Joe Flacco’s accuracy was scrutinized throughout the 2011 season, from his 15-for-32 passing performance in a Week 2 loss to the Tennessee Titans to the AFC divisional round win over the Houston Texans, in which Flacco connected with receivers on just 14 of his 27 attempts. His 57.6 completion percentage was a career-low and also the first time it had dipped below 60 percent.
Looking at his splits, there wasn't much fluctuation in his completion percentage; it didn't seem to matter if he was indoors or outside, at home or on the road, or winning or losing at the time. In each of those situations, the completion percentage held steady between 55 and 60 percent.
But in a few individual games, his aim was scattershot. More than half of Flacco’s throws hit the turf in four of his starts. Interestingly, two of them came against the lowly Cleveland Browns. Another was the Week 4 victory over the New York Jets in which he completed just 10 of his 31 attempts and had an interception returned for a touchdown by Jets linebacker David Harris.
On Saturday, six months removed from the end of the 2011 season, I asked Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to reminisce and try to put a finger on what caused the dip in Flacco’s completion percentage (Flacco also tied a career-high with 12 interceptions last year).
“Completion percentage is an offensive stat,” said Cameron, whose contract was renewed after the season ended. “Obviously, the quarterback is saddled with it, and there are some areas that we need to improve on as an offense and every man executing his job, protection getting better, receivers getting better, Joe getting better, everybody getting better. His accuracy throughout the course of the year was really outstanding. We didn’t, as a unit, execute the way we needed to, and we have addressed that this whole offseason, and I think our guys are committed to making sure our offensive completion percentage is where we want it to be.”
One sentence of that statement really stood out. Flacco’s accuracy “was really outstanding.” You may not agree with that assessment, but I like the point he was making: While Flacco was often the one who threw the football, he wasn’t totally to blame for the extra incompletions.
Plus, Flacco had to develop chemistry on the fly with most of his wide receivers due to the lockout. Entering the season, only one of the team’s wide receivers had actually caught a pass from Flacco (Anquan Boldin). Three of the five wideouts were rookies (Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams). Lee Evans had been productive before coming to Baltimore, but he arrived midway through training camp and would soon sit out seven games with a foot injury.
(An aside: I learned from the Football Outsiders almanac that the Ravens threw a league-low five percent of passes to wide receivers that were third or lower on the depth chart. Evans was targeted 26 times; somehow catching just four passes. Williams had four grabs on 12 targets. Doss did not record a catch. Think the battle to be the No. 3 wideout in camp isn’t important?)
Back to Flacco. In his first eight starts of 2011, he completed 54.7 percent of his passes and had a 76.9 rating. In the final eight games, he completed 61.4 percent with an 86.1 rating. Clearly, as he got more comfortable with his targets (particularly Smith), fewer passes fell incomplete.
Smith, Williams and Doss all look to have improved after getting their first real NFL offseasons. They have talked about the benefits of participating in the offseason strength and conditioning program. Williams and Doss in particular have turned heads early in training camp. (Smith set his bar much higher in his record-setting rookie year, so our heads are already turned there.)
Considering their individual development, and the collective development of chemistry and continuity with Flacco -- you can lump in third-year tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, as well -- there is reason to believe that Flacco’s completion percentage will not only rise to back above 60 percent this season, but that he will also top his career-high of 63.1 (set back in 2009).
Cameron, who was full of sunshine Saturday as he raved about many of his players, is expecting big things from Flacco as the fifth-year quarterback starts the final year of his rookie contract.
“He has all the characteristics, as you guys have heard me say and everyone around here has said before, for the kind of quarterbacks that win at this league and win big,” said Cameron, who noted that he can’t remember the last time Flacco had a bad practice. “It’s fun to watch him practice, watch him compete. You guys had a chance to talk to him a couple of days ago, and I think you guys know where his mind is and what he is going to get done. This guy is a special player, but I think you guys all sense now, this is a special man. This is a special, special guy we have here.”