The process of fixing what ailed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn't start with his right arm, his eyes or what's between his ears. It began with his feet.
Flacco and the rest of the team's passers started nearly every day of training camp with a drill in which they high-stepped over and around cones while keeping their eyes downfield. The message was sent early that to quarterback a Gary Kubiak offense, they had better perfect their footwork.
"It's kind of the way I teach guys to read," Kubiak said. "We teach guys to go through progressions with what their feet are doing, not necessarily what their eyes are doing. It's been a point of emphasis. We have to get the ball going out quicker, cut down on the sacks, all of those things. Joe's bought into it. He's been really good."
The success of the Ravens' 2014 season will depend largely on Flacco's ability to pick up the team's new West Coast offense and avoid the kind of mistakes he made during the 2013 season, the most disappointing of his career. He threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions, completed just 59 percent of his passes, compiled a career-low 73.1 quarterback rating and was sacked 48 times.
But under Kubiak, the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player has gotten a clean slate and a revised set of responsibilities. He has been given a new weapon in veteran wide receiver Steve Smith and figures to benefit greatly from a retooled running game and offensive line.
"Everything definitely has a nice bit of freshness to it," Flacco said. "It makes things exciting, and it focuses you in because it's all new. But I like it. Everything in this offense is black and white. There is a right and there is a wrong. That makes it very easy for me to go out there and operate. I know exactly what to do. I know what option is right. There are not three options that are right. There is one, and the others are all wrong."
Flacco is coming off a solid preseason as he completed 29 of 45 passes, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and led the starting offense to points on six of 12 possessions. As he prepares to start his seventh consecutive season opener, many around the NFL think Flacco is headed for a bounce-back year.
Kubiak "is going to do wonders for Joe Flacco's career," said former Ravens and Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played under Kubiak. "This offense is tailor-made for Joe Flacco."
Sharpe said Kubiak's insistence on establishing the running game should open things up for Flacco, who loves taking deep shots, and the play-action passing game should create room and space in the middle of the field. Ravens officials have long believed Flacco is a better athlete than given credit for, and he'll now get to show that with a variety of bootlegs and rollouts.
"Just the style that Coach Kubiak brings, I think it suits Joe's skill set really well," said Oakland Raiders quarterback Matt Schaub, who was with Kubiak in Houston for seven seasons. "Joe's able to move around a little bit. He's got a strong arm, so he can push it down the field with some of the weapons that they have. Also, he can throw the quick game, and the type of reads that he's going to be asked to go through are ones that he's been exposed to before. It's going to be a good transition for Joe. I think it's going to help him take the next step."
The longest offseason of his career provided plenty of opportunities for Flacco to look back. Some days, after his workouts were complete and his fatherly duties were taken care of, Flacco popped in game tape from the 2013 season. He watched his five-interception game against the Buffalo Bills and his three-interception performance versus the Cincinnati Bengals that ensured the Ravens would miss the playoffs for the first time in his career.
"We didn't get a lot going, and I was trying to make some plays here and there, and I gave the ball away too much," he said, summarizing his primary takeaway from the 8-8 season.
His 22 interceptions were second most in the NFL and 10 more than he had thrown in any other season. Decision-making and accuracy were factors as Flacco tried to fit too many balls into tight windows, especially in the middle of the field. He held the ball too long at times, and he seldom appeared to be on the same page with his receivers. Known as one of the best deep-ball throwers in the league, Flacco completed just 17 of 88 passes of 20 yards or more, with eight interceptions.
But when Kubiak called Flacco after he was named the successor to Jim Caldwell in late January, they agreed that there would be no harping on the quarterback's 2013 miscues. All of their energy would be spent on learning the offense and helping Flacco improve as a quarterback.
"He had already looked at himself as a player before I got here," Kubiak said. "We talked about some stuff, but in all honesty, it was like, 'Hey, let's let it go and let's start over.' We knew the things that we had to fix and address. It was more just a reminder of what was important to the team's success."
A new approach
When Flacco spoke recently of the new offense, he said repeatedly that it has simplified things for him. When it is run correctly, Flacco will go through his progressions quickly and get the ball out, improved footwork accelerating the process and curbing the throws off the back foot that have gotten him into trouble.
The goal is far less indecisiveness and wasted movement, and fewer things to consider when Flacco cocks his right arm and prepares to deliver the ball.
"Every time a play is called, he's going to know not necessarily who he's throwing to, but who he is reading and who he is playing off of," said CBS Sports analyst Steve Beuerlein, a former quarterback who played three of his 17 NFL seasons under Kubiak in Denver. "It's not terribly complicated with the audibles. He's got to be aware [of] where he's exposed, where his weaknesses are, and he'll be very well drilled in it. He's going to know very clearly what his keys are every time he takes a snap. It's going to make his decision-making that much quicker and cleaner. I think Joe will have the best year of his career if he stays healthy and his weapons stay healthy."
The Ravens' offense lacked an identity last year. In the past, it had been a run-first outfit, but last year, whether by design or necessity, the Ravens became a passing team. Flacco threw the ball 614 times, 72 more than any other season.
"Just by the number of throws, you could tell that they weren't as good of a team," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, an NFL Network analyst. "He was in the mid-500s in attempts the previous couple of years. They want to run the ball and play better defense [more] than have a quarterback throwing the ball over 600 times.
"I would bet if you could get Joe or Gary to sit down and say, 'What's a good year?' I think they may look at his 2009 season and say, 'Just under 600 throws, approaching 30 touchdowns, and keeping the interceptions between 10 and 12."
Flacco made his share of mistakes last season, but any evaluation has to mention the struggles of the offensive line, the Ravens' inability to run the football and the absence of two of his most trusted targets from their Super Bowl season. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded, and tight end Dennis Pitta missed all but four games with a hip injury.
The front office made fixing the offense around Flacco its top offseason priority. Enter Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and center Jeremy Zuttah. And Kubiak, of course, who has established a running game everywhere he has been.
"You look at Joe Flacco, and when you protect him, he's been tremendously efficient," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "Give him time and run the football. I think if they do those things, he's going to be a different guy."
A more reserved Joe?
A year ago, Flacco showed up at training camp a few months after winning the Super Bowl and getting a landmark $120.6million contract. He was brash and vocal, seemingly comfortable with his status as one of the top stars on the team in the post-Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era.
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This training camp, he was relatively quiet, avoiding playful banter with defensive teammates and bold proclamations to the media. He did plenty of talking with his offensive coaches and receivers.
"He's fixing things early," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "The way he is progressing, we can all see it."
Flacco did little research on Kubiak before their first meeting. He didn't call any quarterbacks who had played under the coach. He didn't watch tape of the Denver and Houston offenses whose plays Kubiak had called.
He didn't want preconceived notions of what it would be like. A couple of months into the transition, he's happy and confident, and the 2013 season feels so long ago.
"I don't really think we have a ceiling right now," Flacco said. "It all starts with the offensive line. We have a lot of weapons on the outside and behind me. If those guys continue to play well, we're going to be tough to stop."