Going into his first pro training camp last season former Delaware Blue Hen QB Joe Flacco had no thought of being the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens come opening day, but fate, as fate often does, had other plans. Flacco didn't have the luxury of practicing with the first string offense throughout Training Camp, but Kyle Boller went down with a shoulder injury, and Troy Smith was sidelined with an infection from Tonsillitis, Flacco stepped up to the plate. After a rocky beginning, one in which he threw only one touchdown and 7 interceptions, Flacco made adjustments and went on to throw 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions after the halfway mark of the season. You could see a player who was growing up quickly when thrust into a tough situation.
One of the biggest reasons Flacco was able to get better as the season progressed is his dedication to be the best he can be. Sure, lots of players claim to want to be the best, but few put in the hard work necessary to achieve that goal. Not so with Flacco. During the season he was the first to arrive at the Ravens training facility, and often the last to leave. The coaches would fax him the game plan on Thursday evenings, and Flacco would study them to the smallest detail so that come game day he knew it by heart. If any of it overwhelmed him, he certainly never let it show. His fellow players, and his coaches marveled at his calm demeanor, giving him the moniker "Cool Joe".
Recently, Flacco admitted that last season was tough. He didn't know his team mates very well, and didn't know the coaches that well either. It was a huge learning process, and one that is now behind him.
So, what will be the expectations for "Cool Joe" going into his sophomore season?
There has been much hand wringing by fans that the team failed to get Flacco a much coveted "game breaking" receiver this off season. Face it, for much of last season the team was relegated to a two receiver set , with only Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton lining up on the outside. The Steelers in particular took advantage of this lack of outside depth and flooded the secondary with defenders in the AFC Championship Game, giving Flacco no other option then to try and force his passes into close coverage, a decision that spelled doom for the Ravens hopes for a Super Bowl bid as Flacco was intercepted three times.
While the Ravens front office wasn't able to get that coveted game breaking receiver everyone had hoped for, there is every reason to believe this season will see the Ravens passing game improve markedly. For starters Demetrius Williams seems to have recovered from the ankle injury that sidelined him for most of last season, giving the team a viable threat on the outside. If Williams can stay healthy for an entire season, something he hasn't done since his rookie year in 2006, then the Ravens will be able to field more three receiver sets, making the opposing defenses job a lot harder. Williams has the speed, and the hands to be an elite player in the league. The Ravens hope he has the durability to match.
Even if Williams doesn't make it through the entire season there are others ready to step up and fill the void. The recent acquisition of veteran wide receiver Kelley Washington gives the team another option as a slot receiver. Washington has shown good hands, and crisp route running during the recent OTA's, and could become a weapon in Red Zone opportunities. Washington has always been stuck behind more gifted receivers during his stints with the Bengals and Patriots, but this could be his time to shine.
Another receiver to watch is Marcus Smith, who is entering his second year. NFL.com's Combine overview of Smith was highly complimentary, " A size/speed prospect who produced the breakout season many predicted in 2007, attaining first team All-Mountain West accolades with 91 catches for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns. Used as an all-purpose runner and receiver early in his career, he became a go-to playmaker for his quarterbacks." Smith has shown signs of being able to have a breakout season with his showing during the recent passing camps. He sees the opportunity before him and is ready to make the most of it. If he continues to progress at this rate we could be seeing him line up across from Williams for a speed package on the outside.
But, the most important difference for any of the receivers the Ravens put on the field is a better quarterback throwing the ball to them, and Flacco has shown that he's ready to take the next step in becoming an elite NFL QB. He acknowledges that things are moving much slower for him during the recent team activities. He's went from having Cam Cameron stand behind him telling him the plays during practice, as was the case last season, to aligning his receivers and linemen at his own direction. His knowledge of the game is better then last season, and his confidence level is much higher as well, which bodes well for an improved performance this year.
The team hopes to have Flacco utilize the middle of the field more this season, something they shyed away from last year as they kept most of the passing plays to the outside to minimize the chances of interceptions. Now the intention is to have Flacco use all of the field, giving the Ravens offense the ability to spread out the defense, and produce more one on one coverage situations. With Flacco's strong and accurate arm the result could be an aerial attack that becomes a difference maker when facing teams such as the Steelers.
Joe Flacco has the temperament, the skills, and a good enough corp of receivers to elevate the Ravens passing attack to a new level, and there's no reason to think that he won't. I believe that by the middle of this season Flacco will be among the league leaders at his position, and at the very least considering the teams penchant for being a run first offense, a much better quarterback then the one who was thrown to the wolves in 2008. This will be a defining year for Joe Flacco, and I'm betting he'll be up for the challenge.