In one of the biggest moments of his NFL career, Joe Flacco started counting.
There were six San Francisco 49ers defenders breathing on the Ravens offensive line. All-Pro pass rusher Aldon Smith walked in from the slot to join them. The strong safety, Donte Whitner, creeping toward the line of scrimmage, made it eight 49ers in the box.
The Ravens needed just 1 yard on third down. But based on simple math, Flacco realized the Ravens were outnumbered up front and quickly calculated that his odds would improve if he audibled from the original play call — a run by Ray Rice to the right — to a quick pass to wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Seconds later, Flacco squeezed the ball to Boldin and kept the fourth-quarter drive alive.
It was one of the most important plays of the Super Bowl, but to the Ravens quarterback, the easy part was changing the play.
Calling an audible "is one of those things that I think a lot is made out of it sometimes, but it's probably the easiest part of our job, getting us into the right plays," Flacco said. "The hard part is executing them. Getting into the play you need to, anybody can do that."
Yet whether quarterbacks have the freedom to change or tweak plays at the line of scrimmage and when and why they choose to audible is something about NFL quarterbacks — particularly young ones — that is scrutinized by quarterbacks of the armchair variety. Flacco is no exception, as audibles were a hot-button topic in Baltimore as Flacco grew into a franchise quarterback.
Now, as he enters his sixth season, the Ravens fully trust Flacco to make the necessary changes at the line of scrimmage, an intangible quality of his that doesn't translate to the box scores. It may not have happened as quickly as he would have liked, but Flacco's pre-snap responsibilities have increased significantly since he entered the league.
When the Ravens thrust Flacco into the huddle in his rookie year, he had "little to no" ability to audible, according to former Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, who explained that the coaches didn't want to overwhelm him and slow down his decision-making process.
But even as Flacco pushed — as most other quarterbacks would — for more pre-snap control in the following seasons, the Ravens brought him on slowly. Mason said that was the right move.
"You see examples where teams throw their quarterback out there early and put the world on him and he fizzles out," Mason said. "With Joe, it wasn't that way. They allowed him to go out there and mature as a quarterback throughout the years."
Former Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was charged with developing Flacco after the Ravens drafted him in 2008, said Flacco went through the "natural progression" for a quarterback.
"People who don't have to coach the quarterback or deal with the quarterback on a day-to-day basis and don't understand what a quarterback goes through, they get impatient and rightfully so, because they want to win and they want to win now," said Cameron, now the offensive coordinator at LSU. "I think that's why you see that a lot of quarterbacks don't develop the way they are supposed to because people get impatient. …
"Now there were some young guys who came in this past year and did some good things really quickly. I understand that's what most people want, but that's not normally what happens. I think Joe developed exactly the way he should have. And a play here or there differently, he might have two or three Super Bowl rings."
Today, Flacco hasn't been handed complete control of the offense. But coach John Harbaugh said "he's as far along as any six-year guy is going to be." Flacco collaborates with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and the coaching staff to design the game plan every week and on Sundays is counted on to get the team out of any bad play before the snap and into a better one.
"He's always receptive to the ideas that coaches have, and he's always willing to put his opinion in there as far as what he thinks we can actually execute and operate on the field," Harbaugh said. "But he's the guy who's got to do it. He's the quarterback. He's got a lot of choices in his hands at the line of scrimmage, and he does a great job with it."
After the quarterback gets the initial play call radioed into his helmet, he assesses the defensive front at the line of scrimmage. That usually includes a box count. Counting the number of defenders within a few yards of the offensive line helps determine whether the offense will have a numbers advantage on the play called or whether it won't have enough blockers to run it.
On that critical third-down play in the Super Bowl, the conversion that preceded a field goal by Justin Tucker that expanded the Ravens' lead to five points in the fourth quarter, center Matt Birk got over the ball with 23 seconds left on the play clock. Flacco used his cadence to get the defense to show its hand, and with eight men in the box and 16 seconds on the play clock, Flacco crossed his wrists to visibly signal that he was calling an audible and barked out the new play call to his three wide receivers, tight end and Rice. Meanwhile, Birk echoed it to his fellow linemen.
With seven seconds left on the play clock, the ball was snapped and Flacco completed the fade to Boldin, who had 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers draped all over him.
"There were too many [defenders] to run there," Flacco said. "So it just took us to that play that we had in the game plan. From there, it was just Anquan making sure he got the guy at the line of scrimmage good enough so I could get him the ball."
Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, now a studio analyst for ESPN, said teams with established veteran quarterbacks such as New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning rarely, if ever, call plays that the quarterback can't adjust. For some teams, the play call includes a "kill" or "alert" play — essentially a backup play if the first one will be unsuccessful.
"Not every play is designed to be successful against a certain look or a certain coverage or a certain blitz," Hasselbeck said. "So teams like the Patriots or the Broncos, they won't just blindly call a play. The call won't come into the quarterback, he'll leave the huddle and say 'Hut.'"
Hasselbeck said he didn't see any reason why Flacco wouldn't have similar leeway at this point in his career.
"Quarterbacks who are good at the line of scrimmage can solve so many problems," he added.
In many cases, though, when the quarterback starts yelling and gesturing at the line of scrimmage, he isn't scrapping the entire play, like switching to a screen pass when staring down an all-out blitz. He could just be changing blocking assignments, flipping the direction of a running play or shortening his drop to sync up with a blitz-beating hot route.
"I think audibles, the way people talk about it, it's overrated," Flacco said. "It's a handful of times in a game where defenses really do something to take something away. A lot of the times, people probably don't even know if I'm doing it. A lot of the time we have audibles, but the first play is there so you don't need to audible."
But late in the Super Bowl, with the football world watching, it was one of those times when the defense dictated a change. The throw was accurate and the catch was clutch. Flacco's audible was also significant, and not just because he was allowed to do it.
"I think he's one of the best in the league at communicating and getting us into the right looks that we need to be in," tight end Ed Dickson said. "That's a testimony to him and the growth that he's had since he's been in the league."
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