Advantage, Flacco

The Baltimore Sun

By all indications, Joe Flacco's enforced absence from the latest Ravens minicamp at the Castle isn't going to throw the new regime's plans out of whack. He's not allowed to be here this week, but the Ravens inserted a camp in a couple of weeks to make up for it. As for any contract problems delaying his arrival in training camp in July, nothing about the early stages of negotiations raises red flags.

"They have a ton of leverage," Joe Linta, Flacco's agent, said yesterday, "and we have a ton of leverage. We both know the urgency the other side has."

That's an encouraging sign that this won't be an inflammatory, antagonistic process. But all things considered, give the leverage edge to Flacco.

It's not quite Matt Ryan-level leverage, probably the greatest leverage a rookie quarterback has ever had, which was parlayed into a speedy, $34.5 million guaranteed contract with the Atlanta Falcons last week.

Not too far away from it, though. They're both quarterbacks drafted in the first round to fill a near-desperate, franchise-defining need. Those franchises cannot afford any delays in installing either one of them, not with so much at stake and not with the steps the teams took to bring them in.

If there ever were a time to pass up the usual strong-arming talk about how every second the player misses is another step toward career suicide, this is the time - because whatever damage delays or holdouts cause the quarterback, it goes double for the team he leaves hanging.

Though Flacco needs to be with the Ravens now and needs to be in Westminster later this summer, the Ravens need him much, much more.

That has been the case since the moment they traded up in last month's draft to get him. It became more clear when they threw open the competition for the starting job. When they hedged fairly quickly on the notion of avoiding the mistake they made with Kyle Boller in rushing him as a rookie with no veteran help. And when they rearranged their offseason schedule to fit Flacco's.

More proof came yesterday, when the questions to coach John Harbaugh and the players about the progress of the quarterbacks included questions about the one who wasn't there. And make no mistake - even though NCAA and NFL rules dictate that Flacco could not be there, it puts him behind. The playbook is thick, everybody agrees, and the practices in Camp No. 4 (of seven) remain at Harbaugh's mandated quick pace.

The pace will be just as fast, and the playbook just as thick, next week when Flacco is allowed to come in. Same thing two weeks after that, at the rescheduled "Flacco Camp."

Flacco surely is taking a crash course on the offense on his own, but Boller and Troy Smith will have had extra chances to show what they can do with it all - and they'll be strengthening their connections, on the practice field and off, with teammates with whom they're already familiar.

"The biggest thing, the offense stuff, he can catch up on. The reps he can't make up," Harbaugh said of Flacco. "You have the whole team out here running routes, and he's not here, and that's something he'll miss."

Yet he'll miss it for just a couple of extra weeks.

The Ravens couldn't afford to let him get away on draft day, and they can't afford to give him anything less than a full-fledged shot at starting right away. In his only appearance at the Castle, at the mandatory camp earlier this month, Flacco looked as though he belonged, as though he was worthy of the efforts the Ravens took to get him.

There's nothing wrong with how the incumbents are performing so far - Smith yesterday in particular. But whatever advantage Boller and Smith have now, it slips later when Flacco comes in to get the reps he isn't getting now.

The Ravens never had the luxury of letting Flacco sit and learn. They knew the starting quarterback job would have to be put up for grabs right away. They couldn't have sold their moves and their choice any other way.

That's why his agent can say that both sides have considerable leverage. But it's also why it can be said that Flacco has more. It might hurt Flacco to fall behind in his rookie-year preparation. It might hurt him to hit a snag in negotiations and miss time in training camp.

But it would hurt the Ravens even more.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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