There was no mock cheering or playful applause. Flacco’s presence didn’t even seem to draw a curious glance from players who were already on the field.
The Ravens have treated Flacco’s abbreviated preparation for Sunday’s road regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals as routinely as possible. Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace went as far to say that the biggest storyline heading into the game is being blown out of proportion.
“This guy has played in well over 100 games,” Wallace said. “He’s seen this before.”
He’s not seen it under these circumstances. When Flacco starts his 10th consecutive regular-season opener for the Ravens against a team that has given him more trouble than any other, he’ll have had all of four full practices and two walk-through sessions since mandatory minicamp in mid-June. Flacco acknowledged the situation is “not ideal” four different times during his Wednesday news conference, perhaps a telling admission given that the quarterback normally downplays such challenges.
There are pertinent questions about how Flacco’s back, which kept him from football activities for five weeks, will react to a full load of game snaps and the inevitability of getting hit. There is also a natural curiosity of how the Ravens’ starting offense will look Sunday when so many of its key pieces have played and practiced so little together.
Flacco and wide receiver Breshad Perriman (hamstring) didn’t play a single preseason snap. Presumed starter at left guard James Hurst didn’t play that position during games. Running back Danny Woodhead (hamstring) played all of seven preseason snaps while Marshal Yanda, the team’s best offensive lineman who is recovering from shoulder surgery, was on the field for just 10. Newcomers Woodhead and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, and second-year Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, have yet to catch a pass from Flacco in a preseason or regular-season game.
It’s up to Flacco, bad back and all, to bring everything and everyone together against a Bengals team that has intercepted him 21 times and sacked him 35 times in 17 career meetings.
“I’m concerned with Flacco,” said former NFL head coach and current ESPN NFL analyst Herman Edwards. “When the season starts, it’s real. All the doctors are saying that he can get through it and he’s going to be OK, but he’s the one that actually gets all those hits. No one else does. How is he going to react to all that? That’s the million-dollar question because we don’t know. You think we know but you really don’t know.”
Edwards wondered if the Ravens will make adjustments to their game plan to better protect Flacco and get him out of the pocket more so he can avoid some hits.
Another former NFL head coach and current ESPN commentator John Gruden expressed curiosity about Flacco’s chemistry with the team’s group of pass catchers.
“I disagree with Allen Iverson. I think practice is really important when you've got 11 guys that you've got to manage, and the way that Flacco operates, they've got a different center in there,” Gruden said on a recent conference call. “Fortunately, they've got the same coordinator two years in a row. That's a novelty in Baltimore. But he's going to have to get out there and not only show that his arm is healthy, but he's got to get himself back into football shape and really work through the timing with this young receiving corps.”
However, Ray Lewis, Flacco’s former teammate, had a dissenting opinion.
“That’s the one position you can kind of train by yourself and get ready,” Lewis said. “Every other position like the linebackers or other positions, you actually have to practice. … He has been with his team before the injury, so he’s been there in the OTAs and all offseason. So they’ve got the timing and stuff down. So honestly, I don’t think it will be that big of a deal for Joe.”
Publicly, the Ravens have expressed no such reservations, either. They’ve reminded everyone how well Flacco knows the offense. They’ve talked about how engaged he was in meetings while he was sidelined with the bad back, and how sharp he’s looked in practice since his return.
About the closest thing to a concession was offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg revealing that he planned on meeting with Flacco on Friday to make sure the 32-year-old quarterback is comfortable with all the potential plays that could be called.
“I’m going to be as confident as ever taking the field. I’m not going to think any differently,” Flacco said. “It is not ideal, because obviously, we have some new guys out there and some new things that we are doing, and I have not had as many reps at that kind of stuff. As far as how I approach the game, and how I feel that we are going to go out there and play, I’ve played plenty of football games.”
Flacco spent time both before and after practice this past week getting extra work in with his receivers. However, there was no way to make up for all the practice repetitions that were lost from July 27, the Ravens’ first full-squad practice of training camp, to Sept.2, when Flacco returned to the field.
The injury was particularly prohibitive to Flacco’s ability to create chemistry with Maclin, who didn’t sign until June.
“We tend to just think about how hard it is to never have thrown to a guy. That is true, every guy has their own way of doing things and you build a rapport with guys throughout the course of the year and throughout practice and all of that,” Flacco said. “But, the other side of it is that Jeremy is a good player and he knows how to get open. Things might not be perfect right now, but if he gets open, then I should be able to put the ball on him. We have been doing that since we have been 10 or 6 years old.
“You just have to go back to the basics of things. You can’t overthink things too much. You have to go into games like this and keep it simple for yourself and just hit the guy when he is open.”
The quarterback’s extended summer absence comes on the heels of arguably his worst season as a pro. Flacco threw 15 interceptions, the second most in his career, and his 6.4 yards per attempt tied a career low. All too often last year, Flacco wasn’t on the same page with his receivers and he settled for check-down passes underneath rather than taking shots down the field.
Team officials talked often in the offseason about making things easier on Flacco. They vowed to strengthen the offensive line, but the unit was in flux for most of training camp. Evidence of that was the Ravens acquiring three veteran offensive linemen – Austin Howard, Tony Bergstrom and Luke Bowanko – over the final month of camp.
They spoke of a renewed commitment to a downhill running game. Yet, the team averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in the preseason.
Preseason, where coaches don’t specifically game plan and often keep schemes and play calls as vanilla as possible, isn’t traditionally a good predictor, but the offense struggled mightily with Ryan Mallett at the helm.
Just how much of a difference will Flacco make when he had such limited practice time? Players insist it will be significant and immediate. Outside the team facility, though, there is understandable concern.
“I think it will automatically click,” said Ravens running back Terrance West. “Joe Flacco is not a rookie. He’s a vet. He’s been in situations before. The game doesn’t change. I’m very confident.”
Sun staff writer Edward Lee contributed to this article.