Every Friday, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak hands Joe Flacco his play sheet for the Ravens' upcoming game and asks the quarterback to review it and rank the plays that he likes.
Flacco usually does far more than that.
"Joe likes to talk, so he'll let me know what he thinks," Kubiak said, drawing laughter. "But no, our relationship, it's been good. I coach him hard, but I have tremendous respect for him, and I think he knows that, and I need to listen to him. That's my job as a coach."
The relationship between the quarterback and his offensive coordinator/play caller is one of the most important dynamics within an NFL organization. A symbiotic relationship spurs confidence and trust, and often gets good results. A poor one results in unfulfilled potential and lost jobs.
Just ask the Chicago Bears, who benched veteran starter Jay Cutler less than a week after their offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer publicly acknowledged that he anonymously criticized Cutler in an NFL Network report.
Flacco and Kubiak have had no such issues and the seventh-year quarterback is thriving as the Ravens (9-5) head into a key AFC game Sunday against the Houston Texans (7-7) at NPG Stadium. Flacco, 29, is having arguably the finest season of his career and he acknowledged that Kubiak's steadying influence is one reason why.
"It's always good to come into work every day and have a positive mindset," Flacco said. "You're able to do a lot of things. You're able to get your work done, but you're also able to have a good time. I think that's so good for confidence with me, with Gary, with the whole unit. I think everybody can feel that.
"The way it translates onto the field is just with the confidence. We all come in here and have that same group goal and work together. There's nobody trying to go behind somebody's back and do this or that."
A season after he was a turnover or sack waiting to happen, Flacco is on pace to set career highs in passing yards (3,976), completion percentage (64.2), touchdown passes (26) and quarterback rating (94.8).
With two games remaining in the regular season, he's been sacked just 16 times — 32 fewer than last season — and he has nine interceptions after tossing a franchise-record 22 in 2013.
"I'm just playing, and that's the way it goes," Flacco said. "If you go out there and you play the way you're supposed to and you make the reads you're supposed to and your team is playing well and all that, then you shouldn't make that many mistakes as a quarterback. We have to make sure that we keep that going."
In the past four games, Flacco has thrown six touchdown passes and one interception, averaged 240 yards passing a game, completed just under 70 percent of his passing attempts and recorded a 107.2 quarterback rating, third best in the NFL during that span.
The stretch of solid play has come following a conversation that Kubiak and Flacco had after the bye week. At the time, Flacco was in a midseason slump, having thrown five interceptions over the previous four games. Kubiak told Flacco that he was simplifying the offense, getting back to the type of throws and routes that the quarterback had success with during his torrid start.
"I think we really grooved through the bye week of stopping and saying, 'OK, Joe, here's what I'm seeing, tell me what you think.' And I kind of let him call the game in a lot of ways," Kubiak said. "When you have a player like that, you need to listen, and I tried to do that. Hopefully I've done that well, but I think our relationship grows every week. I have a lot of confidence in him, and hopefully he has the same."
In earlier seasons, Flacco might have resented the suggestion to simplify things. He often jokes that if he had it his way, he'd be throwing the ball 50 times per game and staying in attack mode regardless of the score and situation. Anybody who has ever been around Flacco knows that he's extremely confident in himself and resolute in his beliefs about how the offense should operate.
His working relationship with former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was fired late in the Ravens' Super Bowl season in 2012, grew icy because Flacco didn't feel that Cameron was giving him enough responsibility or taking his input.
"Joe is always confident regardless, but I think it's just been a little bit different with Kubs because they can relate," said Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. "You can tell their relationship is a little bit different. Not that he didn't love any of the coaches before, but I think it's the way Kubs goes about it, the way he operates. They've been a great match."
When Kubiak was hired in January after his predecessor, Jim Caldwell, was named the head coach of the Detroit Lions, he was Flacco's third offensive coordinator in about 13 months. Rick Dennison, one of Kubiak's long-time lieutenants and Houston's former offensive coordinator, became Flacco's fifth quarterback coach in his NFL career.
Kubiak, 53, came in with instant credibility. He played the position for nine NFL seasons. As a player or coach, he had worked with Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Steve Young.
"We've bought in from Day One," said Tyrod Taylor, Flacco's backup the past four seasons. "We knew it was going to be a different offense coming in. It could've been challenging at some points, early on, but we've bought in. I don't think Joe has fought back or anything. He's accepted that Kubiak is the guy and he's going to call the plays. It's our job to go out and perform well."
Hard on quarterbacks
Kubiak has long been regarded as a player's coach, though he's the first to admit that he's tough on quarterbacks. He's a stickler for fundamentals, which is why Kubiak and Dennison have the quarterbacks work on their footwork at the beginning of every practice.
He also has very little tolerance for stupid mistakes. When the Ravens' offense came to the sideline after a turnover in their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, Kubiak called the players together and gave them a brief, yet stern, lecture.
Kubiak's focus is on the offense as a whole, though he remains extremely hands-on with the quarterbacks. As he comes off the field following a possession, Flacco typically heads right to Kubiak to talk things over. That's a significant departure from past seasons where the quarterback would head straight to the bench while the offensive coordinator was calling the game from the press box.
"You can look at a guy and say, 'Boy, he can do everything. He can do this.' But if you're not doing what he's comfortable with, you can be putting him in a bad situation," Kubiak said. "… His physical abilities are as good as I've ever been around. He works extremely hard at what he does. Joe is a grinder, hasn't missed a day of practice, hasn't missed a rep. I'm very impressed with that. He's very competitive, yet very much under control [on] game day. I could go on and on, but he's a big-time quarterback. He's a championship quarterback."
Kubiak has also made a significant effort to get to know Flacco on a personal level. During one of the summer minicamps, the two went out to dinner at Tark's Grill in Lutherville, and the get-to-know-you session made a big impression on Flacco because they talked far more about family than football.
Such dinners have continued throughout the regular season and have grown to include Dennison, the other quarterbacks, wives and girlfriends. Taylor and Flacco both said that the dinners have given the quarterbacks a good understanding of who the coaches are on a personal level.
"I think the biggest thing is Gary coming in here being who he is and me being who I am, we just happen to get along and have the same goals," Flacco said. "I think it's worked out well because of that."