Remember how Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco performed in last season's AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots? Well, if the Ravens' offensive starters played the entirety of this week's preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it looks like Flacco would have easily had yet another 300-plus yard passing performance.
Flacco, in what is considered the "dress rehearsal" week for many teams in the NFL, took the reins of his offense as hoped, spreading the ball around, throwing while under duress and, in an about-face from what we've seen from Flacco in years prior, calling audibles at the line.
Once the first-team offense left the field, one thing was made clear—there's going to be a far greater emphasis on the passing game for the Ravens this season.
Of course, there's no way that what we saw tonight will be a regular occurrence considering the brief time we saw starting—and highly paid—running back Ray Rice on the field. But you could also tell that this was a calculated move, one that allowed Flacco to take more responsibility for his offense's performance. If it was a test, he certainly passed.
In Flacco's time on the field, which lasted into the third quarter, he threw an astounding 36 passes, with 27 completions for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an inconsequential, half-ending Hail Mary interception.
Nine receivers saw Flacco's attention: tight end Billy Bajema, running backs Rice, Bernard Pierce and Bobby Rainey, receivers Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss and Torrey Smith and fullback Vonta Leach. Five of these receivers had three or more catches, including Smith, who ended his night with eight receptions on 11 targets and 103 yards.
In contrast, with Flacco under center, the Ravens' backs had just 10 carries for 44 yards, with Pierce and Rainey most prominently featured.
Flacco did show flashes of his issues with pressure, but he handled the pass rush—when it came—far better than we've seen in seasons past. We saw him show off some of his under-appreciated mobility and it was clear that it made a difference for his confidence, with Smith returning to the field after missing time with an ankle sprain.
The goal for this year, one in which Flacco is hoping to get a lucrative contract extension, is to make this offense fully his. The trust inherent in allowing him to frequently call audibles, while also putting extra pressure on him in no-huddle situations, shows that Flacco is ready to take the next step as a passer, even if it was only a preseason game.
He responded well to the heightened expectations and gave us a glimpse of the Flacco we're likely to see during the regular season.
Flacco's never been truly appreciated as a leader, but as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he clearly must possess leadership, maturity and the ability to command respect from his teammates. It's just that, apparently until now, he's not been fully allowed to demonstrate these skills.
Where once it was a liability when Flacco was asked to throw that much, it turned out to work. The Jaguars don't have a terrible defense, but Flacco didn't look as shaken as he used to under duress and was able to adapt. He threw while hits were imminent and still made smart decisions—which is always a good sign of a quarterback's growth.
There aren't many statements a team can make in a preseason game, but the Ravens came as close as possible against the Jaguars: This is Joe Flacco's team, and he's ready to take that leap.