Standing by a bench late in the Ravens' season finale, quarterback Joe Flacco frowned and shook his head in disgust.
An errant pass intended for and thrown well behind wide receiver Torrey Smith had just landed in the hands of Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a missed connection returned for a touchdown in an eventual 34-17 loss that kept the Ravens from the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
The interception, Flacco's franchise-record 22nd of the season, was a microcosm of his disappointing season, one in which he struggled mightily a year after being named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLVII and signing a landmark six-year, $120.6 million contract.
Although several NFL analysts characterized Flacco's regression as a symptom, and not a primary cause, of a broken, 29th-ranked offense lacking a reliable running game, a downfield passing attack and consistent pass protection, they also pointed out some of his erratic tendencies.
"You've got to evaluate what's going on around him, the problems with the running game, the significant issues with the offensive line, but I'm not giving Joe a pass," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, a CBS Sports analyst. "He didn't have a great year. He needs to take better care of the football. I still see a really solid player, but he's playing with some younger guys and learning about them. Still, you can't let someone else's mistakes become your mistakes as a quarterback.
"People don't realize this about Flacco, but he oozes confidence. He's not going to flinch. He has the utmost confidence. This is a season he's disappointed about, but he'll come back strong. One thing you respect about Joe is he doesn't make a mistake and then become conservative. That's not who Joe is."
Before this season, Flacco's previous career high for interceptions in a single season was 12. He had five in a late-September loss to the Buffalo Bills, and already had thrown two in the fourth quarter of the Ravens' season-ending loss at Paul Brown Stadium before Kirkpatrick's clinching pick-six.
"When you're that much off throughout the course of the game over the course of 16 games, you're not going to be special enough to win football games," Flacco said after the Dec. 29 loss to the Bengals. "That's just kind of where we are."
On several of his interceptions, Flacco either forced a pass into a tight window or threw off his back foot, not allowing for a mechanically sound follow-through.
Flacco never seemed to adjust fully to the absences of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in March, or of tight end Dennis Pitta, who missed all but four games after dislocating and fracturing his right hip during training camp.
Although Smith caught a career-high 65 passes for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns, they came on a team-high 139 targets. Flacco short-armed several deep throws and rarely took full advantage of the speedy former Maryland standout's ability to create separation from defensive backs.
"A lot of Joe's interceptions were thrown between the numbers [in the middle of the field], where he made his living last [season] with Anquan and Pitta, and he didn't have the guys this year to win those contested situations," said former Philadelphia Eagles director of player personnel Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst. "Guys would lose those jump-ball situations. Flacco didn't have a guy on the same page for the short and intermediate areas. Torrey is an outside player, but they need someone to work the middle of the field for Joe.
"It was a multilayered issue for Joe. Charting all his interceptions, the vast majority were down the middle of the field, throwing off his back foot. You start feeling pressure, you're not comfortable and you're not in your rhythm because things aren't flowing. Sometimes, your fundamentals go [bad]. Joe had an off year, but it wasn't all on him."
Flacco finished the season having completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,912 yards and 19 touchdowns. His 73.1 passer rating was a career low and ranked 32nd among NFL quarterbacks this season. He also was sacked a career-high 48 times.
The Ravens' deep passing game stumbled even as Flacco attempted 88 passes of 20 yards or more. He completed just 17 (26.1 percent) for 730 yards. Six dropped passes and eight interceptions came on deep throws, according to Pro Football Focus.
"So many things around Joe didn't work out well this year, lacking a true third-down receiver," said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. "His accuracy was off. He forced balls. He held the ball too long. He seems to be affected by pass-protection issues more because he's not the most mobile guy. His anticipation hitting guys at the break could be improved. All of that could maybe be helped with more consistency at receiver."
Former NFL quarterback Scott Brunner, who helped prepare Flacco for the 2008 NFL draft, compared Flacco's season to that of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw a career-high 27 interceptions this season.
"Joe has had a storied start to his career and now, all of a sudden, so many things changed around him," said Brunner, who last worked with Flacco a few years ago. "There was a lot more heat on him. Defenses were blitzing and teeing off on him, and he was throwing more with bodies in his face.
"Pressure makes you susceptible to interceptions, bad timing and the quarterback doing things wrong mechanically and forcing things. Joe has a competitive fire that burns inside him. He'll do everything he can to get back to the Super Bowl."
After an 8-8 season, the Ravens have vowed to upgrade their offensive line and acquire a sure-handed wide receiver. Running back Ray Rice has promised to rededicate himself to regaining his Pro Bowl form after an injury-filled season.
The Ravens also set goals of retaining free-agent left tackle Eugene Monroe and Pitta, all of which could benefit Flacco next season.
"I see Joe going back to being a steady, solid guy with 30 touchdowns and maybe a dozen interceptions next season," former NFL quarterback and league MVP Joe Theismann said. "Joe Flacco isn't a different quarterback all of a sudden. The pieces around him were different."
The Ravens face a pivotal staff decision this offseason. With Jim Caldwell hired as the Detroit Lions' head coach, the team is seeking its third offensive coordinator in the past 13 months.
"My concern for Joe is changing coordinators so often is playing with fire," Gannon said. "You have stability around guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for so many years. Joe Flacco is a really bright guy. They need to have someone that stimulates him mentally every day. They need someone to challenge him. Too much change around the quarterback isn't a good thing. It stunts your growth."
Gannon added that it's imperative that Flacco organize offseason throwing sessions with his receivers to build timing and chemistry.
"I think that's huge," Gannon said. "This business is constantly evolving and there are so many rules, so you need to get together for a chance to get better. I'm not talking about showing up with a bag of balls and throwing a little. With Peyton Manning, it's all scripted and rehearsed, and it's all business. You've got to find ways to work at your craft."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun