Third year should be a charm for Flacco, Ravens' offense

Flacco's increased comfort zone in system could vault offense to new highs

August 01, 2010|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

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 portion of the Ravens' training camp unfolds in Westminster this week amid Super Bowl expectations, it is prudent to consider the path – and the quarterbacks – Flacco follows.

He is in the third year of an offensive system that first throttled NFL defenses under San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell in the 1980s, that gave the St. Louis Rams a Super Bowl title in 1999, and made Kansas City's Chiefs the league's offensive beast over a five-year period early in this decade.

Air Coryell is the system; Cameron, the Ravens offensive coordinator, and Al Saunders, their senior offensive assistant, are two of its leading practioners. Cameron discovered the power and the nuance of the vertical passing game from Norv Turner in San Diego. Saunders learned first-hand 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 mastered the system.

"Joe is going to flourish in this system," Cameron predicted. "It fits his skill set."

Although this is only Saunders' first year as an on-field coach with the Ravens – just his second with the team – he sees the same unlimited potential in Flacco that made him a first-round pick in 2008 out of 1-AA 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, in my opinion.

"[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 creatively 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 year.

Cameron suggests that Flacco has only grazed the tip of the iceberg in his offensive progression so far.

"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 (14 to 21), passing yards (2,971 to 3,613) and completion percentage ( 60.0 to 63.1), 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 dominant defense – to take a prominent seat at the postseason table.

A review of five quarterbacks who played in the Coryell system revealed a progression that was dramatic in their third year starting. Four passed for more than 4,000 yards in the third year, three threw more than 30 touchdowns 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 his Super Bowl in 1999, but threw for career-highs in yards (4,830), completions (375) and percentage (68.7) two years later.

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, last season's Super Bowl winner 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 – it led the league in passing six straight years. Fouts threw for more than 4,000 yards three years in a row (1979 to 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.

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