A fast learner

the education of joe flacco

Ravens' rookie quarterback is 'getting better every day'

November 09, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Through one tumultuous training camp and the first seven games of his Ravens career, Joe Flacco impressed with his demeanor, his aptitude and his ability.

Last week, he made a bigger statement: He bent a rookie's learning curve into a veteran's declaration.

Six weeks after Flacco first faced the Cleveland Browns' defense, he devoured it.

Forty-two days after he beat the Browns with a second-half splurge, he did it again. No fluke there.

"There were a couple plays in the first Cleveland game where he had a chance to throw it over their head," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Those same opportunities came up in the second game, and he took advantage of it."

Flacco threw no touchdown passes in a Sept. 21 win over the slow-starting Browns at home. Last Sunday in Cleveland, he threw two against a supposedly rejuvenated defense.

He had no pass plays of 20 or more yards in the September game. Last week, he had three.

Do the math and you come up with a quick study at a position where the Ravens have often used training wheels. What the Ravens get today in Houston in Flacco's ninth career start is a precocious player just starting to uncover his potential.

Halfway through Flacco's rookie season, there seems little doubt the Ravens made a wise and insightful decision when they took the former NCAA Division I-AA standout with the 18th pick of the first round of April's draft.

But Hue Jackson, the Ravens' quarterbacks coach, could have told you that months ago.

Jackson, who once coached Carson Palmer at Southern California, liked the response he got when he peppered Flacco with problematic questions at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.

And Jackson loved it when he went to Delaware for a workout with receivers Flacco had never seen and NFL balls he had never used. Flacco was unfazed; he passed the test with flying colors.

"It was sometime during the workout, or immediately after, that I told Cam, 'I think this is our guy,' " Jackson said last week.

"I spend a lot of time dealing with Joe. I know what Joe is, and I know what Joe isn't. What he is, is a tremendous young man first and foremost who has a burning desire to be the best at what he does. And what he's not, he's not a prima donna. He's not a guy that's going to get too big, because he has such great character and values, because his parents did a great job instilling that in him."

The early returns on Flacco's season offer glimpses of a quarterback who gets better as the game goes on, learns quickly from his mistakes and appears, at least outwardly, rattle-proof.

In his eight starts, Flacco is completing 55.6 percent of his first-half passes for 737 yards and 5.94 per attempt. In the second half, he is completing 70 percent of his throws for 727 yards and 7.57 per attempt.

Big plays? In his past three games, he has hit eight passes of 20 yards or longer. In his first five games, he hit just five.

His aggregate numbers are 61.8 percent for 1,464 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Asked to characterize Flacco's progress, wide receiver Derrick Mason spoke of a maturing offense.

"Steady, going up," Mason said. "If he were a stock, I'd be getting a lot of money right now. Joe has been doing a great job. He's been doing more than what the coaches have asked him to do. We've been able to open up the playbook more and more, I think, each week. Each week, we've done something different, something a little bit better."

As a former Delaware quarterback, Rich Gannon knows the path Flacco has traveled to the NFL. Gannon, now an analyst for CBS, spent 17 years with four teams in the NFL and went to four Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl before retiring in 2005.

Gannon said the transition from I-AA to the NFL is "significant in every phase" but acknowledges that Flacco has made the leap with aplomb.

"I think the staff and the organization realize this guy is a little further along than most in terms of mental capacity," Gannon said. "I don't want to say he's unflappable, but he's shown great poise. When he throws an interception, it doesn't bother him like other young players.

"The other thing that impresses me is when he makes a mistake, he usually gets it cleared up and doesn't make it again."

The biggest lesson Flacco, 23, had to learn so far is in ball security. He committed eight turnovers in his first five games, none in the past three.

"Just keep the ball," he said about what he has learned. "As long as you keep the ball, then you give yourself a chance every play. [And] the running game can help you out."

Cameron, however, resists the suggestion he has opened the playbook simply because of Flacco's growth.

"He's not the only young guy out there," Cameron said. "Ray Rice is a first-year guy. Le'Ron McClain is a second-year guy, Jared Gaither a second-year guy. It's not just Joe. We have an evolving, improving, growing offense, and we've got a lot of guys growing at the same time Joe is."

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