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Five Things we learned about the Ravens this season

1. Joe Flacco did an excellent job protecting the ball this year, but at times, he also played it too safe. In order to take the next step as a quarterback, he's going to have to trust himself to make throws into tight coverage. He can make those throws. Too often in 2010, he had receivers open, but was hesitant to let it fly.

As we close the book on the 2010 Ravens season, let's discuss Flacco's growth as a quarterback one final time. As I said all the way back in Week 2, after the Ravens' loss to the Bengals, Flacco remains a truly polarizing player for this fan base. Half of Baltimore can't believe he takes as much criticism as he does, especially considering the year he had statistically (3,622 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 62.6 completion percentage, 93.6 quarterback rating), and how many wins the Ravens pile up. The other half of Baltimore can't believe the way the first camp obsesses over statistics — which they see as part of a fantasy-football argument — when they watch a quarterback every week who struggles to make throws under pressure, who still gets jittery in the pocket, and who has a passive personality that doesn't seem to inspire others to think of him as a leader.

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I've tried to play referee between the two camps all season, splitting the difference, and I still believe the most honest assessment of him needs to take into account both sides. At age 26, Flacco is a very good quarterback. He's certainly been a worthy investment for the Ravens, and he's brought stability to a position that had none for nearly a decade. But there are still significant holes in his game, and pointing that out doesn't mean you'd rather go back to the days when Kyle Boller was tripping over his own cleats or Jeff Blake was overthrowing receivers by 15 yards. Flacco has won a lot of games, and he'll win a lot more. But he also didn't win those games by himself. In the playoffs, outside of one game against Kansas City where the Chiefs inexplicably played man coverage the entire game, his numbers, and his performances, have been pretty shaky.

If you watch tape of Flacco this season, one of the things that stands out the most is he still doesn't trust himself to make the kind of throws you have to make to win games against the best teams. We can talk all we want about his footwork, or lining him up in the shotgun, or the protection, but he's still not comfortable when he sees tight coverages. In the NFL, if a receiver has a half step on his defender, he's open. And Flacco can make that throw. He just doesn't want to right now. He doesn't feel comfortable unless wide receivers are REALLY open. In the playoff game against Pittsburgh, opportunities were there for him to make throws early in the game, well before Boldin's drop in the end zone. To win playoff games, you have to believe you can make them, in the first quarter and the fourth.

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Now, there are consequences to him taking that next step. He may throw more interceptions next season. The Ravens were in every single game this year because of the importance he placed on protecting the football. According to the Ravens, he decided to emphasize that on his own. But to win a championship, you need a quarterback who is both talented and fearless. You need to have a quarterback who can make plays and put away the other team, especially when the run game is struggling. That might mean a crucial first down, or a touchdown instead of a field goal. There are a few issues Flacco needs to work on that are completely separate from what plays are called by the offensive coordinator, and that's one of them. Trust your talent.2. Cam Cameron should benefit from the fact that he'll no longer have complete autonomy over the offense.

With the uncertain labor situation looming this offseason, realistically, there was no way the Ravens could ditch Cameron as their offensive coordinator. That decision may make some fans furious, but it's a reality. Barring a miracle settlement, there aren't going to be organized team workouts before training camp, and after March, the coaching staff isn't even allowed to have contact with the players until a deal is worked out. They can't even call them on the phone. If the Ravens scrapped their offense and tried to start over, 2011 could be a disaster. Three weeks is not enough time to revamp your philosophy, your terminology and your playbook. That's not an excuse. It's a fact.

Harbaugh said this week he believes Cameron will do well under fire in 2011, and that he'll make the necessary adjustments and be open to input if things aren't going well. Harbaugh has, for the most part, taken a "hands off" approach to the offense since he became the Ravens' coach. He focused on special teams and defense, because those were areas he felt most comfortable. In the past, he would make suggestions to Cameron before a game, or before a series, but beyond that, he let Cameron run the show for the most part. That's what good head coaches do. They don't meddle in the details; they just rely on people they trust. That worked for the most part in 2008 and 2009.

But ultimately, part of Harbaugh's evolution as a head coach is understanding that this team has to reflect HIS philosophy. Because he's the one who has to answer to the owner and general manager, not Cameron. Next year's offense should be more of a collaborative effort, with Harbaugh getting more involved in the offensive game plan, and Ozzie Newsome taking into account, before the draft and free agency, what Harbaugh and Cameron want to do, and then getting the players to fit that system.

Cameron is a smart coach and a proud man. Maybe too proud and too smart for his own good at times, especially this season. Some of the criticism of him this year was justified, and some of it was fans' need for a scapegoat. Cameron knows the pressure is on, and he's going to need to take input from everyone to fix things. Harbaugh is confident that environment will translate into better results.

It might not be the solution the fans want, but it's also the Ravens' best, and most realistic, answer to the situation.

3. Harbaugh is pretty good at holding a team together.

It's certainly fair, after three seasons as the Ravens' coach, to recognize that Harbaugh has his strengths and weaknesses. And since we spend a lot of time talking about his weaknesses, just because that's often the nature of good discussion, let's spend a second on one of his strengths. He has created an environment where internal frustrations don't become external distractions.

The defense had a right to complain about the offense this season, especially in big games. Outside of the New Orleans game, the Ravens' offense really couldn't figure out how to put anyone away. You can say all you want about how the defense let the offense down at times too, but when did that mostly occur? When the defense was exhausted because the offense couldn't sustain drives. This is now an offensive league, and the Ravens spent money and draft picks to upgrade their offense. It didn't work. But to their credit, the defense kept its mouth shut, even after an emotional loss in Pittsburgh when the offense essentially gave away the game. And the offensive players didn't complain about the coaches, even when prodded by the media. (I'm not saying the art of provocation is something I agree with about my profession, I'm just saying it happens. Sometimes it's necessary to give players those opportunities.)

Harbaugh deserves some credit for that. Brian Billick's teams were plagued by finger pointers by the end of his tenure, both private and public. This team didn't resort to that. That won't last forever, because privately frustration is building. But for the most part, the Ravens presented a united front this year. Don't underestimate the value of that.

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4. It's a bit of a fantasy that the Ravens are going to be able to bring everyone they want back for 2011. Not everyone can be a priority.

Assuming the team's emphasis is locking up Haloti Ngata to a lucrative contract, the money left over for other free agents is going to run out fast. Marshal Yanda, Josh Wilson, Chris Carr, Sam Koch and Billy Cundiff are all in line for raises. They all out-performed their previous contract, and will have other suitors as a result. With the salary cap certain to return next year, what players will the Ravens be able to keep, and what players do they believe they can replace at a cheaper cost? Especially considering they already have several players (Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin) who are among the highest-paid players at their position?

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If you make the sensible decision to cut ties with Marc Bulger, Willis McGahee, Dawan Landry, Chris Chester, Donte' Stallworth, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Fabian Washington, that's a decent chunk of money freed up. But you'd still have to replace Chester and Landry in the starting line-up, plus re-sign players who clearly outplayed their contract this year. You really can't afford to lose either Yanda or Cundiff. Carr, Wilson and Koch will be tougher decisions.

Plus, what do you do with a player like Le'Ron McClain, who has made two Pro Bowls, and now wants more money and more carries?

When you do the math, it really hits home what a missed opportunity this season was for the Ravens. They're really going to need to nail the draft.

5. The Ravens really have to run the ball better to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2011.

The Ravens tried to switch to a zone-blocking scheme this year with their offensive line, and it just didn't work. Had it worked, it could have been the perfect system for Ray Rice. It didn't work because they had to shuffle things when Jared Gaither got hurt, and it didn't work because they just weren't good enough to execute it consistently. It killed them in short yardage. They'll likely return to a more traditional scheme next season, with predetermined reads and one man locking up another.

If this offense had a reliable running game that could pick up first downs on third-and-3 or less, they would have looked sharper everywhere. It would have made Flacco a better quarterback, and the defense less weary at the end of games. So getting Yanda back to his proper position — right guard — and getting a physical right tackle, has to be the biggest priority on offense. That will help far more than a speedy receiver. If Rice looked tentative at times this year, it's because the blocking schemes were different. And they're bound to improve with a few tweaks.

It's a football cliché to say it all begins up front, but in this case, it's the truth.

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