If you're a fan of the Baltimore Ravens, you have to be pleased with how quarterback Joe Flacco has developed. Last year, as a rookie, he threw for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. The stats are definitely not mind-boggling, but he did a phenomenal job progressing as the year went on.
In the first five games of the season, the Ravens were a measly 2-3, and Flacco threw for one touchdown and seven interceptions, and didn't look at all like the franchise quarterback the Ravens had thought he'd be.
However, during the last 11 games of the season, the Ravens were 9-2, and Flacco was 167-of-284, throwing for 2,127 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just five interceptions.
He looked like a completely changed quarterback, especially in the last two games. After a heartbreaking 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home that killed chances of an AFC North Title, Flacco and the Ravens would play in Dallas—a hostile environment in itself—nevermind that it was the last game at Texas Stadium.
Flacco would face off against a very underrated Dallas defense that finished first in the league in total sacks, and fifth overall in passing yards allowed. Flacco would have to outduel Tony Romo, a sometimes elite quarterback who can consistently throw for 4,000 yards a year.
However, Flacco looked like the seasoned veteran while Romo looked like the rattled rookie.
In a 33-24 victory, Flacco was 17-for-25 with 149 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. However, the Ravens still would have to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars at home to make the playoffs. It was simple: win and you're in. Flacco led the Ravens to the playoffs in a 27-7 win.
But he looked so different. He didn't look like an efficient, caretaker quarterback who would let his defense do all the work. He looked elite. In the game, Flacco was 17-for-23, throwing for 297 yards. He didn't throw any touchdown passes, but that's mainly because once the Ravens are deep in opponents' territory, they decide to run the ball.
The 24-year old quarterback couldn't get anything done in the playoffs, but, who could expect it? In a 27-9 win over the Miami Dolphins, he was just 9-of-23 with 135 yards, but ran for a touchdown.
While nine completions in 23 attempts isn't impressive, he showed good poise, never folding, even completing his first postseason pass to wide receiver Derrick Mason.
In a 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans the following week, he was nothing special, but did a good job for a rookie, going 11-of-22 with 161 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions, including a 48 yard touchdown pass to Mason.
The next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship went as expected. The Ravens were playing a game for their 18th consecutive week, nevermind that it was against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens gained just under 200 yards of total offense, losing 23-14.
While Flacco's performance was terrible, it's not as bad as some portray it. He was 13-of-30 with three interceptions, but, realistically, only one of those interceptions were Flacco's fault. One of them was a tipped pass to running back Ray Rice, and another was misjudged by wide receiver Derrick Mason.
Quarterbacks look for the endorsement among teammates. On the field, they are in charge. Flacco has always been 'the guy' in linebacker Ray Lewis' mind. "Joe is light years ahead of where he should be, just like last year as a rookie. He's always trying to fix something," said the future Hall of Famer.
He is very well respected by his teammates, and they know they finally have a leader on the offensive side of the ball, not just Lewis. He has also learned respect for respecting his teammates.
When reporters ask about the team not drafting a wide receiver, Flacco has defended the wide receiving corps he has, featuring Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, and Kelley Washington.
Flacco says wide receiver has never been a need, explaining: "We had a pretty darn good team last year, and obviously it was with the guys we had, so we don't need anyone else." The question now is: Will he experience the sophomore slump? I may sound like a homer, but I very much doubt it. He fits the John Harbaugh mentality of "team first."
During the offseason, he improved his leg strength. If it was one thing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was good at, it was avoiding pressure. During the offseason, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson wanted Joe to improve his lower body strength.
"It's time for Joe to make the next jump. I want him to improve in every aspect. That's the expectation. It's something we know he's going to do," said Jackson. When you see Flacco play, you notice the obvious arm strength.
In a workout with TestSportsClubs, where he trained with former NFL quarterback Scott Bruener, who worked on him with his footwork. When he threw a pass on the run, all the receiver could say was, "wow". I'm not here to tell you Flacco will have a Drew Brees-like season next year statistically speaking.
What I am here to tell you, however, is that he won't experience a sophomore slump. As USA Today writer Jim Corbett put it, "Flacco isn't flashy or interested in stardom. He's the hardworking poster for Harbaugh's team first program, though his wit and focus aren't evident to outsiders."
That's just it. Flacco won't have a sophomore slump because he's a hard worker, a leader, and unlike Chad Johnson, he lets his play speak for itself. He didn't feel the need to be just another out-of-touch-with-reality athlete.
He fits Harbaugh's new team identity to perfection.