When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti issued the challenge to Joe Flacco at the end of last season to step up his game in 2010, some thought this would put extra pressure on the young quarterback. They forgot about Joe Cool.
Few things unnerve Flacco, not even the man who signs his paychecks.
"Well, actually, I think I've been playing pretty good, but I don't like to talk about that," said Flacco, matter-of-factly. "We've got a team that's going to be pretty good, and I have confidence in the players around me and on our defense. Believe me, I have all the confidence in myself to go out there and play at a Super Bowl level."
That's Flacco's style. He shrugged Bisciotti's suggestion off like a gnat, but has given him more definitive answers on the field. Only a day after the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs, Flacco was back at the Castle breaking down film. Flacco spent part of his offseason with a pitching coach on the West Coast and another chunk of time throwing passes to new receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth.
Flacco's back to his playing weight of 240pounds and is stronger and thicker in his upper body after a an offseason weight program. When the Ravens open the season Monday night against the New York Jets, Flacco will be armed, loaded and ready to fire.
"My goal was to come in condition, be a little stronger and ready to work with some of these new guys," Flacco said of the preseason. "We wanted to get them up to speed and get on the same page so we hit the ground running. Obviously, we need to work on some parts of our game because we want to light it up, start like we did last year."
A fast start hasn't been the problem, but the exits in the postseason have been. That's where Flacco and the passing game have suffered, especially against teams playing two-deep coverage. It has been a combination of things, from Flacco's inexperience and injuries to the lack of a vertical threat or a big go-to receiver in the red zone. A year ago, play-calling came into question as the Ravens went from a run mode to pass-happy in last-minute preparations for Indianapolis.
Excuses, excuses, excuses.
There can be no more this season. The Ravens have given Flacco experience and speed at the wide-out positions and targets across the middle.
"I think in the past we've had guys that were pretty good on the outside like Derrick [Mason] and Mark [Clayton]," Flacco said. "They can run comebacks like nobody else in this league can, and when you have that, you have to utilize that. I think we have to get the tight end involved more. Todd [Heap] is feeling good so we got to get him involved more, and Anquan's good over the middle. I think we're just growing our game and getting better and better as the years go on."
You can see the difference in preseason. A year ago, the Ravens seldom threw downfield inside the red zone. That strategy works against some teams, but not in the playoffs, where you have to attack more. Against the New York Giants almost two weeks ago, Flacco threw three touchdown passes over the middle.
He's getting the ball to receivers on timing routes out of their breaks. He is completing back shoulder passes, which he seldom did in his two previous seasons. The kid's confidence is soaring. Some of the credit can go to backup quarterback Marc Bulger and a gunslinger mentality that has rubbed off on Flacco.
Flacco also has had good relationships with his two quarterback coaches, Hue Jackson, now offensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, and Jim Zorn, who replaced Jackson in Baltimore.
"Everybody offers a different perspective. I am excited for Hue to go out there and really do what he wants to do," Flacco said. "I miss his fieriness. Jim has played the game before, so you can relate to that. Sometimes you're in the QB room and you're watching game film, and that experience can help."
Flacco says he has completely recovered from ankle and hip injuries suffered in the second half of last season. Not once did he complain about them affecting his performance, but they did. For the first time, Flacco talked about the injuries, which didn't heal until six weeks after the season.
"Obviously, I hurt my ankle in the Minnesota game," Flacco said. "I rolled that pretty good, but we had the bye week. The reason I didn't want to talk about it is because I didn't want people to think it was affecting my play, and it wasn't. But, obviously, it took away from some things.
"The biggest thing was my hip," Flacco said. "That happened on the first week that we played Indianapolis. I got a big bruise on my hip, and my right leg was filled with fluid so I couldn't bend it too much. There were a lot of weeks that it felt really good, and there some weeks where I'd land on it a couple of times and it would really blow up on me. I still have calcium deposits or a little build-up on my hips."
As a precautionary measure, the Ravens got Bulger, but this is Flacco's team. The true measure of any quarterback is the postseason. That's when a quarterback is supposed to take over. That's when legends are born. Just ask Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Or Steve Bisciotti.
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