Crash course

The Baltimore Sun

There will likely be a time when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will have to sidestep blitzing linebacker James Farrior and make a tough throw past safety Troy Polamalu.

But before the team's high-profile rookie could think about playing the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he first had to win a more important game - the one inside his head.

Since being drafted 18th overall two months ago, Flacco has been given a crash course on quarterbacking, one that has provided him with the foundation to compete for the Ravens' starting job.

He has had to digest chunks of a playbook that is two inches thick. He has had to dissect coverages while playing against one of the NFL's most unpredictable defenses.

And he has had to do it all in a matter of 16 practices.

Now, with all of the offseason minicamps complete, Flacco is taking away an invaluable lesson that he'll carry into training camp.

"In my mind, the speed of the game is mental," Flacco said. "If you let yourself believe that you are unsure about what you're doing, then the game is fast. But if you go out there and you're confident and have an idea of what you're supposed to do, then the game slows down for you."

Flacco has had to absorb a lot of information in a short period. There have been a lot of long days.

He would arrive at Ravens headquarters at 5:45 a.m., even though he admits he is not a morning person. He would begin with a workout, go to a two-hour meeting and head to practice. After lunch, he'd have another meeting and watch some more film on his own before finally going home for dinner.

And when it was time for practice, Flacco was one of the players who is always out on the field early and one of the last to leave.

This hard-to-miss work ethic is a reason why Flacco has a shot to beat out Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, whether it's starting the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals or taking over the job at midseason.

"He's doing everything in his power to give himself a chance," Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson said. "And that's the kind of guy we were looking for - a guy willing to do whatever it takes to be the best."

During Brian Billick's nine seasons with the Ravens, he was criticized for his inability to develop a quarterback.

Cam Cameron, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, has a track record that consists of tutoring Trent Green, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

One of Cameron's common methods in mentoring young quarterbacks is tailoring schemes that resemble what the players did in college, which eases their transition into the NFL. The Ravens kept Flacco in shotgun for most of the minicamps because that's what he primarily ran at the University of Delaware.

"We've always done that with young quarterbacks, so they really don't have to perform and learn at the same time so much," Cameron said. "A lot of the stuff he's doing, he should be able to perform at a high level, because it's stuff he's done in college. Once he gets his feet on the ground and starts to learn NFL defenses, then we start demanding more in terms of what we want to do different than what he did in college."

Flacco said he is ready to take the next step.

"Everyone knows quarterback is a position where it takes a while to really start playing well," said Flacco, who will report to training camp in 29 days. "But you want to go out there and prove you can do it as quick as possible."

In the classroom

Every day at Ravens headquarters has been like a pop quiz for Flacco.

Inside the quarterbacks room, Jackson would break down defensive fronts, coverages and tendencies on film in front of all the quarterbacks.

At different points, he'd stop the tape and ask: "What would you do in this situation?"

"Sometimes I have no idea what the answer is," Flacco said.

This could be the most important part of Flacco's education. To stay on course, he has had to admit the times when he is lost.

"You can't be afraid to say, 'Coach, I don't understand,' " Flacco said. "You don't want to come up with some answer and them not explain it to you. Then you'll never understand."

Boller, who was in Flacco's situation five years ago, can tell that the rookie is becoming more comfortable based on his interaction inside the quarterbacks room.

"If you compared him from the first week until now, his personality has grown exponentially," Boller said. "When you're a rookie, you got so many different things you're thinking about. It's hard to be yourself. But he's doing an awesome job."

At his home

The transition to the NFL can be tougher when your father and brother are stand-ins for Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.

Flacco didn't have a choice because an NFL-NCAA rule barred him from Ravens headquarters for nearly all of May.

So, Flacco used family members as targets to stay sharp with the playbook. Asked if his father ran good routes, Flacco said, "Well, he's getting a little old, so we would just kind of place him in an area."

Flacco remained in contact with the Ravens, talking every other day during that time with Jackson. The conversations typically lasted 1 1/2 hours.

"It would have been hard if you are dealing with a guy who doesn't have the capacity to retain information like Joe does," Jackson said.

Jackson said this unusual style of instruction could help in games.

By going over the playbook verbally on the phone, Flacco would make adjustments by picturing it in his head rather than needing to have it drawn up on the chalkboard

"I think the foundation has been set," Jackson said. "I haven't seen one bit of hesitation. He doesn't say, 'Oh, gosh, this is hard.' He says, 'Oh, gosh, give me more.' "

On the field

Flacco has generated excitement among team officials every time he steps on the practice field.

He throws high-arcing 50-yard passes with ease. He moves surprisingly well, rolling out of the pocket smoothly for a 6-foot-6 quarterback.

But the excitement extends beyond his athletic capabilities.

Whenever Flacco has fouled up - whether fumbling a snap or holding onto the ball too long - he generally has followed it up with solid play.

"He's made plenty of mistakes, but I haven't seen him repeat a mistake yet," coach John Harbaugh said. "He learns quickly."

The Ravens are hopeful that Flacco will soon master the playbook and quickly recognize defensive coverages.

But their confidence stems from Flacco's poise, which is one part of the game that can never be taught.

"I don't think this environment is too big for him," Jackson said. "He's willing to work and put in the extra work. He doesn't just want to be good. He has the desire to be great."

Learning Curve

Having selected Joe Flacco with their first pick in this year's NFL draft, the Ravens will be investing a lot of time - and money - in turning him into a professional quarterback. Periodically throughout the process of educating Flacco, The Sun will provide updates on his progress and future. Today, we look at his first 16 practices and what he has learned - and what he still needs to learn - before training camp opens in July.

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