Joe Flacco's body language has been studied and scrutinized since the day he became the Ravens' franchise quarterback in 2008. Rarely, if ever, has the stoic signal caller, billed as "Joe Cool," shown as many outward signs of exasperation as he has displayed the past three weeks.
For the Ravens, the home stretch of their regular season, starting Sunday against the resurgent Washington Redskins at FedEx Field and continuing with three more games against contending teams, will determine the team's playoff position and show where they fit among the league's elite.
For Flacco, who is entering the final weeks of his rookie contract, it is an opportunity to salvage another uneven season, one that has seen the Ravens' offense look unstoppable one game and inept the next.
Flacco has been at the forefront of the inconsistency, throwing for more than 300 yards in four games and less than 200 in five. His frustration has reached its peak recently as the Ravens have scored just three offensive touchdowns over the last 13 quarters and nearly a full overtime.
"It's a little bit of everything [but] it all comes back to the quarterback," said Flacco, who has two touchdown passes over his last three games and hasn't completed at least 65 percent of his passes since Week 6, also the last time Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis played in a game. "You have to look at me. That's what it's all about."
This was supposed to be the fifth-year quarterback's breakout season, where once and for all, he quieted the remaining skeptics who focused on his less-than-gaudy numbers and his shortcomings, rather than him never missing a start or the playoffs and winning more games than any active quarterback since he entered the league.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on the eve of the season, the 27-year-old quarterback maintained he wasn't worried about his contract, and he spoke excitedly about his surrounding cast, calling it the most talented group that he's been around. He had another year of familiarity with the team's young receivers. Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who meshed so well with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, was brought in and above all, the Ravens committed to using a no-huddle offense and a more up-tempo approach, which Flacco had been advocating for several seasons.
When Flacco threw seven touchdowns and averaged 317 yards passing over his first four games, everything had seemingly fallen in place. However, Flacco and the Ravens' offense couldn't sustain their success, and they've recently gone away from the no-huddle offense altogether. The Ravens have run just five plays out of the no-huddle over their last three games, and one of them resulted in an Anquan Boldin touchdown catch last week.
"I think we have to get back to some of the no-huddle stuff," Flacco said. "Some of that is a little frustrating. We've gotten away from doing that a little bit. I think there are points out there to get, and we haven't taken advantage of that."
In the no-huddle this year, Flacco has had a quarterback rating of 112.6, thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions, completed 64 percent of his passes, and the Ravens have averaged 7.2 yards per play. When huddling, Flacco has a rating of 75.7 to go along with seven touchdowns, six interceptions and a 58 percent completion percentage, while the offense has averaged 4.9 yards a play.
Flacco said he didn't know why the team had gone away from the no-huddle. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the decision is dictated by several factors, including the opponent, the flow of the game and whether the Ravens are home or away. Crowd noise on the road has made it tough for the players to hear Flacco's audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Flacco has had his moments over the last month, both home and away, bringing the Ravens back from 10 down late in the fourth quarter to beat the San Diego Chargers in overtime, putting up 341 yards and three touchdowns versus the Oakland Raiders, and of course, leading his team to the cusp of a fifth-straight playoff berth and a second straight division title.
But there have been far too many lapses, extended stretches where the Ravens can't get first downs and Flacco can't get in a rhythm. He's completed just 56 percent of his passes over the past three weeks.
"Like any quarterback, you look around the league and that's pretty much what you get," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There are a few guys playing at a Hall of Fame level week-in and week-out. We're striving for that. Joe's playing good football … but he knows he can get better."
Flacco's current numbers certainly don't show regression. They just haven't displayed a steady progression that the Ravens hoped to see, especially after Flacco looked so sharp and decisive in training camp and the preseason.
"I think Joe is playing a lot like the rest of the team," said former Pro Bowl quarterback and NFL on CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who like Flacco is a University of Delaware alum. "There are times where he looks like the guy that we think he is and he's going to be, and there's other times where the offense goes through lulls and he's a big part of that."
Flacco is poised to throw for more than 4,000 yards for the first time in his career. He's on pace to throw his second fewest interceptions, and he had gone 172 passing attempts without one before being picked off by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second quarter last Sunday.
In other areas, the results have been mixed. Flacco's completion percentage (59.2) is up from last season but down significantly from his first three years in the league. His quarterback rating (85.0) has improved from 2011 but is still lagging compared to 2009 and 2010, his best two seasons statistically.
Against Pittsburgh, he badly overthrew Torrey Smith on an out route in a big third-down situation and then he underthrew the wide receiver on a couple of deep balls. With his team holding a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, Flacco held onto the ball too long and was stripped by James Harrison, the turnover deep in Ravens territory setting up the game-tying touchdown.
"One thing I notice in Joe Flacco is he doesn't get the ball out in rhythm all the time. That has to do with indecisiveness," said broadcaster and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, a longtime Flacco advocate. "Throw it away, do something with the ball. Good things aren't going to happen."
Cameron said the team's trust in Flacco is "unwavering" and several players strongly defended the quarterback, pointing out that the offense has had other issues. The offensive line has struggled at times with Flacco having already been sacked 29 times, two fewer than all of last season. The receivers have had trouble separating from press coverage. Penalties have been an issue.
"If you watch film, there's always this one guy out of place or who kind of messed up on his assignment. We just have to get that fixed," said second-year wide receiver Tandon Doss, who has five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. "Joe has broad shoulders, so he can take some pressure, but we have to help him and make plays for him."
Said veteran center Matt Birk: "Quarterbacks are only as good as the guys around him. He's only as good as his protection, his receivers, his running backs. We know Joe takes a lot of the heat, but it would be more appropriate if it was directed at our entire group. He is the guy you want at the trigger."
The Ravens still want to reach a long-term deal with the quarterback after the season even though it currently looks more likely that he'll be given the franchise tag. His contract status ratchets up the attention on him even more as the Ravens hit the home stretch of the regular season, hoping their quarterback breaks from a frustrating stretch and takes them where they want to go.
"It's not like the Ravens want to cut bait and move on. They've invested a lot of time and money in Joe Flacco. Joe Flacco has invested a lot of time and effort for the Baltimore Ravens. The best thing for this football team is to work out a deal," Theismann said. "The Ravens are probably taking the approach over the next four weeks of this season against these playoff teams: 'OK, show us you're worth these millions of dollars you're asking for.'"
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.
Joe Flacco's career numbers (through 12 games each year)
This was the year that Joe Flacco appeared poised for a breakout. While there have been some flashes, his numbers through the Ravens' first 12 games haven't shown a significant jump from his previous four seasons.
Yr. Comp. Att. Yards Yards per att. Comp% TDs INT Sacked Record
2008 202 331 2,276 6.9 61.0 12 9 23 8-4
2009 257 406 2,881 7.1 63.3 14 11 26 6-6
2010 248 398 2,988 7.5 62.3 19 8 27 8-4
2011 240 434 2,895 6.7 55.3 13 8 22 9-3
2012 252 426 3,038 7.1 59.2 15 8 29 9-3
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