Sophomore Success?

No Longer A Pleasant Surprise, Flacco Faces Soaring Expectations

July 26, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

When Joe Flacco lines up under center this week at training camp, the Ravens quarterback will be staring at something bigger than a blitzing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

It'll be the mounting expectations from fans, news media, coaches and teammates.

He is no longer the small-school rookie who continually surprised everyone on the big stage. He is perhaps the most critical piece on a team that sees itself as a Super Bowl contender.

But the increased heat doesn't seem to faze Joe Cool.

"If you're not motivated by yourself at this level, you are not going to be successful," said Flacco, who will report to his second training camp Monday at McDaniel College in Westminster. "I don't need coaches or the media to motivate me. I don't need anybody. I already have the highest expectations you can have for yourself."

Last year, Flacco recorded one of the most memorable seasons for a rookie quarterback, becoming the first in NFL history to win two playoff games.

That same NFL history suggests Flacco will have a successful encore. Of the six previous rookie quarterbacks who led NFL teams to the postseason since 1970, four of them advanced to the playoffs in their second season. Two of them (Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger) guided their teams to the Super Bowl.

If Flacco could follow this same path, the 24-year-old would further validate himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league.

"He has a burning desire to prove last year wasn't a fluke," quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson said. "He wants to be better than he was last year. We need him to be better than he was last year. I think he understands that and respects that."

Flacco is ahead of the curve because he shouldn't have started most of last season. An injury to Kyle Boller and an illness to Troy Smith allowed Flacco to leapfrog from the No. 3 quarterback to starter just weeks before the season opener.

It was a rough start for the former University of Delaware star, who threw one touchdown pass and seven interceptions in his first five games. Then Flacco found his rhythm and confidence in the last 11 regular-season games, passing for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 90.2 rating.

The Ravens are banking that this strong finish carries over into this season. Their offense would be dangerous if Flacco could control a game with his arm.

"The greatest improvement is from Year 1 to Year 2," veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "Not one to four or two to six. I think he will make a big improvement."

The improvement was noticed immediately during the first minicamps this year.

Last year, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was standing behind Flacco, telling him the plays. This year, Flacco was running the no-huddle offense.

"We have come a long way," receiver Mark Clayton said.

One goal for Flacco is to raise his completion percentage. Last season, he connected on 60 percent of his throws, which ranked 20th in the NFL.

Another focus is throwing over the middle. Last season, he threw one touchdown pass and three interceptions in the most congested part of the field for a 47.4 rating.

But Flacco wouldn't trade any of his experiences from last season.

"In my mind, it would be so bad right now if I sat last year," he said. "You can't replace playing 19 games in an NFL season. The experience I gained through that is incredible. I feel like this is going to make me a better player. And that's going to make us a better team."

Working against Flacco is that the team around him might not have significantly improved.

The only major additions to the passing attack have been journeyman wide receiver Kelley Washington and often-injured tight end L.J. Smith. The team signed former St. Louis Ram Drew Bennett to a one-year deal Friday after a tryout that featured four wide receivers.

If Derrick Mason doesn't change his mind about retiring, the Ravens' top wide receiver would be Clayton, who has surpassed 50 catches in a season only once.

Flacco, who has yet to speak publicly since Mason's announcement, could talk to reporters as early as Monday.

"I know expectations are high, but a lot of Joe's success will be due to what the guys around him do," Cameron said. "That's the key. Joe is not going to go out there and do it by himself."

Flacco, though, is putting more on himself this season. Last week - days before he had to report to camp - he was working out at Ravens headquarters.

"He has come out and taken ownership of this offense," tight end Todd Heap said. "I think everyone notices it. I don't think we're going to have to worry about the ball being where it's supposed to be. Last year he showed he could do it. I think that he is going to be even better this year."

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