OWINGS MILLS — Huddled near the middle of the field with Jim Caldwell this spring, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco nodded and smiled as he interacted with his new quarterbacks coach.
Minutes later, Flacco stepped to the line of scrimmage, took the snap and launched a crisp spiral into the waiting fingertips of wide receiver Torrey Smith for a long touchdown pass during an organized team activity.
It’s a sequence that the defending AFC North champions hope to see repeated often this fall as Flacco and Caldwell collaborate on attacking defenses.
Hired by Ravens coach John Harbaugh shortly after being fired from his job as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts as he and veteran executive Bill Polian took the fall for a disastrous 2-14 season essentially doomed from the start with superstar quarterback Peyton Manning sidelined following neck surgery, Caldwell has returned to his roots as a quarterbacks coach.
"I think John did a really smart thing bringing in a quarterbacks coach," former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann said during a telephone interview. "Cam Cameron as a coordinator, there’s such a demand on his time. It’s so difficult to watch the little things you need to keep an eye on. Having that extra pair of eyes is critical. Jim knows what perfection looks like.
"He understands what you need to do to be efficient to play quarterback, the physical part of it and the mental part of it. Peyton has an insatiable appetite when it comes to improving. Jim was a part of that group of men along with Tom Moore who provided that information to Peyton. I use this analogy so often. Tiger Woods could be the best golfer of all-time and he has a coach. Anybody that thinks you don’t need a coach is kidding himself."
Eight years ago, Manning threw a career-high 49 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions as he set another career-high with a 121.1 quarterback rating.
Manning’s efficiency that year ranks him second in NFL single-season history behind Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 122.5 last season.
When Caldwell personally coached him for seven seasons before being elevated to head coach when Tony Dungy retired, Manning topped all NFL quarterbacks in yardage (29,210), touchdowns (222), rating (100.5), completions (2,482) and completion percentage (66.5).
Now, Caldwell is tasked with boosting the game of an already successful young quarterback in Flacco. Flacco has reached the playoffs for four consecutive years with two AFC championship game appearances and is the Ravens’ all-time leading passer.
"Obviously, he’s a talented guy, very talented," Caldwell said. "He’s done a tremendous job. Even before now looking at him from the other side of the field preparing for him, he was a guy with talent and great desire. He’s a fine leader as well. Obviously, he’s highly motivated.
"One of the things you get a sense when you get an opportunity to work with him is he’s rather quiet, but Joe is very, very focused. When you talk about things to improve on, he’s working to improve everything about his game from top to bottom. He’s one of those guys who’s never satisfied where he is and he can always get better."
The NFL is a relationship business.
Fostering a strong rapport with Flacco and building trust, as he did with previous quarterbacks coaches Hue Jackson and Jim Zorn, is a major priority for Caldwell.
Caldwell, 57, is known as a firm, but encouraging coach who gets the most out of his players.
Because of his low-key personality and knowledge of the game, Caldwell is expected to be a good fit with Flacco’s stoic approach to the game.
"Jim Caldwell is a man and probably his greatest strength is he strikes me as a guy where I sure wouldn’t want to disappoint him," former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, a CBS football analyst, said in a telephone interview. "There’s a lot of clichés thrown out there, but he’s a man among men. He treats people with dignity and respect. That will absolutely tie him to Joe Flacco. I just can’t imagine as a player having a coach like him and not take it personally and want to succeed."
So far, Caldwell and Flacco appear to be hitting it off.
Flacco isn’t regarded as a difficult quarterback to get along with. He’s a gym rat who watches a ton of film and takes the game very seriously.
"Yeah, we’re getting a feel for one another," Caldwell said. "We get along. It’s a great working relationship. Joe has pretty strong opinions about things. We talked them out and worked them out. It’s not always going to be rosy. I think it’s going to be a strong relationship.
"There’s things he likes, things that work well for him, things that fit his eye. All of the good ones have opinions. He’s got a good feel for the system. He’s also a great resource. I ask him, ‘How do you like this read?’ It’s been a lot of fun."
Caldwell is an experienced hand who went 26-22 in three years as a coach, including a Super Bowl appearance.
And he has the credibility of working with Manning for a full decade. During his seven years as quarterbacks coach, Manning was named the NFL Most Valuable Player three times.
Flacco went all of last season without a formal quarterbacks coach as offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg worked in tandem coaching him.
Flacco was famously angry when Zorn was fired, but he and Cameron seemed to work well together last season after clashing in the past.
"Jim has a great personality to be able to fit in," Theismann said. "On coaching staffs, you have to have the right kind of chemistry to be successful. I’ve seen good ones and bad ones. Jim is the kind of guy when you add him to your coaching staff he can be a real asset as a person, as a coach, as a friend. He has a way with people. He was an assistant a lot longer than he was a head coach. He ran into a talent-depleted football team last year. Now, he’s coming to a really talent-laden football team."
Caldwell was previously the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach, holding the same job title at Penn State.
A four-year starter at defensive back at Iowa, Caldwell was the Wake Forest head coach for eight years and was an assistant coach at Louisville, Colorado, Northwestern, Southern Illinois and Iowa.
Being an assistant again returns him to a familiar role.
"It’s exciting for me," Caldwell said. "Obviously, I get an opportunity to do what I love. I love the game, period. To get an opportunity to get back in the trenches has been exciting. ..
"I’m not necessarily putting my stamp on it. Obviously I’m trying to do my job and do it well, that’s the key. Part of that is learning the system and certainly being able to apply the system and teach the system. Those are the things I’m learning as we go."
Flacco went 13-5 as the starter last season, passing for 3,610 yards and 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.
He outplayed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in an AFC championship game loss, coming within a dropped Lee Evans pass in the end zone of reaching the Super Bowl.
Now, he’s entering his fifth NFL season and the final year of his rookie contract with no new deal in sight.
"You’re talking about Joe Flacco entering a very important year in his career," Theismann said. "Now, it’s a question of going out and getting it done. You’re not talking about a learning process because Joe is there. He’s seen it all, he’s seen what defenses try to do to him. He’s ready."
Working with several new targets, including speedster wide receiver Torrey Smith as a rookie after Derrick Mason was cut and tight end Ed Dickson in his first year as the primary replacement for Todd Heap, Flacco’s completion percentage was the lowest of his four-year career as he fell to 57.6 percent.
And his quarterback rating of 80.9 and passing yardage were the lowest they’ve been since his rookie season.
Where can Caldwell help Flacco become a more effective quarterback?
"I think you can always be more accurate," Theismann said. "In Joe’s case, part of it was having a rookie wide receiver and a new tight end. I think Joe will be much more decisive with what he wants to do with the football.
"Decisiveness with the football is the key to people’s success, particularly in the red zone: knowing where you want to go with the football and having the people to throw the ball to and knowing where to go. It’s a two-way street."
Flacco has passed for 13,816 yards since being drafted in the first round out of Delaware, never missing a start and going 44-20 in the regular season.
The New Jersey native has tossed 80 touchdown passes with 46 interceptions.
He has completed 1,190 of 1,958 attempts and ranks second in completion percentage with a 60.8 mark.
Those aren’t gaudy statistics for Flacco as he orchestrates a run-first offense with Rice as the centerpiece on a team known for its tradition-rich defense.
"Joe Flacco has had a lot of success, not some," Simms said. "I never look at Joe’s completion percentage and say he’s inaccurate. I look at him as a guy who makes great throws, not good ones, every single game. If someone gets open, he hits them. He moves around well. He’s a giant of a man and can throw the football with basically anybody in the NFL. If that’s not a franchise quarterback, I don’t know what one is. All the experts and the networks can continue to debate Joe because he hasn’t won the big one and of course that completion percentage.
"It’s really amazing. Put Joe Flacco on a football team where it’s all about the quarterback and the offense and he will put up staggering numbers. He plays for a coach that’s not worried about the glorification of his quarterback. Joe Flacco is a big part of them winning, but personal success and glory might elude him. He may only get it through victories. Even then, he might not get the credit that he deserves. I don’t think he’s good, I think he’s awesome. I know I’m right. I don’t need your stamp of approval."
Since being hired, Caldwell has watched every game that Flacco has ever played in the NFL.
"What I see on film, I see very good progress," Caldwell said. "Going to the playoffs four years in a row is not common. It’s difficult. It’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. .. I think he improves a little bit every day."
Entering his 15th NFL season and his first with the Denver Broncos after signing a five-year, $96 million contract, Manning has passed for 54,828 career yards and 399 touchdowns.
He’s already won a Super Bowl.
Now, Caldwell is hoping to coach Flacco to a Super Bowl by applying the same coaching tenets he used with Manning and not changing his teaching methods.
"Not necessarily in terms of what we try to teach, you don’t have to shift that," Caldwell said. "We really concentrate on basic fundamentals, how the offense is run. Joe has his own strengths and things he does extremely well. Obviously, he has proven he is able to play at a high level. I think you’ll continue to see him blossom in that area."