Only one type of NFL player is subject to more scrutiny than a starting quarterback:
A rookie starting quarterback.
I've been reminded of this every day since we drafted Joe Flacco just over five months ago. And to make this notion even more volatile, we're in the midst of a three-game losing streak. With a skid like that comes media and fans voicing their thoughts on what's right or wrong with Joe and why he is or isn't the man for the job.
Some of the criticism is valid. Some is not. Either way, you quickly realize in this business that such analysis and pressure comes with the territory.
Yesterday, I had a good conversation with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron about the ups and downs our team has experienced so far. Naturally, we gravitated to the topic of Joe's play.
I asked him about Joe's progression and how – as an offense – we've fared. Initially, Cam pointed out opportunities the entire unit has missed and the importance of attention to detail.
"We need to capitalize on those," he said. "We have to get better. Our play needs to be more consistent, and we're working hard to make that happen. It falls on me, it falls on Joe, and it falls on every member of this offense."
Then, the topic turned more specifically to Flacco. Here's how our conversation went:
Me: "Is it fair to say Joe gets better every practice?"
Cam: "No. It's not."
Me: "Really? Well how about every game?"
Cam: "No. That's not true either."
Surprised and, admittedly, somewhat disappointed, I shot Cam a puzzled look.
He then grinned, and with a glimmer in his eyes, confidently responded: "Joe gets better every single play. Be it practice or in a game, every time we run a play, I see him progress. I'm not kidding. He gets better with each snap he takes."
Cam went on to point out how our first five games have been an outstanding education for Joe. What most people don't realize is the Ravens have faced a different style of defense every week. Amazingly four of those currently rank in the top six in NFL pass defense (Pittsburgh – 3, Cincinnati – 4, Tennessee – 5 and Indianapolis – 6). As for the Browns, who shut down Eli Manning and the Super Bowl Champion Giants this past Monday, they rank 11th.
So yes, you read that correctly… Five different defenses that excel against aerial attacks in as many weeks. Cam also went on to note that we'll face a sixth new system this Sunday in Miami.
The Steelers, Browns and Dolphins each run a 3-4 scheme, while the Titans, Colts and Bengals all run a 4-3.
"Not one defense has been the same," Cam stated. "You don't get that often. They've all had completely different philosophies and have presented different coverages. Each time Joe has watched the film, he's seen something new. Every single week, he's done a great job of grasping the game plan."
I then brought up Joe's seven interceptions and one touchdown: "A lot of people are enamored by these stats. They see yards, TDs and picks as 'the all and the end all.' Important? Yes. But what else is indicative, especially when you're bringing along a young QB?"
"It's important to look at things that don't show up on the normal stat sheets," Cam affirmed. "Some of the best indicators of how a successful quarterback functions are what the team does on third down and during two-minute drills."
When I got back to my desk, I did I little research and found – just as Cam had hinted – that Flacco and the Ravens have performed respectably in the categories he mentioned: Baltimore's offense has converted a decent 41.4% of third-down attempts this season, ranking 12th best in the NFL. As for Flacco, he has completed 58.1% of his passes on third down. Of those attempts, 39.5% have earned first downs, a percentage that ranks as the 11th highest mark among NFL QBs.
As for the two-minute drill, Flacco is 16-of-24 (66.7%), tossing for 149 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT in the waning minutes of a half. His 80.0 rating is also respectable.
I've heard a lot of people say we're just a couple plays away from being 4-1. Is that true? Maybe. But in this league, moral victories don't send you to the playoffs, and "woulda, coulda, shoulda" statements won't provide an ounce of solace or satisfaction to anyone.
However, it's important to remember that cultivating a young quarterback won't happen over night, especially when an entire offense is so green. One factor many people overlook is that we have the unique combination of a rookie QB and a young offensive line. Until starting right guard Marshal Yanda, 24, went down with a season-ending knee injury last Sunday, our line was the NFL's youngest starting unit.
So, going back to Flacco and what he brings to the table now… Can a rookie signal-caller play well and lead his team to success? Sure. We believe so, and our caching staff is confident Joe can be that guy for us, even while he continues to learn and grow. As coach John Harbaugh stated last week, "What we need to do as a football team is we need to overcome that learning process that [Flacco is] going through and come up with plays to win football games so we can learn with victories. At the same time, Joe's good enough to overcome issues that come up with other players and make them right. So other guys make Joe right, Joe makes other guys right, and we win football games."
Added Cam, capping off our conversation: "Everything Joe is experiencing, that's all part of being a young quarterback in this league. It's all part of the process and development a young guy goes through. You find out quickly if that will make or break a guy.
"And you know what? We think Joe is doing pretty well. He continues to make incredible strides. The bottom line is, Joe gives us a chance to win every week. He isn't fazed by a single thing. We see how he performs in practice. We see what he's capable of and how he continues to grow. It's special. What's also really important is that our players have a lot of confidence in him."
CAN'T MISS THIS
In case you overlooked it, punch here for a great story from Baltimore Sun writer Mike Preston on Ray Lewis. Mike, who has covered the Ravens since the team's – and Lewis' – first season in 1996, explains why No. 52 is still one of the NFL's most dominant players.
NOTE THE QUOTE
Ray Lewis* *on the key to Baltimore having one of the best run defenses this decade:"It's personal. That, and people take it that personal, is just really it. Me being around here for as long as I have, it's just the bottom line. Every new person who comes in here, the first thing I say is, 'There's something we don't do, and that's we don't let people run the ball.' It's what we all buy into from Day One, and when the ball is snapped, everybody has to find the football."
Insight: Really, what else is there to say? No wonder the Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-best 24 consecutive games.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Dating back to 2006, Matt Stover has connected on 32 consecutive field goal attempts from 40 yards and in, including five this season.
So far this year, all three of Stover's misses have been from 45-plus yards. Such unusual miscues have caused some media members and fans to wonder if Matt is still performing at a high level.
Here's what I know: Matt is a true professional in every sense of the word. He never makes excuses and always takes full responsibility for any mishaps. Without question, he, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, snapper Matt Katula and holder Sam Koch have been working hard to ensure that we start making those longer kicks again. In fact, if history is any indication, I'd be shocked if Matt doesn't concoct a game-winner or two this year. (He actually has 13 during his career, including at least one in six consecutive seasons.)
So fear not, Ravens faithful… If you look at the tape, Matt has plenty of pop to his kicks. Our coaches know he can still make those long ones. And, as evidenced by 32 straight from 40-and-in, Matt remains one of the NFL's most reliable.
STAT OF THE WEEK II
Here's a comparison of what several first-round quarterbacks, who started for their respective teams from Day One, did in the first five games of their rookie seasons: