1. Joe Flacco can look pretty darn good once he gets into the flow of the game. Why it sometimes takes him a few series to get going, however, is still a total mystery.
Slow starts plagued the Ravens plenty last season. Most of the time they were good enough to overcome them, but not always. It's what made them so maddening to watch in 2010: Their inability to put together two complete halves. And though it seems unlikely they'll fall into a similar pattern this year -- especially considering all the roster turnover they've experienced -- we still got to see Good Flacco and Bad Flacco Thursday night.
Flacco probably made the three best throws he's made this preseason against the Redskins. He threw a beautiful fade to Lee Evans for a touchdown early in the game, a back-shoulder laser on a seam route to Ed Dickson for a 33-yard gain in the second quarter, and a perfectly timed skinny post to Anquan Boldin for a touchdown to wrap up his night. It was an encouraging performance considering how much his timing looked like it was off during the Ravens' first two preseason games.
Only problem was, all those beautiful throws were preceded by a pick-six he threw to DeAngelo Hall, trying to hit Boldin on a simple stop route early in the game.
Flacco said after the game that Hall was sitting on that route, and if you watch the replay, that was clearly true. But Flacco still didn't throw a very good ball. It wasn't just a bad read, it was also not a very accurate throw. Hall was lined up inside of Boldin prior to the snap, he never really moved, and Flacco still threw it two feet inside inside of where Boldin was when he broke off his route. But Flacco said it didn't mean much that it happened on the first series of the game.
"The guy just made a play," Flacco said. "It could have happened in the first series, or it could have happened in the eighth series. It'll happen when it happens, and we just have to be able to go back out there and bounce back from that."
What had to make you feel good if you're a Ravens fan, however, is the way Flacco seemed to forget the interception even happened. His throw to Evans was probably the best fade I've seen Flacco throw in three years, and more proof that Evans' ability to flat out run by people means cutting Derrick Mason was probably the right decision.
"That play that Evans made? Wow," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I didn't think he was going to be able to catch up with that throw. I guess Joe knew he would be able to catch up. He put it right where it had to be."
His touchdown throw to Boldin, even though it came against the Redskins' second-string defense, was still pretty impressive considering the way he threaded the needle between defenders. It was the kind of play Ravens fans thought they'd see a lot more of last year.
"Joe's learning where the ball needs to be for Anquan, and Anquan is understanding where he needs to get out of his breaks for Joe," Harbaugh said. "You talk about chemistry and maturing together -- I don't know what the word is, but I think they're getting to know each other in the passing game, and that bodes well for us."
If feels like, after three years, we've debated Flacco's abilities almost to death. And we'll continue to debate them all year long because of games like this. He'll make a boneheaded gaffe that makes you shake your head (like the INT to Hall) then throw a ball like the one he threw to Dickson (just a perfect strike) and you'll be left wondering which one is the real Joe Flacco. Hopefully the Ravens will have their answer by season's end.2. This offensive line is very much a work in progress. And it's likely going to be that way through the first month of the season.
I tried to pay really close attention to Mark LeVoir and Jah Reid Thursday night, and I came away completely understanding why Ozzie Newsome made the decision to sign Bryant McKinnie. Reid just isn't ready, and his inexperience was probably going to get Flacco killed. Ryan Kerrigan made him look like a revolving door on one particular pass rush. LeVoir misses way too many blocks for a veteran.
Flacco had time on plays when the Redskins rushed only three or four, but on plays where Washington brought pressure on stunts and twists, the Ravens quarterback had almost no time to throw. Even when Marshal Yanda and Matt Birk return, and McKinnie gets into the mix, if you expect them to be great right away, you're kidding yourself. Even Harbaugh more or less admitted it's going to tough early on.
"Did we get beat up one-on-one? Did we miss a sight-adjust? Did we not pick up the twist? I don't know right now," Harbaugh said. "We're just going to have to figure that out as we go. We're going to be putting this offensive line together for the next couple of weeks before we play, and realistically, we're going to be improving throughout the early part of the season. So, that's just where we're going to be."
But if McKinnie can be, at worst, a solid left tackle, it's obviously going to make the Ravens a lot better. It's just going to take a few weeks, or a month, for he and Ravens left guard Ben Grubbs to figure out one another. There is a good chance they won't look very good against Pittsburgh, especially with all the creative ways Dick LeBeau knows how to bring pressure.
"You'd like to think you could throw together guys on the offensive line and play well right off the bat, but sometimes that's just not the case," Grubbs said. "The O-line is one of those positions where you really need the time to work together, But at the same time, you ain't going to have that time. Mike [Oher] and I got to a point where we didn't really even have to communicate. We'd walk up to the line and I look at him and say 'Yup.' And we'd know who we were blocking. We'll probably have to start out over-communicating, but once we get to know each other, we should be fine."
3. Torrey Smith isn't ready to be the No. 3 receiver, but cut him some slack. He's clearly over-thinking everything right now.
Watching Smith on Thursday was a good reminder of just how hard it is to adjust to the NFL as a rookie wide receiver. You can basically see Smith thinking too hard every time he runs a route right now. He wants to make a play so badly, he's letting his head get in the way of his talent. Flacco threw two perfect balls to him against the 'Skins and Smith flat-out dropped them both. Watching him in practice this week, it seems apparent things are just moving too fast right now. It's absurd that some fans are already comparing him to former Ravens wide receiver Patrick Johnson after just three preseason games, but that's the cynical nature of the NFL sometimes. People want results right away, or they want to be the first person to declare you're a bust.
"Torrey just has to go out there and play – use his abilities," Flacco said. "He's got to make a move, run by guys, use his hands, go out there and play confidently and use his ability. I think he has a tendency to overthink things. He always wants to do the right thing. He always comes up to me and tells me he wants to do the right thing. Sometimes when you go out there on Sundays, you just have to let it go and play. If you go out there and make mistakes, you make mistakes. You just have to go out there and play. He's just going to have to learn that."
4. It feels a little pointless, and even a bit risky, to play Ray Lewis and Ed Reed at all in the preseason. But if you ask Harbaugh, it's just too hard to keep them off the field.
After I watched Lewis get steamrolled by Trent Williams on Tim Hightower's long touchdown run, I scribbled something in my notebook: Why is he even playing in this game?
There is almost no upside, and when Lewis doesn't summon his infamous intensity (and really, how could he for a preseason game?), he tends to look a 36-year-old middle linebacker instead of one of the best defensive players who has ever lived. Every time Reed had to go low and make a tackle, I couldn't help but cringe and ask a similar question: Why is he out there again? How many hits does his neck have left?
Why not hold them out entirely?
I posed that question to Harbaugh in the locker room after practically all the players had cleared out, and he gave what I think was an interesting answer. He said neither Reed nor Lewis would like the idea of being told they were going to be a healthy scratch, and they actually weren't thrilled when he wouldn't let them play in the third quarter. It's also an important part of the team dynamic -- and building camaraderie -- for them to do what everyone else is asked to do (for the most part). They're participating in contact drills during practice anyway, Harbaugh said, so it's not like they're made of porcelain.
Every year, on at least one NFL team, a star player will get hurt during preseason and the second-guessing will begin, but you can't let that affect your judgement. You just pray for the best, hope the young players benefit from playing alongside them, and get them out of the game in a timely way.
5. This Ravens team doesn't seem to be wound too tight this year, and that might be a good thing.
As I was talking to Harbaugh, Flacco happened to be walking toward his locker. He was of maybe three Ravens players still in the locker room at that point, which was a few minutes short of midnight. Harbaugh's face lit up, and as Flacco strolled by, the coach and his fourth-year quarterback exchanged fist bumps.
"That was fun, wasn't it?" Harbaugh said, referring to the Ravens' comeback victory.
"It sure was," Flacco said.
It was a side of both men we don't see that much -- they were laughing, smiling and basking in the glow of a meaningless last-second victory. Both Flacco and Harbaugh are so serious about their profession, they don't typically reveal much about themselves, but their attitude in that moment was just one example of the vibe surrounding the team on Thursday. Ray Rice had Ray Lewis cracking up on the sideline late in the game as he did a fairly credible rendition of Lewis' pre-game dance routine, and Lee Evans couldn't help but bask in the attention he was getting from 15 reporters who stood in front of his locker after the game. (Are there even 15 reporters total covering the Bills, Evans' old team?)
Last year, the Ravens won plenty of games, but they also played several stretches of joyless football. After awhile, it seemed to wear on them. Flacco and Mason were squabbling, coaches looked like they were feeling suffocated by outside pressure, and Harbaugh looked weary every time had to step behind a microphone to answer questions.
Who knows if the good feelings will last? It is just preseason after all. There will be plenty of stuff to worry about when the Ravens watch film Friday, namely how average their corners (including Jimmy Smith) look right now. And there won't be many smiles or fistbumps in the locker room if the Ravens lose to Pittsburgh in the opener.
But the tenor of the team is a little different this year, and that might be a good thing in the long run. Instead of playing scared or playing with anxiety every fourth quarter, maybe the Ravens will play with passion and joy again, and put teams away instead of letting them hang around until the fourth quarter.
A year ago, the Ravens often seemed crippled by expectations. Maybe this year, with a younger squad, they can find a little joy in exceeding them.