When the Ravens (3-1) square off against the Denver Broncos (2-2) at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Flacco's next challenge is as delicate as it is daunting — keeping his wide receivers happy.
And they all want the ball. All the time.
"I think sometimes guys are going to be unhappy, and you're going to have some weeks where everybody is happy," Flacco said. "I can't pay too much attention to that … I've got to go back there and find the open guy. I think when you have as many guys as we do that want the ball, it's going to be tough to get them all the ball every week. So, they're going to have to be patient and realize that they're going to have to be there for us next week."
No one can dispute the talent of the Ravens' receivers. The Ravens are the only team in NFL history to have three players with over 500 career receptions, 6,000 career receiving yards and 40 career touchdown catches. "They probably have the best group in the league," said Champ Bailey, Denver's Pro Bowl cornerback.
No one can question their deep emotional desire to make an impact. Boldin challenged his offensive teammates at halftime three weeks ago. Mason declined to speak to the media for two weeks after catching one pass in Cincinnati. And Houshmandzadeh has repeatedly expressed disappointment in his low-profile role, even days after scoring the game-winning touchdown at Pittsburgh last Sunday.
Is it impossible to satisfy three top-notch receivers? Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron doesn't think so.
"Our philosophy is if you're out there, we want to do everything we can to get you involved," Cameron said. "I don't think there's a coach in this league that's staying here until 1 or 2 in the morning to try to figure out ways not to get guys the ball. You're always trying to do everything you can to get everybody involved as much as you can. Is there an art to it? Maybe a little bit."
If it is an art, Cameron's game plan at Pittsburgh was a masterpiece.
Boldin led the Ravens with seven catches. Mason topped the team with 80 yards receiving. Houshmandzadeh caught the pivotal touchdown with 32 seconds remaining.
"In this business, you use what you got," Mason said. "And you don't want to ever come out of a game saying we could've done this or we could've done this. You make sure going into a game you use all the weapons you have. And we have just in the receiving room alone, we have three weapons. So use them. There shouldn't be a game where all three of us shouldn't be a positive factor in the game."
'I wish it was me'
Houshmandzadeh doesn't believe the Ravens' current offensive scheme is designed to keep all of the wide receivers involved.
Through four games, Boldin has caught 27 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Mason and Houshmandzadeh have combined for 18 receptions for 242 yards and one touchdown.
"Q [Anquan Boldin] is going to be happy. That's just the reality of it," said Houshmandzadeh, who ranks sixth on the team with five catches. "Q and [tight end Todd] Heap, they're going to get their balls. They brought Q in, they gave up draft picks and gave him a nice contract. They're going to find ways to get him the ball. I can appreciate that because I thought that's what I was getting [in Seattle]. I wish it was me. But it's not."
The Ravens can't be accused of deceiving anyone. On the first day of free agency, the Ravens traded for Boldin and rewarded him with a four-year, $28 million contract.
Mason and Houshmandzadeh both signed with the Ravens afterward. Houshmandzadeh said coaches told him that he could get 50 to 60 catches this season before he chose to join the team.
"For me, I knew coming in what I was getting myself into," Houshmandzadeh said. "But I believe in myself. So the belief in myself said once they see me, things will change. We'll see if that holds to be true."
Houshmandzadeh said he only played 12 snaps against Cleveland in Week 3 and had about the same number at Pittsburgh until the end of the game.
"I was happy [the Steelers] scored because we were going to go two-minute and we were going to throw it," said Houshmandzadeh, referring to the Steelers going ahead 14-10 midway through the fourth quarter. "When we throw the ball, they can't stop us. If [the offensive line] protects like they protect up front and we throw, they can't stop us."
Several teams — even championship ones — have been able to succeed with three talented wide receivers.
The St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts both were able to do it. This year's Broncos have become the NFL's top passing attack by spreading the ball around (three receivers have at least 22 receptions).
Boldin knows three receivers can all have an impact from first-hand experience with the Arizona Cardinals. He did add one caveat.
"We also didn't have a running game," he said. "We used our receivers as a running game. Trying to get everybody touches can be challenging."
Handling the egos can be equally challenging.
Cameron insists his receivers aren't selfish. They're competitors. He also prefers this situation to the alternative.
"I'd be scared to death if guys didn't want the ball. I really would," Cameron said. "Actually, I've been in that situation where guys are kind of ... they really don't want the ball in the clutch. That's the worst feeling. So to me, I think we've all got to take a deep breath and realize it's the nature of the business."
Wide receivers coach Jim Hostler has put the challenge on his players to generate more chances to get the ball.
If the Ravens convert more third downs, they'll have more plays. If they have more plays, there are more opportunities to make catches.
"I tell them all the time that they control how much we can get the ball to them," Hostler said. "So, they have a lot to do with that responsibility, too."
The Ravens have never had this much proven talent at wide receiver. It was only a year ago when Flacco was throwing passes to Mason, Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington.
Asked if this was the best wide receiver group he's ever played in, Boldin said, "If it's not the best, it's one of them."
The wide receivers said they've never approached Flacco about getting the ball more. Cameron, however, hears from his receivers during the game and throughout the week, sometimes as soon as the game plan is printed late Tuesday night.
"My focus is keeping everybody focused on the little things, details and fundamentals, continue to grow with Joe and the chemistry with Joe," Cameron said. "I can be the bad guy. I'm OK with that. I don't want the quarterback to ever be the bad guy. We've all watched that unfold in this league. That's where you have problems. And Joe does a great job with these guys."
Cameron added, "And it's OK if they all want to get together and complain about me. I'm OK with that. I can be that guy. But don't let it affect the way we play on Sundays."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article. Player Rec. Yds Yds/Rec Long TD Anquan Boldin 27 355 13.1 38 3 Derrick Mason 13 162 12.5 40 1 T.J. Houshmandzadeh 5 80 16.0 27 1