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With Cam Cameron gone, all eyes on Joe Flacco

If nothing else, the surprising in-season dismissal of Cam Cameron this week should provide some clarity at a time when the Ravens are going through a serious offensive identity crisis, but you may not like what it eventually reveals.

Now, we're finally going to find out whether it was Cameron who was holding Joe Flacco back or the other way around.

The only thing that was obvious was that Flacco was no longer progressing under Cameron and the Ravens attack had become inconsistent and incoherent. The responsibility for all that logically falls on the offensive coordinator, because he's the guy running the show, but there are two sides to this story and one of them is still to be told.

There has been a lot of head-scratching about the timing of the decision, since the Ravens do not often make big changes in the middle of a season. The team is, after all, on top of the AFC North by two games and a playoff berth appears to be a foregone conclusion in spite of the two disconcerting losses that led John Harbaugh and the front office to take such bold action.

It makes perfect sense, however, if you look at the move from both a competitive and organizational perspective. The Ravens are looking down the road at three very tough games and trying to position themselves well for a deep playoff run, so they have reached the point where a good season could be sunk by a couple more iffy offensive performances. The organization also is nearing a crossroads with Flacco, whose contract expires at the end of the season and will have to be signed to a new long-term deal or franchised for 2013.

They are not separate issues. The next three games and whatever comes after may determine whether Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome feel comfortable committing big money to lock Flacco up for the foreseeable future or decide to put that decision off another year with an expensive franchise tag.

In other words, while the rest of us are in a position to endlessly ponder whether Flacco is a truly elite quarterback who can take his overall performance up one more level, the Ravens are running out of time to find out.

Team officials aren't going to admit that, but it shouldn't be very hard to figure out why they have allowed Flacco's contract situation to remain in limbo for so long.

Flacco is an upper-tier quarterback who has led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his four full seasons in the NFL. He has taken them to the AFC title game twice and would have reached the Super Bowl last year if not for that infamous drop by receiver Lee Evans at Gillette Stadium. He has more combined regular-season and postseason victories than any other quarterback over the span of his career.

So, why isn't that enough to remove all doubt about his status as a premier quarterback? What else do the Ravens need to see?

Quite a bit, actually.

They need to see he's still improving. They need to see him make better decisions at the line of scrimmage. They need to see him move the chains more consistently on third down. They need to know he has enough pocket awareness to protect the football a lot better than he did against the Steelers and the Redskins.

Harbaugh, who very rarely says a discouraging word about his quarterback, made it clear during Monday's news conference that Flacco's questionable pocket presence is an issue that is being addressed.

"Absolutely," Harbaugh said. "That's something that he's very much aware of. You turn the ball over, you put yourself in jeopardy. I don't care what position it is. So when you play that position and you're in the pocket, you need to protect that football. That's something that we need to be better at going down the stretch."

Harbaugh obviously feels that new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who helped Peyton Manning develop into one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, is the man to help Flacco get to that next level.

He's certainly a capable guy, but he doesn't have much time. Manning will be here Sunday. His younger brother Eli will come in with the New York Giants the following week. The Ravens close out the regular season on the road against Andy Dalton and the Bengals.

Even after proving so much over the past four-plus seasons, Flacco suddenly has a lot to prove over the next month or so.

It's his show now.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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