As it has been for Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and any number of quarterbacks before him, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco now finds himself in the unenviable position of having to defend his abilities in "big-time" situations. Once that train starts, a Super Bowl victory is the only thing that can bring it into the station. Flacco has been under fire this week from all sorts of sources — the media who formerly considered his 44-20 "record" as the be-all/end-all number, opponents who have been less than impressed, and even teammate Ed Reed.
And while there's no question that Flacco has his faults — he leaves easy throws on the table, he's far too logey in the pocket, he doesn't run the intermediate passing game effectively enough, and he's a bit too in love with his deep ball — there's a growing consensus among former quarterbacks and other expert analysts that whatever issues bedevil Baltimore's passing game, the problems aren't all Flacco's fault.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup" watches more all-22 film than anyone not currently part of an NFL coaching staff -- and on this week's Shutdown Corner podcast, he was unequivocal in his assessment of the limitations brought about by the schematic machinations of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
"The Ravens' receiving corps could be the absolute worst in the NFL when it comes to getting open versus man coverage," Cosell said. "They don't do an awful lot to get them open versus man — you don't see a lot of the stack release concepts, or all the "man-beater" concepts. No bunch, no stack release. No rub elements. They don't do a lot to help their receivers win versus man. I'm not going to defend Flacco, but I think it's very difficult to … it seemed that last week [against the Houston Texans] the route tree was a go route and a screen. I said this to one of my guys [while I was watching the Baltimore] tape — 'I feel like I'm watching a 1960s offense.' Every play, there was one receiver to the right, and one receiver to the left, often two backs or two tight ends, and that was every play, it seemed."
Cameron was actually asked about this quote in his Thursday media session, and this was his reply: "We're trying to build an offense to win division championships," he said. "That's what it's about to us. They said the same thing about us in San Diego when we were the No. 1 offense in the league. So, when you've seen and heard all of those things over the years, you don't let that deter what you believe, and what you believe as a program, and what our head coach believes. We are an outdoor team in a tough division. I think the people I would listen to the most are people that have been in this division and that know what it's like -- the men on the ground in this division, that have to go out and compete in these stadiums against these defenses. That's how we're built. There's probably some predictability to it. If they can just keep predicting we're winning, then that's the prediction that I am going to be happy with."
But as they say, the numbers don't lie — and the numbers point squarely to what Cosell told us as a root cause. Through 14 weeks of 2011 Football Outsiders game charting, the Ravens led the league by far in two-receiver sets with 240 — and they were league-average in those formations. The Pittsburgh Steelers, another outdoor team in the tough AFC North, went with two receivers in the formation just 83 times over the same time period, and the bunch/trips/release concepts the Steelers employ define their offensive effectiveness.
On Wednesday, Steve Young talked about the downsides of conservative offenses and how they can affect gifted quarterbacks. "I think Joe suffers and the Ravens have suffered for a long time inadvertently from a dominant defense, and dominant defensive personalities," Young said on an ESPN media call. "For 10 years, [they] have said, either outwardly or inwardly: Don't screw it up [on offense]. So the offensive coordinator calls plays not to screw it up. The players play not to screw it up.
"I think with Joe, you look at the guys they have on that team, that team should be more explosive," Young continued. "That team is not the sum of its parts. Now, how do you look at it? I think it comes from the fact that they don't have a quarterback‑centric or offense‑centric mentality in their enterprise. I briefly talked to the owner before the game in Jacksonville and we talked about this subject, and he felt like he had solved that, and I think that it's in a process, but I think you can see by the product, it's not solved. I don't think he gets the support from a systemic point of view just because of the nature of who the Ravens are."
And that can upend any quarterback, especially in the playoffs, where Jim Harbaugh is even letting Alex Smith air it out in San Francisco.
Trent Dilfer, who has a Super Bowl ring as the one-time captain of Baltimore's "Don't screw it up" offense, spoke on Thursday about what the term "game manager" really means — and what it meant to him when the Ravens won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2000 season. "I think every quarterback, whether he's a Hall of Famer or other, the biggest part of his job ‑‑ one of the biggest part of his jobs is not to dig his team a hole, not to put them in a negative situation, to make decisions that help you move the chains or help you score points, not help the other team obviously.
"I think the part where it's become derogatory is when a hole is dug, whether it's by yourself or by your team, you're viewed as somebody that can't get out of it, that you can't put the team on your shoulders and get out of it. And I'm the first to admit that in my stint in Baltimore I was the first part. I didn't dig my team a hole very often, so that part was good. But I also didn't have many opportunities to have to dig our team out of a hole. So I didn't get the part of it where you're playing beyond the X's-and-O's, so to speak, where you do the heroic thing and put the team on your shoulders and get them out of bad situations.
"So I'm fine with that. I think Joe is a better quarterback right now than I was at that point. I think he showed in the Steelers game earlier in the year that he was able to put the team on his shoulders and make big throws at big times to dig them out of a hole. So I think he's shown the ability to do a little bit more than manage the game, as Alex [Smith] did last week and Alex has done a few times this year. Yeah, I think it's derogatory when people just make a blanket statement, but I think it's really twofold."
But is Joe Flacco fine with that? In the end, Dilfer understood his limitations and maximized his assets — primarily, a keen understanding of the game and a fierce competitive spirit — but he was also among the last of the "game manager" quarterbacks to help his team win a Super Bowl. Since Brad Johnson helped the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the big prize, the Super Bowl roll of winning quarterbacks has been nothing but a future invitation list to the Hall of Fame: Tom Brady twice, Ben Roethlisberger twice, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers.
Should Joe Flacco wish to be part of that list (and it certainly appears that he does), the time to start on that path is now.
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