This is Part I of the three part End of the Season Reality Assessment. Part II will assess the 2013 roster overhaul decisions, and Part III will look ahead to the 2014 roster decisions that will need to be made. Part I (written prior to the Ravens’ State of the Union) of the End of the Season Reality Assessment will assess Joe Flacco and his 2013 season within the confines of the Ravens’ offense.
I wrote back in July that there was a good chance that we would see Joe Flacco take another developmental step now that he was free from the confines of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. After a resurgence of his confidence helped lift his game to new heights throughout the 2012 postseason, Flacco was poised to take command of the offense in 2013. He was expected to live up to the blockbuster contract he signed following the historic run through the Super Bowl and provide leadership to the Ravens after the departure of some high profile leaders. This was to be his team.
Well, it is safe to say that the 2013 season was not a stellar season for Joe Flacco. His 22 interceptions were a career high, his yardage per attempt (6.37) was a career low, and his touchdown production (19) was his lowest since his rookie season. The questions that surrounded Joe Flacco and whether or not he deserved his franchise quarterback contract back in March are being asked a bit louder in the wake of the Ravens missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The prevailing opinion is that Flacco cannot effectively elevate the play of those around him. Is this true? Maybe, but maybe not. I certainly take issue with Mike Preston and his assertion that Flacco Is the equivalent of Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford. However, as you read my views below, we both agree on things that need to change.
Taking a look around the league and at “franchise” or “elite” quarterbacks, you see Peyton Manning making stars out of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Tom Brady was placed into a similar situation as Flacco this year, as Brady has been surrounded by fresh faces at the skill positions. Yet Brady has kept the New England Patriots chugging away, wining another AFC East division. Drew Brees helped develop seventh-rounder Maques Colston into a top wide receiver in the league, and he is helping develop fifth-round rookie Kenny Stills. Aaron Rodgers has been crucial in the development of Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb.
When it comes to Flacco, the argument can certainly be made that he has not helped the development of some of the Ravens’ receivers over the past few years. Torrey Smith may be more of a number two wide receiver rather than a true number one (maybe a 1A?). Ed Dickson has regressed in his time as a Raven. Tandon Doss has been a bust. Deonte Thompson has not made an impact.
On the flip side, Dennis Pitta has become a budding star at the tight end position. Torrey Smith has gotten better each and every year. Undrafted rookie Marlon Brown had quite the rookie year.
However, in all of the lists above, the quarterback cannot be given full praise for the success and development of the receivers. Coaching, offensive scheme, talent, and personal drive of the individual player are all in the mix that help determine the outcome of success for any given player. Likewise, the quarterback cannot be the sole cause of the other players’ failures. There are too many factors that are in play when talking about a player’s development.
Keeping to this theme, the Ravens offense in 2013 had many unpredictable factors heading into the season. Not many people predicted that the offensive line would be a mess beyond repair, that the running game would falter, and that the loss of Pitta would be so devastating.
The Ravens running game all but disappeared this season, to the tune of 83 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. This is a stark comparison to last season’s averages of 119 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt. The drop of production from Ray Rice was dramatic. According to Pro Football Focus, Rice’s elusive rating (a metric that takes into account yards after contact, and missed tackles forced of rushes and receptions) dropped 70% from 2012 to 2013. Bernard Pierce was equally as unproductive, as his elusive rating also decreased by 70%. That is a serious fall for the run game.
The offensive line, a strength of the Ravens during last year’s postseason, collapsed. Micheal Oher took four steps backwards (figuratively, and literally as he was a league leader in false starts). Marshall Yanda, though he claims otherwise, never fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Center Gino Gradkowski could not adequately replace Matt Birk, in the brains or brawn departments. Kelechi Osemele was lost in week four of the season, and his replacement, A.Q. Shipley was physically overmatched. Bryant McKinnie, a questionable re-sign inthe offseason, was a complete bust. To say that this offensive line struggled would be an understatement. Three of the five offensive line players ranked in the bottom of their respective positions—Gradkowksi, Oher, and Shipley—according to Pro Football Focus.
The loss of Pitta was equally crushing to the Ravens’ offense. As we all know, Pitta was to become a focal point of the offense due to the departure of Anquan Boldin. Once Flacco lost Pitta, the roster was practically set, and it was limited. Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley were not the answer, and there inclusion on the final 53-man roster may have actually hurt the development of Thompson, Doss, and/or caused Aaron Mellette to end up on injured reserve with a “phantom” injury. Smith wasn’t able to beat coverages designed to slow him, Brown is still green (pun intended), and Jacoby Jones is not consistent enough to be a true number two receiver.
How is this all pertinent to Flacco and his ability to carry an offense? Well, I believe that we cannot get a fair read on his ability to carry a team. A weak and struggling offensive line and no running game to speak of made it too obvious to opposing teams what the gameplan of the Ravens was going to be. How can Flacco be expected to make others better when he is running for his life and/or his down and distance is less than desirable? The Ravens lack of running game kept them from staying on schedule most of the season (second and long, third and long situations). The offensive line allowed too many pressures and sacks in obvious passing plays.
All of these factors work in tandem. Teams can be efficient if the run game keeps defenses honest, or if the offensive line is efficient. Offenses become prolific when both the run game and offensive line are effective, and sometimes this true in spite of the quarterback.
Manning has a stellar offensive line, and an effective run game. Sure, his academic acumen and quick release helps both, but there is a reason he chose Denver during his free agent tour in 2012. Brady is playing behind a stout offensive line, and he has the ninth ranked run game in the NFL. And though the New Orleans Saints’ run game is not a juggernaut, it keeps opposing teams accountable, and Bress does play behind a very respectable offensive line (even with the recent switch to rookie left tackle, Terron Armstead). Rodgers now has a run game in Eddie Lacy that is able fully complement the passing attack.
As I stated (well, maybe I ranted) back after the Jets game, every quarterback, and football team for that matter, needs balance. I believe it is a tad premature to conclude that Flacco does not have what it takes to “carry” a team.
Taking this idea a step further, without Joe Flacco the Ravens win four games this year, maybe five. Without him at the helm, the Ravens lose the following games: home game against the Browns, the Dolphins, the Jets, home against the Steelers, and the Vikings. Quite frankly, I do not believe that Justin Tucker’s heroics in Detroit materialize without Flacco making key plays at the end of the game—third and fifteen, Flacco to Jones for 27 yards is one example. Granted, Flacco did have a major hand in the losses against the Bills and the game in Cleveland.
In the end, this year’s Ravens team was majorly flawed. Putting a Manning, a Brady, a Brees, or a Rodgers at quarterback would not have drastically changed the fact that the offensive line was dreadful and the run game was non-existent. Nor would any of those quarterbacks have significantly changed the outcome of the season. The team had too many holes in too many areas.
All of that being said, does this mean Flacco is off the hook for his subpar season? Absolutely not. As the franchise quarterback and the unquestioned team leader, he needs to step up his commitment in the offseason. As John Harbaugh alluded to in a press conference following the season, Flacco needs to start working with his receivers well before OTAs. I would like to hear how he is holding throwing camps with his receivers during the offseason, how they are all mastering the back shoulder throw, how they are developing chemistry with one another that allows them to “think what the other is thinking,” etc. Clearly, the timing was off between Flacco and his receivers this season. With young, lesser experienced receivers this kind of work is invaluable, and it needs to become a reality for the franchise-quarterback.
In addition, Flacco needs to hone his mechanics. He has never been a top-flight accurate quarterback, but his accuracy issues were exacerbated this year. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the deep passing game was sorely lacking this year compared to previous years. Sure, Flacco endured many dropped passes in the beginning of the year and the offensive line provided little protection, but his poor mechanics caused many of these issues.
Furthermore, Flacco forced too many passes this season. Surprisingly, Flacco threw the majority of his interceptions when he was not under any pressure from the pass rush. According to Pro Football Focus, only three of Flacco’s interceptions came from a result of pressure being placed on him. That means that the other 19 interceptions were the result of either a misread, of poor timing, of a late read, or of miscommunication between Flacco and his receiver. That is deplorable.
The Ravens should really be searching for another quarterback coach this offseason. Excluding his rookie season, two of Flacco’s least productive seasons have come in years when he has not had a quarterback coach, 2011 and 2013. A quarterback coach will continue to hone Flacoo’s mechanics and he will help Flacco process the mental aspect of the position with more proficiency. I believe the lack of a quarterback coach was an overlooked deficiency in this year’s coaching staff that had a greater negative impact than people realize.
The coaching staff also needs to provide a better-rounded offensive scheme. This year, we returned to the land of vanilla. The staff never adapted their scheme to best suit their personnel. Granted, the personnel limited what they could do, but that just is more of a reason for the coaching staff to be more creative. The Ravens need to find a way to become more multiple—wide receiver screens, reverses, multiple formations, shits and movements, rollouts, middle screens to the tight end, etc.—in their gameplan approach. Too often the predictability of the offense put Flacco into difficult scenarios. If reports are true, the Ravens need to allow Flacco to regain his input.
The Ravens need to make every effort this offseason in raising the game of Flacco. That means investing in the offensive line, correcting the run game, providing more reliable targets for him, and providing coaches to work on his mechanics. Flacco, in return, needs to uphold his responsibility as the franchise quarterback. He needs to make every effort into raising his game to another level. That means he will need to build better rapport with his receivers on the field and in the classroom, refine his mechanics, and make his voice heard in the offensive gameplan.
While this was a very disappointing season for Joe Flacco, both statistically and team record-wise, the fact that he helped lead this majorly flawed team to eight wins should be acknowledged. Sure, there is plenty of room for growth, no doubt about it.
But if you were told on July 15th that the Ravens would have a turnstile offensive line, zero running game, and that they would lose Dennis Pitta for the majority of the season, how many games would you have predicted the Ravens would win? I am quite certain if you knew the actual circumstances before the start of the season, you would have said that Joe Flacco leading the team to eight wins was actually a success.
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An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.