Two days after the Ravens posted their worst offensive showing in years, Cam Cameron and Joe Flacco wrapped up practice by having a quiet conversation as they left the field. Calling it a conversation, however, might be a bit of a stretch.
Cameron spoke several times, and Flacco occasionally nodded, but the two men barely made eye contact. Flacco, who at 6 feet 5 towers over Cameron, lingered a few paces behind the offensive coordinator.
He occasionally said something, but for the most part, he stared at his feet or into the distance. The conversation didn't end so much as it simply faded out. Eventually, Flacco drifted toward the locker room and Cameron toward his office. Very little about the scene suggested contempt for each other, just weariness.
These days, as outside pressure mounts and the offense sputters, Flacco and Cameron look a bit like an old married couple that has slowly grown apart. While it might be unfair to make sweeping judgments based on the limited moments they interact in front of the media, it seems fairly obvious their relationship is not exactly harmonious.
Even though the team is a respectable 4-2, the fan base broke into daily brawls last week over which of them deserves the majority of the blame for the Ravens' offensive woes in 2011.
Frustration morphed into outright anger after the Ravens failed to get a first down for nearly 40 minutes in a 12-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday night.
While Flacco certainly has an army of detractors — an army that has clearly recruited new members in light of the fourth-year quarterback's inconsistent play this season — it's fair to say the majority of criticism is still being directed at Cameron. His name is practically a dirty word in Charm City these days. Even head coach John Harbaugh had to acknowledge the immense scrutiny his offensive coordinator is under.
"I think we all deserve to have fingers pointed at us when the offense plays like that," Harbaugh said. "It's just a bad performance, and everybody knows it. Cam's got broad shoulders. He's a tough guy. And he's been doing this for a long time and everybody in the building respects him, and nobody's going to fight harder to make this offense achieve what it's capable of achieving."
Injuries have hurt offense
In Cameron's defense, it should be pointed out that the Ravens haven't exactly been able to field the offense they envisioned during the preseason. Cameron isn't the one missing blocks or failing to get open against press coverage. Wide receiver Lee Evans, expected to be the team's primary deep threat this year after he was acquired from the Buffalo Bills for a fourth-round draft pick, has missed four straight games with an ankle injury. And left guard Ben Grubbs, maybe the Ravens' most underrated player, hasn't played since Week 1 with a toe injury.
In Grubbs' place, the Ravens have been forced to start Andre Gurode, a backup center, at a position he hasn't played in more than eight years. And while Gurode has willingly taken on an unexpected role for the good of the team, the results haven't been pretty, especially recently. Gurode had a dismal game against Jacksonville, repeatedly getting beaten by the Jaguars' quicker defensive linemen.
"I don't think anybody had any idea I was going to be playing left guard when I came here," Gurode said. "I think I've done OK, but there are certainly a lot of things I could have done better."
But injuries can't explain away all of the Ravens' offensive woes. The team is ranked 20th in the NFL in total offense, but the methods the Ravens have used to arrive there is one reason Cameron is drawing so much heat. Even though the Ravens are struggling to protect Flacco, he has thrown 211 passes (35.1 per game) and the Ravens have run the ball 156 times (26.0 per game).
That might not be as big of a problem if Flacco were completing more than 52 percent of his throws, by far the lowest percentage of his career.
Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs might as well have been channeling the frustrations of many fans when he pointed out how "baffled" he was that Ray Rice carried the ball only eight times against the Jaguars.
And Cameron didn't deny, looking back, that it was a mistake to fail to get Rice the ball more.
"Everything that has been said, there is some truth to it," Cameron said. "I think we acknowledge that."
No aspect of Cameron's job has been under the microscope more than his relationship with Flacco. It's no secret Flacco had a good relationship with former quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, and that Zorn often mediated between him and Cameron last season. When Zorn was fired by the Ravens at the end of 2010, Cameron took over the majority of Zorn's responsibilities.
"Cam always wants to put a lot on his quarterback's shoulders," said John Beck, a former Ravens third-string quarterback who got to see Flacco's relationship with Cameron up close before he signed with the Washington Redskins. "When it comes to preparation every day at practice, he's going to ride the people he believes in. He demands a lot from Joe. We all know that Joe can do whatever he wants as a quarterback. He has that much talent. And I know that Cam sees it in him as well. He's always going to be pushing Joe to be the best he can be. I think he and Joe's relationship is probably a little different from when he was a coordinator as opposed to a quarterbacks coach [and coordinator]. A quarterbacks coach is going to be with him every second of every day."
But is Cameron a control freak? That's a charge frequently lobbed at him by impatient fans who are convinced he's holding Flacco back from achieving consistent greatness. A handful of Ravens players will privately grumble about Cameron's personality, but for the sake of team harmony, none will go on the record.
"Cam is very, very confident in what he knows. I guess I'll just leave it at that," said former Ravens offensive lineman Chris Chester, who now plays for the Redskins. "There was always good reasoning and thinking behind what we were doing. I think we tried to take advantage of certain defenses, but what we were doing may not have always been characteristic of us."
The belief that Cameron needs to control too much of the offense took on new life this week when Flacco and Cameron tap-danced around the subject of whether Flacco is allowed to call his own plays, especially in the hurry-up offense. Asked about it by a reporter, Flacco acknowledged that the offense might save time if he called his own plays.
"I guess there is probably truth to that," Flacco said, then pausing as he chose his words carefully. "It's just how quickly can I think on my feet and get the play out there. I guess there is truth to that. It's just a matter of how we want to do it."
Asked for his take on Flacco's comments, Cameron said: "I think that's something you always want to work for. Joe and I have talked about that. He knows this and understands this. He can call any play that he feel he needs to. He can suggest one at any time. He's made several suggestions this year. He knows when he suggests one, I call it. I just believe in that. I come from that kind of environment where the quarterback gets involved in the play-calling.
"He's had a significant amount of input. And I'd love for him to do that."
Can Flacco handle that responsibility? Cameron said he believes so. But there are still going to be times when it needs to be a collaborative effort. Cameron tried to couch his answer by speaking in general terms about young quarterbacks, not mentioning Flacco specifically, but it still offered some insight into the relationship — and occasional tension — between quarterback and coordinator.
"You always tell him, 'Hey, you got it,' " Cameron said. "The next thing you know, they need help. Sometimes what I've done with guys in the past, they look over, sometimes they need a play. I said, 'Don't be afraid. Don't let your pride get in the way if you need an idea. You need a call, all you got to do is press a button and you can talk to the guy instantly.' It's something that obviously can work."
Cameron also disagreed with the notion — repeated several times by "Monday Night Football" analysts Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden during the game against the Jaguars — that the Ravens wide receivers simply couldn't get open against the Jaguars' press coverage. Though Cameron's answer wasn't intended to be a shot at his quarterback, just by contradicting the most popular excuse fans make for Flacco — that no one is getting open — it will almost certainly be read that way.
"It wasn't really as much as everybody thought," Cameron said about receivers not beating press coverage. "If you look at the tape, there is separation. It's a matter of us finding them, and it's really a matter of us having the time to find them. We have guys open. We have people behind their secondary, [but] didn't have time to get it there.
"Maybe one time we didn't see the guy. But, there was enough separation there to throw the football. I did hear that from somebody, but if you look at the tape, nothing could be further from the truth. There are people open."
Although Cameron's experience in San Diego working with quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers is perhaps the strongest part of his resume, it has also become a double-edged sword with Ravens fans. Brees and Rivers made statistical gains after Cameron was no longer their coach, leading to speculation that Flacco could experience a similar breakthrough if Cameron were dismissed.
Brees, though, has nothing but good things to say about Cameron, and the New Orleans Saints quarterback believes he wouldn't have evolved into the player he is today without him.
"He always did things to try to get the best out of me," Brees told reporters last year. "There was a time or two where we would butt heads, but I think that was all part of the process of him trying to mold me into the type of quarterback he knew I could be, the type of person he knew I could be, and leader. I appreciate him for that. I love the man. I think he's a great coach, and obviously I had a lot of great years with him."
The easier scapegoat
It's important to acknowledge that it's much easier for fans to blame Cameron for everything that has gone wrong, especially if the alternative is acknowledging Flacco might have limitations as a quarterback.
Even Ravens fans who weren't alive during Johnny Unitas' prime have heard and read enough stories to absorb the power of his legend. There is a palpable longing in this city for a great quarterback to come along, take the torch from Ray Lewis and lead the Ravens to multiple championships. Flacco still might be that player, but if he turns out to be something closer to Trent Dilfer than he is to Unitas, it will undoubtedly be deflating.
Coaches have always been easy scapegoats for fans because they don't forge an emotional connection to them the way they do with players, and that's especially true of coordinators. No one is going to show up at M&T Bank Stadium today wearing a Cam Cameron jersey, but thousands will advertise their love for Flacco with a purple-and-white No. 5 on their back.
It's obvious who the Ravens will choose if the 2011 season ends the same way the 2010 season did. Coordinators have always been expendable. Only a fool would give up on a quarterback who has shown the potential that Flacco has.
But at this point, whether Flacco or Cameron deserves more of the blame is sort of irrelevant. There are plenty of games left to play.