One year after guiding his team to an 11-5 record and to the AFC Championship game in his rookie season, Joe Flacco has created a complex and demanding act to repeat. But to simply repeat last year's success may not be good enough. Baltimore's expectations for the 2009 Ravens team are soaring, and Flacco has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
On a team that has made more than 15 starting quarterbacks since 1996 and for a city that has clamored for a franchise QB since the days of Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones, Flacco provided a spark with his consistency, poise and leadership in his first season out of Delaware.
But first-year success isn't a guarantee for the future. Dan Marino led his team to a Super Bowl in his second season. Ben Roethlisberger led his team to a Super Bowl victory in his. But for every quarterback who finds immense success so early in his career, there are many others, like Tim Couch, Chad Pennington and Vince Young, whose sophomore efforts don't measure up to their rookie years.
The entire coaching and scouting staff, know how good Flacco is and how good he can be. But at this point in his career, he is still developing, and the Ravens brain trust has taken an intelligent approach this offseason to ensure Flacco isn't shouldering the team's success on his own.
"Our approach is, 'How are we going to get better on offense?'" offensive coordinator Cam Cameron posed, noting the importance of the team collectively getting better, not just Flacco. "Everyone is collectively improving. The guys that we have coming back, and we'll see how the [draft picks] compare.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, is keenly aware of the need to help Flacco too. His offseason moves have proved that.
"It starts with protection," Newsome said, citing pass rushers like Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison as important variables to consider. "We know [Joe is] accurate. We know he can make all the throws. [If we can] keep him protected, if we can take care of Joe, Joe will take care of us."
The addition of first-round draft pick Michael Oher is already expected to improve Flacco and the offense in general. As director of player development Eric DeCosta said, "being able to protect [the team's] investment [in] Joe Flacco on the right side is critical."
Many times last season, the Ravens had to have extra blockers on the line to give Flacco more time to throw, which limited the number of receivers on the field. The coaching staff believes the addition of Oher will solidify the offensive line, giving Flacco more protection, more time to throw and more open targets.
As the team's first minicamp kicks off this weekend, Flacco will have his first opportunity to work with the 2009 offense. The offensive line was a significant focal point in the offseason. In addition to Oher, who is expected to compete for the starting right tackle position with Willie Anderson, Flacco will also have a new center in recently-signed free agent Matt Birk, who replaces Jason Brown.
Despite the numerous offseason additions, many believe the Ravens still need to address the wide receiver position, by acquiring a deep threat with whom the young quarterback could develop. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton were Flacco's main targets last season, but many of the team's other receivers were either not as productive or ended the season on injured-reserve.
Newsome has expressed confidence in the wider receiver corps as is, but reiterated his track record of constantly tinkering with the team up until opening day. The Ravens signed free agent L.J. Smith to bolster the tight end position, and there have been unconfirmed reports that the Ravens will be bringing in free agent wide receivers Jerry Porter, Kelley Washington, D.J. Hackett and Tab Perry this weekend to try out for the team.
But even on a team with improved depth on both sides of the ball, it's a quarterback's league, and all eyes will be on Flacco and his development this offseason. Cameron knows the importance of the position. Flacco knows it too.
"Everybody talks about helping Joe. Well the bottom line is, the best way that Joe can help us is Joe can get better," said Cameron. "Sometimes people start thinking about everybody but the quarterback. But the best way the quarterback can help himself is he can get better. And Joe's doing that."
Cameron said Flacco is significantly better than he was at the end of last season. He's been in the weight room. He's been watching film. He's been working with his receivers, all of whom have participated in the offseason conditioning program.
A revamped O-line and more depth at skill positions will help, as well as any future additions Newsome may plan on making. With a full year under Cameron's offense, 19 starts including three playoff appearances, Flacco appears well on his way to developing the way Newsome, Cameron, head coach John Harbaugh and the rest of Baltimore has hoped and envisioned.
Everybody is keen on seeing Joe Flacco take the next step. But with opening day against the Kansas City Chiefs still more than four months away, this weekend's mincamps will give us our first glimpse into what is ahead.