PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 15: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens looks to pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Heinz Field on January 15 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Under the coaching regime of John Haraugh and with QB Joe Flacco under center for the past three years, the team has finished with records, 11-5 (2008), 9-7 (2009), 12-4 (2010), making the playoffs and winning at least one postseason road game each of those years. However, they have just not been able to crack through to the Super Bowl, despite seeming to have what it takes on both sides of the ball to get there, only to disappoint themselves as well as their passionately loyal fans.
Has the team progressed each of the three years and if so, does that set up the Ravens to be once again on the verge of finally getting to the Big Game, as the window of opportunity grows smaller for some of the key veterans (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk, Derrick Mason, Todd Heap)? Since the QB position seems to get most of the credit as well as most of the blame, let's look at Joe Flacco's progress over his three years in the league. Flacco has started every game in the team's past three years, tying for the most wins by a QB in their first three years in the NFL. He also is tied with the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez with four road victories in the post season, although Sanchez has the chance to break that record with a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in this weekend's AFC Championship Game.
Take a look at Flacco's career stats from NFL.com:
YEAR ATT. COMP. YARDS PCT. ATT/GM AVG. YDS/GM TD INT RATE
2009 499 315 3,613 63.1 31.2 7.2 225.8 21 12 88.9
2008 428 257 2,971 60.0 26.8 6.9 185.7 14 12 80.3
One can clearly see a significant jump in performance from Joe's rookie season to his second year, but only a minimal improvement from this past season. In addition, based on what was supposed to be an infusion of offensive weapons for the 2010 season, one could actually point at a bunch of numbers that might even be considered a drop-off in production. This could be due to a number of factors unrelated to Flacco and out of his control. For instance, despite what seemed to be more of a focus on the passing game, the team actually threw the ball ten times less in 2010 than it did in 2009. Yardage, percentage and attempts were virtually unchanged over the past year and while TDs, interceptions and QB ratings increased, they did so only marginally.
For the Ravens to make the next step and be able to compete and reach the Super Bowl, regardless of the improvements needed in the offensive line, defensive secondary and other areas, the quarterback needs to improve his consistency, especially in the critical bg games against the better teams. There are no excuses in Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger has perhaps the worst offensive line in the league, certainly the worst among the teams in the playoffs. Yet, he still manages to find a way to stay upright and hit his receivers, especially in crunch time, as proven to disappointed Ravens fans last weekend.
While I am not trying to specifically and unfairly compare Joe Flacco to Ben Roethlisberger, I am pointing out the level of performance that Flacco needs to reach in order to be considered among the league's elite quarterbacks. That level of performance is not far from his reach. As marginal as his improvement from year two to tyear three was, if he were to match the improvement from year one to year two, and do that next season, that could very well be more than enough to lead this team t the Super Bowl.
We're talking just a few more attempts and completions per game, a few more percentage points in both completion percentage and QB rating, and the results will have a domino effect on not only his stats, but the team in terms of wins, improving all aspects of the offense including the running game as well.
The big question that remains is will Joe be up to the task? Improvements on the offensive line around him that can offer him the protection and open holes for the running game is as good of a place as any to start. The team is sure to address those concerns in the 2011 NFL Draft, if not through free agency. However, the ultimate responsibility will be on Joe's broad shoulders, and only time will tell if they truly are strong enough to carry that load.