Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a rollercoaster sophomore season, but at this point, he is just glad the ride has come to a stop.
Battered and severely bruised, Flacco's last throw of the 2009 campaign essentially sealed a 20-3 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. His second interception with 1:07 left at Lucas Oil Stadium was reminiscent of a rough slide for the signal-caller.
Flacco's final four contests saw him fail to amass a triple-digit passer rating, which fell to 10.0 against the New England Patriots in the wild-card round and 48.4 in Indianapolis. He tossed two touchdowns and four interceptions during that span.
It was a stark contrast to the way Flacco began, lighting opponents up for three 300-yard passing games over Baltimore's first six contests.
So, the question must be asked - did the former first-round draft pick regress as the year progressed?
Flacco, 25, doesn't think so. He believes any experience he can get with coordinator Cam Cameron's offense – good or bad – is a step forward.
"I think obviously, [in] your second year, you grew," noted Flacco. "And I think the second year as an offense, I think we grew as an offense and we took our next step. We just need to make sure we do all the right things in the offseason and come back and take that next step next year."
Needless to say, Flacco needs some recovery time as much as anybody in the NFL.
Hobbled by a severe contusion to his hip and quadriceps, Flacco endured major swelling during the last quarter of the season. Reports surfaced that he could not even sit down on a six-hour plane trip from Oakland, which Head Coach John Harbaugh* *denied.
"It was a six-hour flight, and I saw him sitting down, so I think he was able to sit down," Harbaugh said. "You get on a flight, and that's when swelling starts to happen a little bit more. I think Joe showed some real toughness throughout the last five, six weeks playing through that."
Despite never missing a game, Flacco walked with a limp before the Ravens' postseason loss at New England and had trouble dropping back smoothly in practices leading up to the Colts game, even though he wasn't listed on the injury report.
While Harbaugh said that Flacco played through the pain, the quarterback himself denied that he was affected.
"I feel pretty good," Flacco said. "I'll take some time off, relax and make sure I get everything as healthy as can be. [Then] I'll start working out again and eventually pick up a football, but the [next] season is a decent amount away now, so no big hurry."
Flacco, one of the Ravens' most-dedicated workers, generally kept his head down and ignored the criticism. Cameron was impressed with Flacco's ability to ignore the detractors, a quality all good quarterbacks have.
"That's what coordinators, head coaches and quarterbacks do," stated Cameron. "That's because we're really accountable to the big picture. That goes with the territory. If you're not cut out for that, then you're probably going to have to do something else.
"We don't look for praise. We expect criticism. We expect second-guessing. That's what makes this game so great. The great thing is, he's cut out for that. He can move beyond criticism, and every guy really can't do that."
Flacco's improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 cannot be overlooked when considering his entire body of work.
The University of Delaware product completed a franchise-record 63.1 percent of his passes for a career-high 3,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions during the regular season.
His yardage and touchdowns are second-best in Ravens single-season history.
And perhaps most importantly, he became the fourth quarterback in league history to reach the playoffs in his first two years.
Even so, Flacco isn't impressed with his personal accolades.
"It's a little fresh, but I think you look at it both ways," Flacco said. "I think when you're trying to be nice to yourself, you say how good of a season we had. When you're being realistic, I think we should have done better, and we could have done better. That's the way we feel. I think that's the way you've got to feel in order to be a good team, and that's why it doesn't feel good right now. So, we'll do our best to get over it and move on and try to get better toward next year."
Now, Flacco will step away from football for a short while before the Ravens' offseason conditioning program starts on March 15. Healing, both mentally and physically, should be his focus.
When he returns, the Ravens will begin the process of building on a foundation that only two years and 37 starts can bring.
The Ravens will also do whatever they can to aid that development, which translates to adding at more weapons around him – a playmaking wide receiver is critical – and receiving constant support from the coaching staff.
"Joe got better in so many ways, and there are so many ways he can get better," Harbaugh explained. "And there are so many ways we can help him be better from a coaching standpoint, from a personnel standpoint and from a developmental standpoint.
"He's going to work on getting stronger, quicker, more explosive. Fundamentally, he's going to work on throwing to receivers every single day and 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 some more progress, but I would say he's on schedule."