Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron talks to quarterback… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
There is history to the system Cam Cameron brought to Baltimore two years ago that indicates this is the season Joe Flacco becomes a true franchise quarterback and the Ravens' offense goes from promising to prolific.
It's there in the record books. It's Dan Fouts' 33 touchdown passes in 1981. It's Kurt Warner's 4,830-yard passing season in 2001. It's Philip Rivers' 65.3 percent completion rate in 2008.
As the early part of Ravens training camp unfolds in Westminster amid Super Bowl hopes, it is prudent to consider the path — and the quarterbacks — Flacco follows.
He is in the third year of an offensive system that bedeviled NFL defenses under San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell in the 1980s, gave the St. Louis Rams a Super Bowl title after the 1999 season and made the Kansas City Chiefs the league's offensive beast over a five-year period during the past decade.
Air Coryell is the system. Cameron, the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and Al Saunders, their senior offensive assistant, are two of its leading practitioners. Cameron discovered the power and the nuance of the vertical passing game from Norv Turner in San Diego. Saunders learned firsthand under the late Coryell in San Diego — well enough to take the offense to new heights with the Chiefs.
Together, they will try to bring Flacco into the small but elite circle of quarterbacks who have mastered the system.
"Joe is going to flourish in this system," Cameron predicted. "It fits his skill set."
Although this is Saunders' first year as an on-field coach with the Ravens and just his second with the team, he sees the potential that made Flacco a first-round draft pick in 2008 out of Delaware, which plays in the second tier of college football.
"This will be a big year for him because he was part of a playoff team the last two years," Saunders said. "I think this year he will be the reason the team — in conjunction with the other players — he will be the player that takes this team to another level.
"[General manager] Ozzie Newsome's done a great job surrounding him with some people this year that should grow as the offense grows. Typically, this offense, in its third year, is its most productive time."
The proof is in the playoffs. The Ravens added playmakers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth to a passing game that was conservative in 2008 and hit-and-miss in 2009. Even so, Flacco got the team to the AFC championship game as a rookie and to the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season.
Cameron suggests that Flacco has only grazed the tip of the iceberg in his offensive progress.
"There are some things we have invested time in the last two years that we really haven't used a lot in games, because we really weren't efficient enough at it yet," Cameron said. "There are some things we're working on that hopefully will show this year. And really, it's not anything new that we put in. It's just something that now we're at a level I feel comfortable in calling it."
In his second season, Flacco increased his touchdown passes (from 14 to 21), passing yards (2,971 to 3,613) and completion percentage (.600 to .631) but was inconsistent late in the year when he was hurt and when Cameron rarely called for a deep ball down the middle of the field.
If history prevails, look for Flacco to uncork Pro Bowl-type numbers this season and the Ravens — still fortified by a dominant defense — to take a prominent seat at the postseason table.
A review of five quarterbacks who played in the Coryell system revealed progress that was dramatic in their third year as starters. Four passed for more than 4,000 yards, three threw more than 30 touchdown passes and only one failed to complete at least 63 percent of his throws.
Fouts stepped up big in 1981 with 33 touchdowns and 4,802 yards. Warner won the Super Bowl in 1999 but threw for career highs in yards (4,830), completions (375) and percentage (.687) two years later, falling just shy of winning another championship.
The Chiefs' Trent Green (2003) and the Chargers' Rivers (2008) also passed the 4,000-yard barrier in the third year. In 2004, Drew Brees, the Most Valuable Player of last season's Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, threw for 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions under Cameron and Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego.
Coryell's offense was so dominant, indeed radical, that it led the league in passing six straight years. Fouts threw for more than 4,000 yards three years in a row (1979-1981) and made it to the Hall of Fame but not the Super Bowl.
Warner's first three years in the system produced a staggering 98 touchdowns and 12,612 passing yards.