Who says the rookie year in the NFL is always the hardest?
For Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh, the first year at the helm of the Baltimore Ravens meant two playoff wins and an AFC Championship appearance, despite last year’s record of 5-11. That record was good enough for the last spot in the AFC North.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was the Ravens’ top draft choice out of Delaware in 2007. He, along with second-pick Ray Rice from Rutgers, turned out to have a huge impact on the season. Flacco found a starting job in the Ravens lineup after Steve McNair’s retirement, and injuries to Kyle Boller and Troy Smith. He was set to lead a team predicted to finish at or near the bottom of the conference for the second year in a row.
Flacco was not the only new face in Baltimore. John Harbaugh was brought in as the new head coach after many successful years as the defensive backs coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. With the departure of Brian Billick, Harbaugh had big shoes to fill and big steps to take in order to turn around the struggling Ravens. Without the powerful defense the NFL had come to respect, a losing season was a virtual certainty.
Baltimore lost three of its first five games to open the 2008 season. Flacco threw just one touchdown to seven interceptions through his first six starts, but completely turned himself around in the following weeks, throwing seven touchdowns and getting picked just once. Baltimore won five of its last six games and earned the No. 6 seed as a wild-card in the playoffs.
In that wild-card round at the Miami Dolphins, Flacco became only the third rookie quarterback in NFL history to win his first postseason start, and the first to do so on the road. The Ravens continued the following week with a win over top-seeded Tennessee before losing in the AFC Championship to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time in the season.
A heartbreaker, yes, and a tough way to end the magical season. But it is one that Harbaugh and Flacco should be quite proud of. A turnaround from a 5-11 season to a 13-6 season with a rookie head coach and quarterback is almost unheard of.
Five representatives were selected to the Pro Bowl, including superstars Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Reed led the team with nine interceptions and three defensive touchdowns on the year, and Lewis led the team in tackles with 117.
With Lewis a free agent in the offseason, his re-signing (as well as that of Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, and Matt Stover) is crucial to continuing Baltimore’s defensive and special teams success.
Look for the Ravens to pick up a wide receiver within the first couple rounds of the upcoming draft in order to develop some talent for the offense. Don’t be surprised if Baltimore re-signs all its star defensive players, regardless of pay, in order to make up for the departure of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
If all goes to plan, Harbaugh and Flacco will have more to look forward to next year than just a simple playoff berth.