Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the return of quarterback Joe Flacco to the offense. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The sight the Ravens have been waiting for since late July finally materialized Saturday as starting quarterback Joe Flacco jogged into the indoor practice facility at 1 p.m. and immediately stepped in with the first-team offense.
Eight days before the Ravens' regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco practiced for the first time since the team's mandatory minicamp in mid-June.
He made all the throws and didn't appear to be visibly limited by the back injury that has kept him off the field for the past month and led to much angst about the state of the Ravens offense.
"It feels good to be back out here with the guys and be a part of everything again," Flacco said in a statement issued by the team after the practice. He's expected to speak to reporters Wednesday.
"Really, it's been a weird situation the last few weeks, because it's just something you have to wait out. You're putting in all the hard work you can, but at the same time, it's a waiting game. You definitely have to fight against not doing anything, but also keep your mind fresh. But for today, it was awesome being back on the field — just like it always is — and to be with my guys. I feel excited about the season we have coming up."
Saturday was an uplifting day for the Ravens, who have dealt with myriad injuries all summer, particularly to their front-line offensive players. Not only did Flacco return to the field Saturday, but so did running back Danny Woodhead and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who both have been dealing with hamstring injuries.
Suddenly, an offense that has struggled for much of the summer looked whole again.
"It is good, because what you think you see or what you're trying to create in your mind, what it's going to look like, you actually see what it looks like," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's the first day where they've all been together — it's just today. But, all the pieces have been working, independently and separately. But to plug guys in and to see that it goes so cohesively, I think is very encouraging. So, now our focus can be on Cincinnati, getting our game plan organized and ready to roll, and going and playing the game."
Harbaugh said Flacco looked good and practiced well. Now, the team will monitor him to see how he recovers from his first extensive action in a few months.
The team originally announced that Flacco would likely only miss a week with the back injury. However, the Ravens announced two weeks into camp that Flacco would not play during the preseason, but he would start practicing at some point.
Harbaugh had grown tired this summer of being asked about his starting quarterback's status. Earlier this week, though, he provided the first positive news on Flacco in several weeks when he acknowledged that the quarterback had started throwing again. All that was left was for Flacco to get clearance from the trainer. He received it in time to be on the field for the team's first full practice since Thursday's preseason finale.
"He looked like Joe — a pretty good quarterback," Woodhead said. "It's nice to have him. We have all the faith in all of our guys, but when you have [No.] 5 out there, it's great."
Flacco has been attending all of the offensive meetings and also regularly talks with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. However, he has not been on the sidelines for any of the preseason games and has rarely been seen by reporters anywhere near the field during practices, spurring even more questions about his status.
Harbaugh said earlier this week that Flacco, 32, has been rehabilitating and is in good cardiovascular shape, but he'll need to work to get into football shape.
If he plays next Sunday in Cincinnati, and that is the expectation, it will be his 10th regular-season-opening start for the Ravens. Over nine NFL seasons, Flacco has missed just six games and all those came in 2015 when he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in a game against the St. Louis Rams.
"I think it's always a concern as far as the timing and the precision and all that with what you do," Harbaugh said. "I'm sure that'll be something that we'll be working on all year. There will be things every game that we'll need to improve on. But having those guys together, so that process can be ongoing, is good. I think it's important to do that, but the right pieces tend to fall in place well."
A healthy Flacco is a key to the Ravens returning to the postseason after missing it in consecutive seasons and in three of the past four years. The Ravens believe their defense is significantly upgraded and they've improved the offensive cast around Flacco with the additions of Woodhead and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. They also are focused on taking pressure off Flacco by running the ball more and being more balanced on offense.
With veteran backup Ryan Mallett at the helm, the Ravens offense struggled mightily in the preseason. While players defended Mallett from outside criticism, they made it clear that things will be different with Flacco back under center.
On Saturday, they finally got their wish.
"It felt real good just having everybody back, having everybody back in the swing of things," Perriman said. "We're just all getting our chemistry back, but I feel like we didn't lose too much of a step at all."