Encore demands: For Joe Flacco, the pressure’s on like never before

Coming into his sixth NFL season, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is a Super Bowl MVP, the man behind one of the greatest sustained postseason passing performances in NFL history, and the proud owner of a six-year, $120.6 million contract. signed on March 1, which includes $52 million guaranteed, and a $29 million signing bonus. That's a lot to handle for a guy who finished 17th overall in Football Outsiders season-cumulative metrics and sixteenth in per-play efficiency in 2012, but those aren't the stats that matter.

When it comes to Flacco, the stats that matter are the ones he put up after former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired on Dec. 10, and quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell took the reins. Under Cameron, Flacco was too often tasked to find receivers limited by basic isolation route concepts. The change to Caldwell saw the Ravens use more route combinations, and other methods that allowed open targets. In the seven games Flacco played under Caldwell's auspices, he put up some crazy numbers -- 122 completions in 210 attempts for 1,737 yards, 15 touchdowns, and one interception. That included his 11-touchdown, zero-pick postseason, matched in NFL history by Joe Montana in 1989, and nobody else.

It was the first time in Flacco's career that the fully-developed version of the quarterback was matched by a truly diverse and modern offense, and the late run convinced the Ravens that he was worth the kind of scratch given to the best at his position. Now, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed gone, and the emphasis put on the offense (specifically the passing offense) more than at any other time in the franchise's history, it's all on Flacco to remain at that mythical "next level."

Flacco seemed to know which questions were coming after Tuesday's practice, which marked the first day of the Ravens' 2013 training camp.

"I think we were a good team, I think we’ve been a good team, and I think our expectations for ourselves are to be a very good team again," he said. "But I don’t think we think about last year at all. Our team is different, just like it is every year. We’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry to get to where we were last year. We have a lot of guys that are hungry to get back to where we were last year. Every season is a new season and you kind of approach it in little different ways and ways you think you can get better. I haven’t really thought about an encore; I’ve just kind of thought about getting the best we can get so that we can go out there and win some more football games.”

That will be easier if Flacco can approximate the Caldwell-era stats all over again, though nobody could realistically expect those stats prorated over a full season. The good news for the Ravens is that Flacco is far more than just another seven-step-drop guy with a big arm -- in 2012, he handled a new emphasis on a no-huddle, quick-tempo offense with aplomb, and he threw on the run far better than expected for a guy who looks somewhat gangly at his most athletic.

Of course, with that new contract on the books, and Lewis and Reed gone, Flacco will be expected to lead in a new way. He is not shying away from the challenge.

“I’m always a leader; I’m not really going to change my role," he said. "We don’t have Ray Lewis here anymore, if that’s what you’re asking. But me and him are probably different in the terms that we lead anyway, and I’m not going to change what I do at all just because I make more money. That has nothing to do with leading a football team. I’m going to go out there, I’m going to play well, I’m going to lead by example, and I’m going to have fun with my guys and get them to trust me. And we’re going to be a good football team because of it.”

Before the end of the 2012 season, the pressure on Flacco was to become one of the league's best quarterbacks. He was considered by many, quite rightly, as a player who amassed a lot of "quarterback wins." but was an innocent bystander in a lot of those victories. There's no better example of this than Baltimore's 33-14 win over the New England Patriots in the 2009 postseason. Flacco completed four of 10 passes for 34 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception, while running backs Ray Rice, Le'Ron McClain, and Willis McGahee combined for 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Now, the Ravens go as Flacco goes, and he seems fine with whatever pressure that may entail. One thing's for sure -- if Flacco ever imagined that the microscope would come off after Baltimore's Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers, he's hard into reality now. In 2013, the constant question will be, what does one do for an encore?

“I don’t know. I just really don’t know," he said, when asked if there's more pressure to perform now. "I think if we didn’t win, you all would still be saying that we suck, and if did [win], you all would still say the same – well, I don’t know about you guys here [in Baltimore] – but a lot of people [would]. I don’t think it really matters either way. All we can do is go out there and keep winning – just like we’ve been doing every year we’ve been here – and not really worry about what people say or what our expectations are and what the pressure is going to be. Who really cares? I can’t really complain at this point.

"We won last year. I have a lot of money – or I’m going to get a lot of money – and we’re going to win football games. That’s the way it is around here. That’s what we’re going to get used to and that’s what we want to be used to, is winning football games. We’re not going to apologize for acting like a good football team. Our expectations are high, and we don’t care if that comes with pressure or it’s not pressure – whatever it is. We expect to win.”

It's a good thing he does, because like never before, it will be on Flacco to make that happen.

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