more freedom and autonomy to orchestrate the offense than they ever have before.
After three years of Flacco operating under stricter constraints, the Ravens intend to give him greater responsibility going forward.
"We’ll put more and more into his hands," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine. "I think this year going into his fourth year maybe it will be a little more exponential and maybe people will see it a little bit more."
While dealing with the fallout of the decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, which was met with anger and frustration by Flacco, the Ravens spoke often with the towering New Jersey native.
During those discussions, Flacco was adamant that he wanted to have more control of the offense. And Harbaugh agreed with him.
Having led the Ravens to three consecutive playoff appearances and 35 victories while piling up 10,206 passing yards, 60 touchdowns and an 87.9 passer rating, the Ravens felt it was time to let Flacco have a greater role in calling audibles and calling plays.
"I would envision a bigger role for Joe intellectually that way, but he’s been growing into that already," Harbaugh said. "He probably did a lot more last year than what a lot of people think. I think he’s very smart. He’s highly intelligent. He’s got a great football IQ. He really understands the game.
"He’s very thoughtful. He’s a very conscientious player. He’s very conscientious of his defense and his special teams and trying to keep them in a good position. Yet he wants to be an aggressive player."
Last season, Flacco famously ran a quarterback sneak during a loss to the New England Patriots.
It looked like the Ravens should have checked out of the play against a stacked, aggressive front seven.
Afterward, Flacco replied, "We called it, and I went with it," when asked why he didn’t change the play.
There were occasions where Flacco did change the play last season with success.
Most notably, he changed the original play that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called during a regular-season victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers by going to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the game-winning touchdown.
Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson, Flacco’s former quarterbacks coach who remains very close with his former protégé, said it’s the right time for the former first-round draft pick to be given more ownership of the offense.
"Joe is a tremendous talent and a tremendous player," Jackson said. "And I think it’s probably time for Joe to make that jump, and I think he will. He’s been one of the young, very good players at that position in this league so far, and I think he’s going to go and do a tremendous job."
Flacco is the Ravens’ all-time leading passer for yards, touchdowns, completions, attempts and completion percentage.
He’s the third starting quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to go to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, joining Bernie Kosar and Dan Marino.
Last season, he set career highs with 3,622 yards, 25 touchdowns and a 93.6 passer rating.
And he’s the first rookie quarterback to ever win two playoff games.
Flacco came under fire this week when a study was released by AOL Fanhouse that stated he got sacked 25 times when he held onto the football for longer than 3.1 seconds.
According to the statistical analysis, which was conducted by watching every sack in the NFL last season, Flacco took five times more so-called "self-inflicted sacks" than his quarterback brethren.
Regardless of whether it was the pass protection, his receivers not getting open on a consistent basis due to a lack of ideal speed or Flacco just not being decisive enough, the Ravens want to accelerate the process and get the ball out of his hands faster.
And they want the 6-foot-6, 238-pounder to improvise more.
"Joe’s the kind of guy that can make plays by being creative, that’s something we really want him to do," Harbaugh said. "I think Joe’s capable of being a creative playmaker quarterback, moving around in the pocket, shrugging off guys. He’s a big, strong guy. He’s only going to get stronger. He’s way more athletic than what you think. He made more of those plays down the stretch. I want to encourage him to make those plays.
"There’s nothing wrong with the way Ben Roethlisberger plays, or Aaron Rodgers. One thing I think I can do is help him a little bit offensively. I don’t think we’ve been a great quick-game type of a team in the last three years with Joe. So, we build that quick game in there a little bit and then obviously the release time is going to be a little bit faster because of the nature of the offense and that will help those numbers."
Another change that’s brewing is Harbaugh taking on a more central role in directing the offense, which is still run by oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Ravens finished 22nd in total offense last season, averaging just 322.9 yards per contest and ranked 16th in scoring with a 22.3 average.
"I think the head coach’s input is important because it gives a lot of direction to the players and the coaches," Harbaugh said. "It helps Cam understand what’s expected of him. We’ve had those conversations over the years. But now, it will be more directly involved in the X’s and O’s."
Flacco sounded off in January during the Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park after Zorn was dismissed. He said he took Zorn’s firing as a personal attack on him and he had lobbied Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti to retain his position coach.
It was an uncharacteristically vocal, emotional Flacco, who’s usually stoic in nature.
Instead, they fired Zorn after one season in Baltimore where he didn’t mesh well with the rest of the staff and ran quirky drills. He’s now the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterbacks coach.
Harbaugh said he didn’t have a problem with Flacco expressing himself.
"Joe is a leader, Joe said the same thing to me," Harbaugh said. "Joe and I share that respect for Jim Zorn. Jim is a great coach and a great guy. For Joe to come out and say that publicly, I think it says a lot about Joe. It says a lot about what kind of person he is. He’s got everybody’s back. He’s got Jim’s back. He’s got all our backs. And we have his back. And that’s what it should be about.
"Joe and I spent a lot of time talking about it in the week-and-a-half leading up to that, trying to find the best way to make it work. I took into account absolutely what Joe felt. But in the end you have to go with what you think is right and Joe understands that and we’re all going to make it work."