Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged publicly for the first time that quarterback Joe Flacco played despite a painful bruised right hip and quad in the latter stages of the regular season and postseason.
Previously, both Flacco and Harbaugh had dismissed questions about the injury, saying that it was not serious. And Flacco did not miss a game this season.
But after appearing to be hobbled during pre-game warmups against the New England Patriots in the AFC wild-card game, Flacco was not listed on the team's injury report in the week leading up to the divisional playoff showdown with the Indianapolis Colts because Harbaugh had said that the quarterback no longer required treatment for the injury.
On Tuesday, while denying an ESPN report that Flacco was forced to stand during the entire six-hour flight to Oakland for the regular-season finale against the Raiders, Harbaugh said Flacco played hurt.
"He had a bad contusion on his thigh, on the outside of his thigh and hip area there, and it swelled up," Harbaugh said. "And I think it was restrictive for him. If any of you guys have had that kind of a serious bruise, you know how much that hurts. ... And then you get on a flight and that's when the swelling starts to happen a bit. So, I think Joe showed some real toughness throughout the last five or six weeks, playing through that."
Flacco set a franchise record with a 63.1 completion percentage and posted career highs in passing yards (3,613) and touchdowns (21) during the regular season. Harbaugh said Flacco's development is continuing.
"Joe got better in so many ways, and there's so many ways he can get better, and there's so many ways we can help him be better -- from a coaching standpoint, from a personnel standpoint and from a developmental standpoint," Harbaugh said. "So, we're going to go to work on March 15. Joe's going to come back here, and he's going to work on getting stronger, quicker, more explosive. Fundamentally, he's going to work on throwing to receivers every single day to develop the kind of chemistry you want to have with those guys, and he's going to continue to grow. Second year to third year, I expect him to make more progress, and I would say that he's on schedule."
In defense of Lewis
In the aftermath of the 20-3 loss to the Colts, Harbaugh defended middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he launched himself into Austin Collie and forced the rookie wide receiver to drop a pass in the end zone.
Although Lewis was cited for what referee Carl Cheffers called "a blow to a defenseless receiver," Harbaugh said again that he saw it differently.
"The receiver caught the ball, was going to protect himself, and dropped his head to a certain level that was below his shoulder-pad level after Ray had committed to the tackle," Harbaugh said. "At that point in time, you're committed to the tackle. You're not going to stop. You can't stop in mid-air. It's not humanly possible. So, when he went in to make that play, he was definitely in the strike zone. The player ducked and got hit in the head. That's how I saw it."
Gaither plans to return
Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither, whose three-year rookie contract expires at season's end, is a restricted free agent, but he's confident he'll return to Baltimore next season.
"I'm not worried about the situation," Gaither said as he was cleaning out his locker. "I'm on this ballclub, and I'm pretty sure I'll be here. I'm just looking forward to a couple more years of playing with the ballclub."
Gaither said his focus in the offseason will be to get stronger, perhaps helping him avoid some of the injuries that plagued him this season. Gaither missed several games with a neck injury and was bothered by foot and ankle injuries late in the year.
"Definitely, my main focus is to get stronger and cut out some of the injuries for next season," Gaither said. "It was definitely tough mentally and physically [to battle injuries]. I just want to make sure I'm prepared week in and week out and make sure I'm ready."
While there is speculation the Ravens might eventually move right tackle Michael Oher to left tackle and move Gaither to the right side, Gaither was not overly concerned.
"I feel great about the situation, but that's ultimately up to the people upstairs," Gaither said. "I would love to be here with Mike for the rest of our careers. That would be great."
Ravens backup quarterback Troy Smith, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, said he appreciates the opportunity the team has given him the past three seasons but he and his agent are eager to see whether there is an opportunity for him to compete for a starting position.
"For the most part, my time here has been a tremendous time," Smith said. "I'm not saying it's over. I love the situation here. I love the people here."