5 Reasons 2012 Will Be Joe Flacco's Breakout Year

James ReaganCorrespondent IIJuly 5, 2012

5 Reasons 2012 Will Be Joe Flacco's Breakout Year

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    Joe Flacco's fifth season in the NFL is going to be an important one. Not only will he be playing in the final season of his rookie deal, but he is going to be motivated after coming so close to the Super Bowl last year. Conditions are in place for 2012 to finally, truly, be the breakout season Baltimore Ravens fans have been clamoring for. 

    Of course, there will still be skeptics, and in some ways it's hard not to blame them. It's now a yearly tradition in the greater Baltimore area that every July and August, articles pop up saying this will be the year Flacco breaks out. 

    This gets Ravens fans excited and hopeful until around the midpoint of the season. By this point, Flacco's had some good games and he's had some awful ones. He'll have close to 2,000 passing yards with an unimpressive 10-to-6 touchdown/interception ratio.

    Although the Ravens usually have a winning record around this time, this is where the complaining typically begins. Despite Flacco's good-enough play at quarterback, fans whine about being stuck rooting for a team that does not have a stud quarterback. Unfair comparisons are drawn to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, who would definitely be perfect playing under center for the Ravens.

    Well, Brady and Rodgers are not the quarterbacks in Baltimore, while Flacco assuredly is the Ravens' franchise quarterback. And in 2012, just good enough will give way to elite quarterback play from Flacco. For real this time.

    Having trouble believing? Let's take a look at the overwhelming evidence that Flacco is ready to improve this season.  

1. Jim Caldwell Is an Upgrade at Quarterback Coach

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    Despite making it to the AFC Championship this past season, the Ravens still made some changes to their coaching staff. Perhaps the most noteworthy addition was that of Jim Caldwell as Ravens quarterbacks coach. This addition could also prove to be one of the most important ones of the Ravens' entire offseason.

    For the last three years, Caldwell was head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. To outside audiences, this mostly resulted in Caldwell standing on the sideline and not blinking while the Peyton Manning-led offense carried the team to consecutive AFC South titles. Whatever Caldwell was doing seemed to work, especially in the first year where he won his first 14 games and he became the fifth rookie head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. 

    Of course, things completely fell apart in Indy last year with the Manning injury and the resulting 2-14 season. This led to Caldwell's firing and, crazy as it sounds, a golden opportunity for the Ravens franchise.

    While not the best head coach, there is no disputing Caldwell's skills as a quarterback coach. In 2001, Caldwell helped instruct Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson, who became an efficient game manager and a Super Bowl champion the following season.

    There's also Manning, a surefire Hall of Famer who is in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all time. Caldwell deserves some credit for developing Manning as he was his quarterback coach from 2002-2008. This included three seasons where Manning won league MVP as well as the 2006 season where he won the Super Bowl.

    Flacco could definitely learn something from an accomplished quarterback instructor like Caldwell. In 2011, the Ravens opted against having a quarterback coach and instead they just increased the role of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. This led to Flacco taking a step backwards in 2011, with both his touchdown numbers and total passing yards declining.

    Remember, two years ago under the tutelage of Jim Zorn, Flacco threw for 3,622 passing yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those are his best numbers in all three categories. Should Caldwell prove to be a good teacher, it's reasonable to expect Flacco to improve upon his 2010 numbers. 

2. Losses on Defense Will Force Flacco to Be More Consistent

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    This may sound controversial to Ravens fans, but it's time to admit a simple truth: The defense is going to be worse than it was last season.

    It's a harsh reality but one that is inescapable with the kind of offseason the Ravens have had. Terrell Suggs was the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a player on the short list of greatest defenders in the game today. His Achilles injury is a huge blow for the defense, and even if he somehow plays in 2012, there's no way he'll be able to replicate what he did in 2011.

    To be fair, the Suggs injury is the only real area where the Ravens have gotten worse. It's quite possible Paul Krueger and Courtney Upshaw will do a good job taking his place, as well as the place of the criminally underrated Jarret Johnson, who departed via free agency. However, with Upshaw being a rookie and Krueger having little experience, don't be surprised if there's some growing pains.

    Without Suggs bringing a consistent pass rush, the defense could have some games where it struggles. Therefore, when Flacco and company get the ball, they'd better hold up their end of the bargain. 

    For too long in Baltimore, the defense has carried the team. There have been many seasons where simply getting in field goal range or not turning the ball over was enough for the offense. Now with the personnel in place (more on that in a later slide) and the losses on defense, the offense has no excuse for not reaching its full potential.

    Flacco has already shown in previous games he can step up his play when the defense is having an off day. Look at the game-winning drive verse the Pittsburgh Steelers last year after the defense allowed a late touchdown. Or look at the game against the Buffalo Bills in 2010 and the game against the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, where the offense had to overcome deficits of more than 14 points.

    The point is the Ravens are a strong enough team they shouldn't have to sweat the changes on defense. Flacco and the offense should be good enough to help ease the defense's transition period. 

3. With His Contract Up at the End of the Year, Flacco Needs to Prove His Worth

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    Ideally this summer was going to be when the Ravens addressed a new contract for Joe Flacco. However, given that it's July and there has been no progress with negotiations, it's looking unlikely the deal gets done before the season. This means Flacco will have to play out the final year of his rookie deal without the certainty of knowing what will happen next season.

    Strangely enough, the silence by both sides speaks volumes. Could it be that the Ravens front office is not altogether sold on Flacco as the starting quarterback? Is there any possible way he could see the open market next March?

    I previously mentioned the possibility of Flacco leaving the Ravens next season. However, it's my thought that both parties know they need each other to have maximum success. As popular as Tyrod Taylor is in the locker room, no one can seriously believe he could take over as starter without missing a beat.

    If Flacco can start 2012 well and continue to play the season at a high level, he should get a rich deal and there will be no talk of him leaving Baltimore. It's a tough place to be, but Flacco's dealt with adversity in his career from transferring down to a Division 1-AA team to his struggles with how the national media portrays him. He should be up for the challenge of proving he can be the Ravens' franchise quarterback.

    To his credit, Flacco doesn't seem to have any grudges against the Ravens front office. He's been active in attending the team's offseason OTA's and minicamps. He also hasn't complained about his contract and doesn't appear to be too distressed about it.  

4. His Offensive Supporting Cast Is as Strong as It's Ever Been

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    A common excuse made whenever the Ravens fail is the lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball. This excuse even worked in Joe Flacco's first couple seasons as he was throwing to washed-up players like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and busts like Demetrius Williams. 

    Well, the days where those excuses worked are over. The Ravens offense is now as talented as it's ever been with Flacco as a starter. In fact, this offense stacks up favorably with any in the franchise's brief history.

    Running back remains a position of strength thanks to Ray Rice, who finished with the second most rushing yards in the league last season. Even through the process of his holdout, Rice should still be expected to return and contribute to the offense right away. For the second season in a row, Rice will be helped out by Vonta Leach, who is arguably the best pure fullback in the game today.

    The receivers are highlighted by the young Torrey Smith, who may be the deep threat the team has longed for so long. There's also Anquan Boldin, who has led the team in receiving yards the last two seasons with 837 and 887 yards respectively. Both players are deserving starters that should be in line for great seasons in 2012.

    For once there's actually some depth behind them as well. Jacoby Jones could give the Ravens the third option that was nonexistent last season and he could also potentially give the Ravens some spark at returner. Second-year player Tandon Doss and undrafted rookie Deonte Thompson have impressed in offseason workouts so they could potentially give Flacco some more targets.

    In today's NFL, many teams are going with a two-tight end system. You wouldn't know it but the Ravens actually got on board the two-tight end system early when they drafted Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in the 2010 NFL draft.

    Though not on the level of New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Ravens' tight end duo did good last season. Dickson caught 54 passes for 528 yards and Pitta caught 40 passes for 405 yards. Both tight ends were among Flacco's first reads in pressure situations and it can only be expected that they will grow in 2012.   

5. Flacco Is Not Lacking in Confidence After Promising End to His 2011 Season

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    In case you forgot, a few months ago Joe Flacco said he is the best quarterback in the NFL. No, I did not forget to add "10th" or even "16th best," as most experts have him in that middle of the pack category. Flacco apparently thinks he is up to the level of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the Manning brothers. 

    While so many NFL experts were quick to discuss Flacco's comments, few of them bothered to put his comments in context. Flacco was doing a radio interview with a Baltimore radio station when he was asked where he thought he ranks among NFL quarterbacks. It's a somewhat loaded question that is tricky for anyone to answer.

    However, did you really expect Flacco to say he was average? Earlier in the offseason his agent had created a stir by saying Flacco should be paid top-five quarterback money. Flacco was going to back up what his agent said and also back up his own confidence.

    Now, I don't think that Flacco honestly believes he's the best quarterback in the NFL, but his confidence is a great trait to have and is absolutely essential in the brutal world of today's NFL. To become the best quarterback in the NFL, you have to believe it's possible for you to be the best.

    If you don't believe in yourself, you simply won't make it in the NFL. Look at Eli Manning and his comments before the 2011 season about being an elite quarterback. He backed it up with a Super Bowl title that has silenced his critics and surmounted his place among the NFL's elite quarterbacks.

    Flacco actually has a lot to be proud of from his brief four-year career. He was the first rookie quarterback to start all 16 games and then win two games in the playoffs. He is the first quarterback to start and win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons while his 44 regular-season wins are the most by any quarterback in their first four seasons.

    And as Ray Lewis says in the above video, Flacco played his tail off against the New England Patriots. Flacco finally had the good playoff game that his critics had thought wasn't possible. 

    What his critics also don't seem to realize is how winning a Super Bowl would impact Flacco's place in history. You take a Super Bowl win and add it to his other records, and what do you have? One of the best quarterbacks in the game and one who does not suffer from a lack of confidence.