Late Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Ravens’ locker room was almost empty as players showered, dressed and headed for the team bus and the flight home.
He smiled a lot, answered questions expansively, snapped off a few funny lines and even agreed to speak to a TV crew in Spanish, a language he said he doesn’t speak. Watching him, it was impossible not to notice that he seemed relaxed, at ease, confident.
Can you blame him? Think about what he’s seeing from the Ravens offense halfway through the preseason. The first-team line hasn’t allowed a sack in six possessions over two games. The zone stretch running game is booming, leading the NFL in yards per game. Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak has Flacco throwing to his fullback, tight ends, receivers.
A year ago, Flacco was sacked almost 50 times, constantly under duress. His favorite wideout was gone from the huddle, traded during the offseason. His favorite tight end was injured. His passing game was predictable. His running game was missing in action.
Although I’m ordinarily not one to make pronouncements based on what I’m seeing in the preseason, I feel safe in predicting that things are going to be different for the Ravens’ quarterback this season.
Not only is the offense rebuilt around him with a better line, more playmakers and a topnotch coordinator, but Flacco is 29 years old, in the prime of his career, his seventh season as a starter.
I think he’s going to have his best season in 2014.
That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly going to throw for a million yards and light up scoreboards like he’s playing a video game. Some people equate that, and only that, with high-quality quarterbacking, but Kubiak likes to run the ball as well as pass it, not air it out at all costs. Flacco’s first commandment will be to achieve balance.
Still, he will have plenty of chances to throw, the opportunity to carry the team.
So far in his career, he has averaged 224 passing yards per game and 3,591 per season, never reaching 4,000. Playing quarterback for Kubiak in Houston over a similar time frame, Matt Schaub averaged 34 more yards per game than Flacco and topped 4,000 in every season in which he started all 16 games.
With that in mind, Flacco – more accomplished and strong-armed than Schaub – sure seems like a good bet to top 4,000 for the first time in 2014, as long as he stays healthy. He might even top 4,000 by quite a bit.
As for his touchdown/interception ratio, which wasn’t very good (19/22) in 2013, it also should improve now that Flacco is in a more definitive, sure-handed system that offers sounder protection, gives him fast-paced progressions and asks him to unload the ball quicker. Schaub threw 124 touchdowns and 78 interceptions in seven seasons in Houston.
For months, there was speculation that Flacco might need to traverse a learning curve early in the season as he adjusted to Kubiak’s system. That may still happen, but he seems in command already.
“The way he is progressing, we can all see it,” receiver
The first-team offense has produced points on four of its six possessions (two touchdowns, two field goals). Sure, rocky stretches will arise. In fact, there was one Saturday night when the starters generated just three points on their first three possessions. The running game was tepid and Flacco seemed out of sync with his receivers. It looked like 2013 all over again, a frightful flashback.
But then Flacco heated up, drove the offense 96 yards to a touchdown and added another drive for a field goal late in the second quarter.
Late Saturday night, a reporter asked if he was feeling more comfortable in the new offense.
“No doubt about it,” Flacco said.
His preseason will conclude with a half or so of snaps against the Washington Redskins Saturday night, and then it’s time to count down to the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7. There is optimism about what might happen, how Flacco might fare, and in my view, that optimism is warranted.