|Jason La Canfora says Blaine Gabbert could learn from the way Joe Flacco's handled himself. (US Presswire)|
BALTIMORE -- This will be Joe Flacco's year.
Everyone in the Ravens organization senses it, and have since back in spring practices. This has become his football team. He is taking command of Baltimore's offense, and, since the early stages of the offseason, any time I brought up his name to a coach or teammate, the reaction was roughly the same: The days of Flacco being a talk-radio whipping boy, or subject of national debate, were over. He is evolving into an elite quarterback.
Let's make this clear: as impressive as Flacco was tonight at M&T Bank Stadium -- and this was a near-flawless performance against Jacksonville in the all-important third preseason game (a 48-17 Baltimore victory) -- that's hardly the genesis of this column. It's some nice tangible evidence of his continuing development, sure, but this has been building for quite some time, through four seasons of playoff appearances and Flacco's best offseason to date; as obvious in post-practice throws without an outsider around as it was to the 70,000-plus present for this exhibition.
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After his ups and downs with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the men have reached a stage where Flacco has unequivocally more of a voice in the offense, more freedom to audible. "I kind of feel like the things I'm saying are being taken a little bit better," said Flacco, who has pushed for more passing calls on running downs, in the red zone in particular, an area in which the team has struggled in the past. And, while always quite confident, Flacco has more of an obvious swagger now, teammates have observed, and is more of a teacher now.
"I'm trying to instill that confidence into everybody in the offense," Flacco said.
The Ravens still don't have the deepest offensive talent in the league, but they have surrounded Flacco with a bevy of recent draft picks in terms of receivers, and, with reigning defensive MVP Terrell Suggs possibly out all season recovering from an Achilles injury, and a daunting schedule ahead, it's time for this offense to leap forward both in terms of productivity and consistency.
It says here they will.
In fact, it would behoove the Ravens to get their quarterback secured to a long-term deal before this season begins, because if Flacco's performs as expected, in this the final year of his rookie deal, then his price tag is only going to soar. The sides made considerable progress on a long-term deal through the offseason, sources said, and it was a high priority for owner Steve Bisciotti, but they have not been able to finalize things and the Sept. 9 opener is fast approaching.
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The franchise tag, which the Ravens could theoretically apply each of the next two seasons (2013 and 2014) -- and make no mistake there is no way Flacco is leaving town anytime soon, extension or not -- was worth about $16.5 million this past season. Sounds like a fair enough average salary for Flacco to me. I'd go ahead and get that done.
I can assure you of this, the contract won't unnerve Flacco. I've talked to enough people close to him, who know him going back to his days on the Delaware campus, and he's plenty cool playing this thing out. He won't get flustered about it. He knows his play will dictate things. He isn't sweating it or bugging his agent for updates on the talks. He's chill.
This isn't a guy who hits the club or leads anything close to a lavish lifestyle. He's a homebody, a gym rat who couldn't tell you where any of the local hotspots are (as a Baltimore local myself, I have quizzed him on this numerous times; he has no clue). This is the kind of guy who rarely heads out for dinner, a big night out is a movie with his wife, and his life is consumed by his family (with a baby son born in June) and football.
So if he has a certain figure in his head about what his worth is, I suspect he will be perfectly content to let this play out on Sundays until that number is met. And the Ravens have an impeccable record of retaining, and rewarding, their best young talent. Don't risk spending more down the line. Don't risk Flacco sitting out all of the next offseason, a la Drew Brees, while on the franchise tag. Do it now.
I'm not one to go too gaga over any preseason performance, but if Flacco looks anything in the real games as he did tonight in carving up what was a strong Jaguars defense in 2011, then no one will begrudge him being paid like a top 10 quarterback.
He came out on the attack, Cameron letting him direct things on the field, using a faster pace which Flacco prefers (he's often found his best grooves in his first four season in two-minute drills). "There's definitely more of an emphasis on it this year," receiver Torrey Smith said.
The Ravens' first touchdown, which ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, came early in the second quarter and featured Flacco going shotgun, no-huddle almost exclusively throughout.
"We've been practicing very fast," Flacco said. "The no huddle puts a lot of pressure on the defense to the point where we can wear them out."
He was without two of his top targets (young tight ends Ed Dickson and close buddy Dennis Pitta), so he decided to make journeyman replacement Billy Bajema look like a world beater by placing touch passes in his hands. Flacco, who has yet to miss a snap with his sturdy 6-6 frame, may have the most powerful arm in the league, but it was the perfect loft to Boldin on a sideline route for an 18-yard gain on the first possession that showed his growth.
Flacco (27-for-36 for 266 yards and two touchdowns) never had more than two incompletions in a row, and found nine different receivers in all. He's struggled threading the ball over the middle of the field in the past, but was hitting every quadrant tonight. The only interception came with time expiring at the end of the first half, with Flacco throwing about 70 yards into the end zone to take a shot, knowing there could be no negative repercussions.
He picked up where he left off last season with Smith, entering his second year, connecting eight times for 103 yards. Flacco completed six passes of 15 yards or more, displayed his underrated elusiveness when under duress, and after opening the second half with another scoring drive was pulled from the game. No need to have him go the entire third quarter as was originally considered.
"He looked sharp, he did a great job," coach John Harbaugh said. "He was accurate with his throws. Guys made catches for him. The timing was good, real decisive. He did a really nice job all the way around."
Jacksonville's beleaguered starter Blaine Gabbert didn't fare as well, but continued to show signs of making a turn for the better himself. Like Flacco, Gabbert has been the subject of scorn, but much of it was brought on by himself by showing "chuck-and-duck" tendencies in his ugly rookie season.
Gabbert was sparkling through his first two preseason games, and, though muted by a stout defense tonight, still showed more poise and composure then he did as a rookie, standing tall when throwing from his end zone early, finding secondary receivers, and continuing to look like he has a true weapon in rookie receiver Justin Blackmon who had four catches for 72 yards, including nice grabs at the expense of Ed Reed, Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams -- part of a talented secondary).
But Gabbert suffered around the red zone, and this was clearly a step back from the previous games.
"I felt like he rushed some of the decision making the closer we got down to the red zone," said Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, who praised several of the youngster's throws. "I just thought down in the red zone, give it a little more time, let it develop."
If Gabbert is looking for a role model in turns of tuning out criticism, he could do a lot worse than the quarterback on the opposite sideline tonight. But I suspect Flacco won't be hearing nearly as much this season. And that payday might not be too far away, either.
- Ravens Rookie kicker Justin Tucker, having a sterling camp, was great again and hit a 53-yarder, handling all duties in this game.
- Veteran Billy Cundiff is in danger of being cut -- he missed a kick to send the AFC Championship Game into overtime -- perhaps as soon as this first round. Harbaugh praised Cundiff in his postgame comments but when asked about whether or not this competition will extend until the final cuts, said, "we'll see." The Ravens could save several million by going with the younger kicker, and I wouldn't be surprised if Cundiff is released.
- The Ravens lost special teams standout Emmanuel Cook for the season with a broken leg, Harbaugh said. Ravens safety Sean Considine suffered his second concussion in the last few weeks and could be out a while Mularkey said he did not have an update on the Jags injuries after the game.