INDIANAPOLIS — While many teams are desperately looking for a franchise quarterback at the NFL Scouting Combine, the Ravens announced they will give more freedom to theirs.
"We'll put more and more into his hands," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. "I think going into his fourth year, maybe it will be a little more exponential and maybe people will see it a little bit more."
Since being drafted in the first round in 2008, Flacco has proven to be one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL.
He is just the third starting quarterback to reach the playoffs in his first three seasons since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He is the sixth in NFL history to throw for 10,000 yards in his first three seasons. And his 35 wins are the second-most by a quarterback in his first three seasons in NFL history.
That's why the limitations on Flacco's ability to audible and call plays have become such a hot topic. Those restraints came under fire in an October loss at New England, where Flacco explained why he ran a quarterback sneak into a crowd of defenders instead of calling an audible by saying, "We called it, and I went with it."
The reins are going to be loosened this season, according to Harbaugh.
"I would envision a bigger role for Joe intellectually that way, but he's been growing into that already," Harbaugh said. "He probably did a lot more last year than what a lot of people think. I think he's very smart. He's highly intelligent. He's got a great football IQ. He really understands the game."
Oakland coach Hue Jackson, who was Flacco's quarterbacks coach in 2008, agreed that Flacco can handle more responsibility.
"Spending as much time as I've had with him, I think it's time for him to make that next jump," Jackson said. "And I think he will."
Tweaking the system
Flacco has recently taken criticism for leading the NFL in "self-inflicted" sacks. According to a study by AOL Fanhouse, he was sacked 25 times when he held onto the ball for more than three seconds — which is five more times than any other NFL quarterback.
Some might say Flacco takes too long to make decisions, while others would say his receivers didn't create separation quickly enough (which prevented Flacco from getting rid of the ball quickly).
The Ravens can help Flacco lower that sack total by tweaking their system, Harbaugh said.
"I don't think we've been a great 'quick game' type of a team in the last three years for Joe," Harbaugh said. "So we'll build that quick game in there a little bit, and obviously the release time is going to be a little bit faster, and that will help those numbers a little bit."
The 6-foot-6, 238-pound Flacco can also help himself out by escaping pressure like Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
"Joe's a guy that can make plays by being creative," Harbaugh said. "That's something we really want him to do. He's capable of being a creative, playmaking quarterback, moving around the pocket, shrugging off guys.
"He's a big, strong guy that's only going to get stronger. He's way more athletic than what you think, and he made more of those plays down the stretch. I want to encourage him to make those plays."
Flacco isn't the only one who will be more involved in the offense. At the end of the season, Harbaugh indicated he will become more hands-on with an attack that finished a disappointing 22nd in the NFL.
"I think the head coach's input is important because it gives a lot of direction to the players and the coaches," Harbaugh said. "It helps Cam [Cameron, the Ravens' offensive coordinator] understand what's expected of him. We've had those conversations over the years. But now, it will be more directly involved in the X's and O's."
Freedom to speak
It's apparently fine for Flacco to have a voice inside the huddle and off the field. Harbaugh said he didn't have any problems with Flacco's expressing his displeasure over the firing of Jim Zorn.
Flacco was uncharacteristically outspoken at the end of January, saying he didn't agree with the Ravens' decision to part ways with the quarterbacks coach.
"Joe is a leader. Joe said the same thing to me," Harbaugh said. "Joe and I share that respect for Jim Zorn. Jim is a great coach and a great guy. For Joe to come out and say that publicly, I think it says a lot about Joe. It says a lot about what kind of person he is. He's got everybody's back. He's got Jim's back. He's got all our backs. And we have his back. And that's what it should be about."
After the season ended, Flacco said he heard that Zorn's job was in jeopardy. So he called Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to explain why Zorn should stay.
"The vibe I took was they were taking my opinion seriously," Flacco told The Sun in January. "But in the end, I guess they didn't. I wasn't surprised [by Zorn's firing], just disappointed."
Harbaugh said the Ravens did listen to Flacco's opinion.
"Joe and I spent a lot of time talking about it in the week and half leading up to that, trying to find the best way to make it work," Harbaugh said. "I took into account absolutely what Joe felt. But in the end, you have to go with what you think is right, and Joe understands that. We're all going to make it work."