- - Thursday, September 6, 2012

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Maybe Joe Flacco was sending a message Aug. 7, when he threw a football high against the wall at Baltimore’s indoor practice facility.

A media contingent was lined up by the wall, watching practice begin. Flacco and his fellow quarterbacks laughed at the immediate confusion, as if reporters were simultaneously thinking, “Did Joe Flacco, who’s usually reserved and quiet, really just do that?”

“I just wanted to see if I could scare you guys at all,” Flacco said. “I was a little bit scared about where the ricochet might come off and hit somebody, but I just wanted to send a little scare. I said, ‘Hey, you think it’d be funny if I did it?’ And everybody was like, ‘Yeah, do it. Do it. Do it.’”

Flacco’s four years in the NFL have attracted scrutiny from many sides — columnists, TV personalities and even a high-profile teammate. Before Baltimore’s AFC championship game against New England last year, safety Ed Reed said Flacco looked “rattled” the game before against Houston in a 20-13 win.

Since being taken 18th overall in the 2008 draft, Flacco has dealt with a unique dynamic, playing second fiddle to the Ravens’ defense. Perhaps it’s easier to harp on Flacco’s mistakes more since the defense has been among the NFL’s best since 2000.

The numbers indicate Flacco has been consistent where it matters most. In four years, he’s 49-23 in the regular season and 5-4 in the playoffs. However, in 2011, Flacco finished the season with a 57.6 percent completion percentage, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Those aren’t sexy numbers in today’s pass-happy NFL.

But there’s a general feeling inside the organization that this will be Flacco’s breakout season. He’s performed well in training camp practices and threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns in just more than two quarters of play against Jacksonville in Baltimore’s third preseason game.

“He doesn’t listen to what people are saying,” said tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Flacco’s closest friends on the team. “He doesn’t let the criticism sway him at all. He’s poised, confident in himself and knows what he’s capable of. He’s excited to hopefully finally showcase that in a full extent this year.”

A change in philosophy

Flacco has been more comfortable this preseason, making calls at the line of scrimmage in Baltimore’s new-look, no-huddle offense. The confidence is there, too, as each time he’s been asked about the no-huddle, he says he’d like to see himself and his teammates operate it at a faster speed.

The move to the no-huddle could be seen as the next progression in Baltimore’s investment in Flacco. Since 2009, the Ravens featured Ray Rice prominently in the offense, with a run-first philosophy to wear down opposing defenses.

But the NFL’s landscape has changed dramatically over the past five years. If you have a quarterback who can throw the ball all over the field, by all means, you’re going to use him.

Six weeks into the offseason, after Baltimore lost 23-20 to New England in the AFC championship game, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron met to talk about the coming weeks. Harbaugh floated the idea of a philosophical change, telling Cameron, “Let’s test the limits of the no-huddle, and let’s see what it can do, where it takes us.”

Most of the coaches on staff had experience in the no-huddle, including quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who coached Peyton Manning during his 10-year tenure as a quarterbacks coach and head coach in Indianapolis. Putting Flacco in a no-huddle, up-tempo offense would seem to go against the stereotype his critics have attached to him, that he’s a game manager who hinders the offense’s development. That’s not the case, if you ask his teammates.

“Joe’s always been a great leader,” Pitta said. “He’s always confident in himself and in his abilities. I think offensively, we have grown a lot in the schemes we run and our philosophy. Especially this year, we’re running more no-huddle, more up-tempo. Throwing the ball a little bit more than we have in the past, that’s allowing Joe to better showcase his abilities. Before, I think we were so heavily focused on being able to run the ball, control the clock and wear down the defense. But with so many weapons outside now, we can spread the field and start throwing the ball around more. That helps Joe.”

Second-year wideout Torrey Smith was one of his quarterback’s biggest defenders in 2011. Smith often noted that Flacco had to work with a brand-new receiving unit, outside of Anquan Boldin, and start from scratch in building a rapport with them.

Two of Flacco’s favorite targets from 2008-10, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, were released before the beginning of training camp in 2011. Those moves, combined with a lockout that prevented offseason workouts, forced Flacco to become familiar with a lot of new faces quickly.

“I’m on the Joe Flacco bandwagon,” Smith said. “He’s been taking control of the offense, and just the way the throws. He’s very consistent in his play, and it’s on us to play catch-up with him.”

In 2011, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford led the NFL with an average of 41 pass attempts a game. Flacco averaged 33 attempts per game but threw more than 30 passes only twice in Baltimore’s final seven regular-season games.

There’s an early emphasis for Flacco to throw more this year, with the Ravens running more plays from the line of scrimmage. Pitta believes the added plays will build better numbers, which will put Flacco in the conversation among the better quarterbacks in the NFL.

“It’s unfair to compare the statistics when you don’t know anything about the philosophy of the offenses,” Pitta said. “It’s going to be a better barometer this year for him to take himself into the elite category and throw the ball over the field.”

On his own

Flacco didn’t have to show up to any of the voluntary workouts this offseason. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Flacco would like to have a new deal.

Sometimes it’s tough to separate the business side from the game itself. Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson recently said part of his dismal 2011 season was due to worrying about a new contract.

Flacco has left the contract talks to his agent, Joe Linta, and has focused solely on football. The only practice time Flacco missed this offseason was for the birth of his first child, Stephen.

Before organized team activities began, Flacco and his receivers participated in throwing sessions at the team’s facility, during the same day a weightlifting period was scheduled.

The idea was to work on timing, something Flacco and the receivers struggled with at times a year ago.

“Joe has grown into being one of the best,” receiver LaQuan Williams said. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit, but he works so hard and pushes us.”

The Ravens fell short of advancing to the Super Bowl a season ago. The defense always will be a factor in the success of this team, especially as long as Reed and Ray Lewis remain members of it.

But with the time spent this offseason, and with the new direction on offense, Flacco could be poised for a breakout year.

“There is no lack of confidence in this team,” Flacco said. “We’ve been there, and we’ve done most of it. We’ve got to get a little bit better, just like everybody does. Hopefully, we’re putting in the work. We have confidence that we’re putting in the work to get that much better than everybody else and really make the strides where we need to.”



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