Breaking Down How the Ravens Can Make Joe Flacco Look Even Better in 2013
Regardless of how the team manages to do it, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will be very handsomely paid in 2013. The reigning Super Bowl MVP was a huge reason why his team hoisted their second Lombardi trophy in franchise history, and now that he's in need of a contract, he'll be given enough money to recognize what he's accomplished for the team during his five-year career.
However, contracts in the NFL aren't just about what players have done in the past—they're also about what players can do in coming seasons. So if the Ravens are going to wrap up a significant chunk of their salary cap space to Flacco in 2013 and beyond, they'll need him to continue to perform at a high level.
Part of that is up to Flacco, but part of it is also the Ravens' responsibility—they need to provide Flacco with the tools to succeed. Here are five things the Ravens must do to set up Flacco to be an even better quarterback in 2013.
Don't Rein in Jim Caldwell
The shift from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell at offensive coordinator could be pinpointed as one of the biggest reasons why the Ravens had such a dominant postseason run. Caldwell will return as coordinator in 2013, and if the Ravens want to repeat the magic of their late 2012 season, then Caldwell needs to keep moving down the same path he forged when he took over the job.
What Caldwell did was make the offense about Joe Flacco—for real, however, rather than just paying lip service to the concept. With Cameron calling the plays, the offense was conservative and almost predictable. Though it suited Flacco's early years, when he was getting more comfortable to the rigors of playing quarterback at the professional level, the hand-holding simpleness of Cameron's approach eventually became archaic, while Flacco's progress under center demanded more.
Caldwell clearly believes in Flacco—not just in his big arm but also his ability to make decisions, to read defenses, to adjust, to make difficult throws and to be reliable in clutch situations. Caldwell knows when a quarterback is ready to be the center of the offense (after all, he has years of experience working with Peyton Manning), and when he got the coordinator job, he knew Flacco could handle that kind of pressure.
Caldwell is the perfect coordinator for this second phase of Flacco's career. If Flacco is going to take another leap in 2013, then head coach John Harbaugh has to let Caldwell continue to call the kinds of plays he did that ultimately led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win. If this is a quarterback-driven league, and the Ravens want to be a quarterback-driven team, then their quarterback-friendly offensive coordinator needs to have the freedom to push Flacco further.
The need for the Ravens to continue to be an aggressive offense ties into the need to allow Caldwell to continue to freely work his magic with Flacco. It's not just about asking Flacco to show off his strong arm and take shots deep down the field—something he did 123 times in 2012, more than any other quarterback in the league—it's also about the overall offensive philosophy.
We saw this a little bit at the beginning of the 2012 season, when the Ravens ran more no-huddle, hurry-up plays. However, that went away as the year wore on and didn't again return to the everyday oeuvre until Caldwell took Cameron's job. When they did employ it, however, Flacco looked sharp and the Ravens offense looked even more dangerous.
Every coach and coordinator in the NFL has stressed his desire to be more "attacking" on the field. The Ravens actually have the offense in place—and the quarterback in place, specifically—to do just that. Flacco has showed that he can be successfully aggressive and that, in doing so, the Ravens can win games, including the Super Bowl.
Some may look at Flacco's production over the course of his career as a sign that he cannot be the kind of aggressive quarterback needed in today's league. He's never had over 3,817 passing yards in a single season and he generally averages between 20 and 25 touchdowns per year. However, for the vast majority of his time with the Ravens he's been beholden to a coordinator who has held him back.
Flacco showed in the postseason that aggressive play calls are well-suited to his skills as a passer. With his leash lengthened, Flacco shined rather than struggled. It's a clear sign that the switch from Cameron to Caldwell was the right one, and the increased aggressiveness that came with it is something that Flacco can handle and execute well.
Offensive Line Stability
In the 2012 regular season, Flacco was sacked 35 times, which was nothing out of the ordinary for him (his average per-year sack total is 34.9). However, he was sacked only six times in the postseason, thanks to Harbaugh choosing to rearrange the Ravens' offensive line prior to the playoffs.
Though Matt Birk remained at center and Marshal Yanda at right guard, left tackle Michael Oher was swapped out for Bryant McKinnie, and right tackle Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard, taking over for Jah Reid. Oher then moved to right tackle, and the result was the best pass protection the Ravens have had for Flacco in years.
If Flacco is going to have a strong 2013 season, then keeping him protected is a major priority. Though in the Super Bowl Flacco seemed to have a more instinctive and overall better reaction to pressure than we've generally seen from him, Flacco's pocket awareness has been one of his areas of weakness overall.
In the 2012 regular season, Flacco saw pressure on 32.4 percent of his dropbacks, which ranked him 11th in the league. He threw 177 pressured passes, completing 68 of them or 46.3 percent, ranking him 14th. He had seven touchdowns on those 68 pressured completions and three interceptions, and, most notably, was sacked 18.9 percent of the time he dropped back under pressure, the seventh-highest sack percentage in the league.
In the postseason, Flacco was pressured less, seeing the pass rush on 27.6 percent of his dropbacks. However, he did throw more pressured passes than any other playoff quarterback, with 37. He was sacked on 16.2 percent of his pressured dropbacks—six times in four games—completed 48.4 percent of his passes under pressure and threw three touchdowns and no interceptions. Though it wasn't the best performance among the postseason quarterbacks, it was a noticeable improvement from his regular season.
Flacco's personal reaction to pressure had something to do with this, but much can be attributed to the line protecting him. As much as possible, this permutation of the line needs to be retained in 2013 if Flacco's development under pressure is to continue.
While this isn't entirely possible—longtime center Matt Birk has already announced his retirement, and 2012 draft pick Gino Gradkowski is his likely replacement—the rest of the line could theoretically reprise their roles in 2013. The main question mark is McKinnie, who is an unrestricted free agent this year and who spent much of the 2012 season in the doghouse until Oher's presence at left tackle could no longer be tolerated.
What becomes of Flacco's contract—or franchise tag—status will likely determine McKinnie's future in Baltimore. With other free agents seemingly of higher priority (like linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe), McKinnie won't likely be the first to see whatever leftover money the Ravens have after paying Flacco.
However, Flacco can only be as good as his offensive line. With left tackle an incredibly important position when it comes to quarterback protection, his ability to get better in 2013 will rely on who is tapped to do that job.
Oher isn't the right fit, having given up 10 sacks in the 2012 regular season, and moving Osemele to left tackle might not be the solution either, considering he gave up seven regular-season sacks himself as right tackle. Keeping McKinnie seems to be the Ravens' best-case scenario this year, but coming up with the money will be harder than coming to that conclusion.
Though Flacco's reaction to pressure appears to be getting better (and more time working with Caldwell should only improve things), a strong offensive line anchored by McKinnie at left tackle will only make it easier for Flacco to continue his development in 2013.
Don't Cut Anquan Boldin
Just as Flacco needs his offensive line to keep him well protected, he also needs a strong group of receivers around him to catch his passes and help him make plays. Flacco has seen quite the rotating cast of receivers in his time in Baltimore, and stability at the position should only serve to make him better.
While Torrey Smith is seen as the big-play scoring threat, his most reliable target has been veteran Anquan Boldin. Boldin was Flacco's top regular-season target in 2012, with 108 passes thrown his way. He caught 65 of them, for 921 yards and four touchdowns, and had just two drops.
Boldin also shined in the postseason, catching 22 of the 36 passes thrown to him, with 380 receiving yards and four touchdowns with one drop. What Boldin lacks in speed he makes up for in physicality—he can beat defenders with his power, rather than in a footrace, which makes him dangerous and unpredictable—as well as reliability.
In 2013, Boldin is set to make $6 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2014. That has prompted some to think that Boldin could be among the roster cuts to help get the Ravens further under the salary cap and help pay Flacco the potentially $20 million he could command this year. However, Flacco's success in the short term is intrinsically tied to having Boldin on the roster, and it's possible that Flacco takes a step back in 2013 without Boldin on the field.
As it presently stands, if Boldin is released from his contract, the next man up would be 2011 draft pick Tandon Doss. While it's not inconceivable that Doss takes a huge offseason leap this year, he played just 223 offensive snaps in 2012. The Ravens got more production out of full-time returner and part-time receiver Jacoby Jones over the course of the season, and they'd be better off with him in Boldin's role than Doss.
Granted, the Ravens could find an adequate replacement for Boldin in this year's draft, and even if Boldin does not get released they'll need to bolster their depth at receiver regardless. However, Boldin has proved himself to be a major part of Flacco's continued development as a quarterback, and Baltimore's offense as a whole will likely be better with him there in 2013 than if he's cut and subsequently retires.
More Play-Action Passing
Considering the Ravens have one of the best running backs in the league in Ray Rice and a promising up-and-comer in Bernard Pierce, clearly the run game is something that will assist Flacco's continued improvement in 2013. Aside from simply handing the ball off and not requiring Flacco to constantly bail out his offense, however, the backs can also give Flacco help when it comes to play-action passing.
When Cameron was coordinator, the cries were loud and often that the Ravens were simply not running the ball enough. Though Rice often had 15 to 20 carries per game in 2012, much of those touches during Cameron's tenure that season came early on. It wasn't just because Baltimore found itself playing from behind, either—it just wasn't a consistent priority for Cameron's Ravens offense.
Without enough running, Flacco's play-action passing attempts weren't terribly successful. Though Flacco ranked in the top 10 when it came to play-action attempts in 2012, his regular-season play-action completion percentage of 55.1 put him at the bottom of the league, and his 881 play-action passing yards was a middle-of-the-pack total.
When Cameron gave way to Caldwell, however, running and passing became more balanced, and play-action was thus more effective. For example, in the postseason, Flacco's play-action completion percentage jumped to 71.4 percent, though the percent of his passes in the play-action went up marginally, from 21.5 to 22.4. In Week 16, which was the first solid week with Caldwell calling the plays (he took over early in Week 15), Flacco's play-action completion percentage was well above his regular season average, at 62.5 percent.
Play-action passing can buy Flacco more time—thus helping him deal with pressure—and makes the Ravens' traditional passing offense, as well as their run game, more effective and unpredictable. Flacco hit his stride in 2012 once the offense became more varied and complex, so continuing to mix things up, including using the play-action pass in well thought-out situations, should only make him a better quarterback moving forward.
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