With his season on the line and the careers of some of his Ravens teammates hanging in the balance, Joe Flacco stepped up in the pocket, swiveled his hips, uncorked his 6-foot-6 frame and launched the football.
Denver Broncos safety Rahim Moore backpedaled and backpedaled as the ball floated through the bitter-cold Denver air and over his head. Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones opened his eyes wide as the pass somehow reached him, 20 yards from the end zone and 55 yards from where Flacco released it.
"That ball dropped out of the sky. And there was only one place the ball could be caught," said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who played quarterback in the NFL for 15 years. "That was certainly one of the most remarkable throws in Ravens history and one of the best throws I've ever seen."
That game-tying touchdown in the AFC divisional round Jan. 20 saved the Ravens' season and set up their Super Bowl win three weeks later. The throw also reinforced what many players, coaches and analysts have been saying since 2008: Flacco has one of the most powerful arms in the NFL.
"I don't think there's a quarterback that I have ever seen that could have made that throw," Jaworski said.
Dating to his high school days, the lanky quarterback has inspired tall tales with his rocket right arm. When the Ravens first got a glimpse of it, they knew they could construct their offense around it. With his elite arm strength, Flacco can attack defenses vertically and from sideline to sideline, challenging opponents to cover the entire field. With defensive backs wary of deep passes, shorter throws are easier to complete and opportunities emerge for the Ravens' running backs.
"We all knew he had a cannon," said Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who was with the Broncos last year and let Flacco slip out of his grasp before his miracle pass. "When a naturally strong arm starts to create way more accuracy, it just gets really dangerous. So when you've got that combination, it's pretty scary."
More than a strong arm
A decade ago, college football scouts came to Audubon, N.J., to check out Flacco, who was already 6 feet 3 in high school.
Baseball scouts came to Audubon to watch Flacco, too, whose fastball topped out at 90 mph, but they knew his future was in football.
"His arm strength, he had that in high school. You could see it in football," said Rich Horan, Flacco's high school baseball coach and an assistant football coach at Audubon. "I remember one time, we were waiting for the special teams to come out, and he was standing on our own 40-yard line and threw the ball through the uprights."
Flacco's father, Steve, always worked with Joe on his mechanics. But Flacco said before his rookie season in 2008 that "I never actually thought about my delivery." It is something Flacco still downplays today.
But according to John Brenkus, the host of ESPN's "Sport Science," it is Flacco's refined technique that allows him to have success despite being the NFL's tallest starting quarterback.
"[His height] actually puts the burden on him that he needs to be more efficient, because the longer a chain is, the greater the probability that something could go wrong," Brenkus said. "But at the same time, if it is an efficient chain, his arm is moving faster at the end of the chain than a shorter quarterback with shorter arms.
"You can think of it as a whip. The longer the whip is, if you don't snap it right, it is going to fizzle out at the end. But if you're snapping it correctly, it's even faster by the end of the whip."
And like a whip, being on the receiving end of Flacco's passes can sting.
"You've always got to make sure you have your hands at the right angles," Ravens tight end Ed Dickson said. "If you don't, you're definitely going to break your fingers dealing with Joe. And Joe is going to show no remorse."
Fellow tight end Dennis Pitta said Flacco knows when to use his fastball and when to take some pace off the ball. He believes Flacco's touch is what makes him a great quarterback.
"The last thing you want as a receiver is to be running 5 yards away from the quarterback and him throwing it like you're 20 yards away," he said.
Flacco's ability to throw the ball fast, firm and far is more than just arm strength, though. Throwing power originates from the ground, and muscles from the toes to the fingertips are used.
The smallest of tweaks can make a difference. For example, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Flacco's former quarterbacks coach, worked with him to improve his knee flexion last season. Bending his knees more benefited Flacco, particularly in the playoffs.
Brenkus said Flacco's kinetic-linking chain is one of the most efficient in the NFL. His release time takes roughly .37 of a second, which is about .03 of a second faster than the NFL average. And when the ball leaves his hand, it can travel 18 yards in about two-thirds of a second. He has been clocked throwing a football at more than 60mph.
"Joe has the God-given talent to throw the football," Jaworski said. "Probably what people don't look at is the complete set of mechanics that it takes to throw the football with that kind of velocity. He sticks his cleats into the ground. He drives off his back foot. He's on balance, for the most part, on almost every throw. … When Joe has a clean pocket, his mechanics are outstanding."
Not long after Cam Cameron was named offensive coordinator in 2008, the Ravens sent him, then-quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson and a small delegation of scouts and decision makers to "go look at this kid over in Delaware," Cameron said.
They met Flacco at a field that had no lines painted on it and had just been aerated. It was a little windy, "which is perfect to work a guy out in when [you play] in that division," Cameron said, referring to the AFC North. They asked Flacco to throw a bunch of balls he never had used to a handful of receivers he was unfamiliar with. Only one pass hit the ground in the 90-minute workout.
Because Cameron wanted to install a vertical passing attack, he paid close attention to how Flacco fared on fly routes, posts, deep comebacks and other downfield routes.
"He was spot-on," Cameron, now the offensive coordinator at LSU, said in a phone interview this month. "Anyone who was at that workout knew one thing: that this kid was the real deal."
At the end of the grueling workout, Flacco was asked to stand with his feet parallel and throw the ball as far as he could. Flacco maxed out at 73 yards, the second-best mark for any quarterback Cameron has ever worked out.
"That told you right there that he had innate arm strength," Cameron said. "It was one of the two most impressive workouts I had ever seen. The other was Ben Roethlisberger."
Awed by Flacco's arm and his potential, the Ravens took him in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft.
Five years later, Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the playoffs, helping the Ravens win their second Super Bowl in 12 years. The Ravens rewarded him with a six-year, $120.6 million contract that, at the time, made him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
No quarterback went deep more often last season than Flacco, who threw the ball 20 or more yards on 17.3 percent of his attempts, the highest percentage in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. On those plays, Flacco had 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, best in the league in both categories.
Last season, the offense was as explosive as it has ever been, setting a franchise record with 72 plays of 20 or more yards. Only New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed more passes for 25-plus yards than Flacco.
"Oftentimes you may find [receivers] that can stretch the field, but guys can't get it to them consistently," Caldwell said. "Joe can."
Flacco said this month that he doesn't do anything special to work on his arm strength.
"You throw the football a little bit and get your core [strengthened] a little bit, but I don't think there's really doing too much to my arm strength at this point," Flacco said. "It is what it is, and hopefully it will stay like that for the next 12 years and I won't have to worry about it."
While Flacco might not yet be viewed as being on the same level as former league Most Valuable Players such as the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, New England Patriots' Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning, Jaworski says there is no debating which quarterback has the NFL's most formidable fastball.
"Maybe on a good day, Aaron Rodgers can get to Flacco. Matthew Stafford has a big-time arm. Michael Vick can really spin it," Jaworski said.
"So those are the guys that immediately pop to mind, the strong-armed guys in the NFL. … I believe [Flacco] does have the strongest arm in the NFL."
According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback in 2012 threw passes of 20 or more yards more often than Joe Flacco, whose average depth of throw was 10.6 yards. Here is a look at his average depth of throw on specific routes run by his receivers:
Post: 25.7 yards
Corner: 23.7 yards
Go: 28.0 yards
Out: 9.3 yards
In: 8.9 yards
Comeback: 11.5 yards
Hitch: 7.5 yards
Slant: 6.5 yards
July 21: Players report for training camp.
July 25: First full-team training camp practice.
Aug. 4: Open practice, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium 5 p.m.(Free and open to the public)
Aug. 11: Open practice, M&T Bank Stadium, 5 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Aug. 13: Last training camp practice.
Aug. 18: Open practice, Mustang Stadium at Stevenson University, 5 p.m. (Fans must enter a lottery on the Ravens’ website for tickets as there is limited seating.)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun