Flacco Under Fire? The Defendant May Rise
Flacco has never been given a free pass, but going into his fourth year as starting quarterback, both doubts and expectations were at a high point. Flacco has not met the expectations. Statistically speaking, the quarterback has regressed while fans and media have clamored for exponential progress. Practically speaking, Flacco has been the quarterback for a 2011 team that is undefeated at home, undefeated in their division, and owns a sweep of rival Pittsburgh Steelers (with Big Ben at the helm.)
Somewhere in between Flacco's encouraging moments and his frustrating moments lies a perfectly balanced truth: he's good. But will he be great?
On one side of this question, there are the areas in which Flacco has not improved. Inconsistency, that “deer in the headlights” look, and the ever-elusive command of the offense. On the other side, there are the usual suspects. An offensive coordinator who tends to micromanage, an offensive line that struggles with pass protection, a very young and mostly unfamiliar group of wide outs and tight ends.
Flacco's growth this year cannot silence his critics, but he has grown. He's fumbled, thrown interceptions, over-thrown and under-thrown receivers, and failed to find open targets. Even the top quarterbacks do all of these things. Flacco's challenge is to reduce his mistakes. He's already started. He no longer turns his back to move away from the blitz (an odd early habit), he's done a much better job of stepping into the pocket, and he's made progress in decision-making as far as throwing the ball away when necessary. He has the best arm in football, good accuracy, and is deceptively quick at times. Overall, he has not regressed, and he has not hit a ceiling.
Many quarterbacks have several years of rehearsal for their part in the NFL extravaganza. In fact, Flacco is just the second quarterback in NFL history to come from a Division 1 FCS (formerly Division 1-aa) school to be drafted in the first round. Steve McNair was the first, in 1995. Brady, Brees, Rodgers, both Mannings, Rivers, and Roethlesberger all came from Division 1 (formerly Division 1-A) schools, as did Flacco's draft-mate Matt Ryan.
Why does this fact hold any significance? Because it means Flacco is still building. After being a red-shirt freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, Flacco spent the following year as back-up to Tyler Palko (yes, Tyler Palko.) Flacco then transferred to University of Delaware, where he excelled. There, he played primarily out of the shotgun with a spread offense, and faced defenses such as William and Mary, Monmouth, James Madison, and Towson.
Despite the lack of preparation that Flacco gleaned from his college years, he came into the NFL as a rookie and led the Ravens to the AFC championship. Flacco and the Ravens have been in the playoffs now in each of his four years since he was drafted out of the University of Delaware. He is the Ravens' all time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. He is the NFL's first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, and the first NFL quarterback to win a playoff game in each of his first three season. Now Joe Flacco and his Ravens are looking for more playoff wins.
Among Flacco's critics and supporters, one thing is rarely discussed: his growth curve. Flacco's contemporaries at quarterback have been graced with a less abrupt transition from the level of play in college football to that of the NFL. Flacco has learned quickly and has done more for Baltimore football fans that anyone could have predicted when he was drafted in 2008. It is reasonable to assume that the trajectory of his progress has not hit its peak. He's still on his way up.