This story, along with the same headline, could have been written the day the 2008 season ended with the loss in the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh to the Steelers. Obviously, a full year of experience under the belt of a rookie QB plus the chance to have the entire off season to prepare to be the starter in 2009 is a major benefit to Joe Flacco.
Then came the NFL Draft and while many fans were clamoring about which wide receiver the Ravens were going to select with their 26th pick in the first round, GM Ozzie Newsome pulled a fast one by moving up and grabbing offensive tackle Michael Oher (Mississippi). In fact, the Ravens did not select a wide receiver in the entire draft, which astounded and even angered many Ravens fans, much less the vicious local and national media. Obviously, Ozzie thought that the players in the draft didn't warrant first round selection as much as a great steal for help on the offensive line did. The other rounds didn't offer much to him either, as he stocked up on depth all around the field on both sides of the ball. Shortly after the draft, veteran right tackle Willie Anderson decided to hang up his cleats and retire, thrusting the rookie Oher into aa starting role, making Ozzie look that much more like the "Wizard" he earned his nickname from, picking winners out of the draft. A full year of experience for the rest of the line plus the addition of veteran All Pro center Matt Birk highlighted the off season, all combined to equal a great recipe for 2009 success in the passing game.
Then came the terrible murder of former Ravens QB Steve McNair, followed shortly thereafter by the unexpected announcement from WR Derrick Mason that he was retiring after 12 NFL seasons.
Ravens fans, once again along with the local and national media, went ballistic. A receiving corps that was already thin and criticized as being non-offensive, had just been decimated by the loss of it's top receiver and some say it's only true threat. It was bad enough to have people saying how we would now be a losing team and the second year QB would have no one to throw to. Luckily the team held two different tryouts in the off season, netting two more wideouts to add to the mix in the event that Mason does decide to officially retire, which many are beginning to think that he will hopefully return for 2009. The two tryouts brought two veteran receivers to the team with a combined total of four receptions in 2008. To many, these were moves of desperation, and these guys were either washed up or not what they were looking for, when there were star players like the Arizona Cardinals' Anquan Boldin and Denver Broncos' Brandon Marshall apparently out there on the trading block. However, Ozzie relishes his team's #1 draft picks like the gold they are and will not relinquish them for anyone, much less two disgruntled players who would be demanding huge contracts to keep them happy as he was looking at the team's own players who would need to be rewarded with big contracts in the next year or so. The choice of retaining a Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Jared Gaither and/or Ben Grubbs versus bringing on an outisde WR with no promises was an easy one for Ozzie to make and I totally support that decision.
So how will the Ravens passing game actually be even better in 2009 than it was in 2008? That's relatively easy when it was rated 28th last season, averaging just over 175 yards/game. With or without Derrick Mason, the team is a year more experienced at the key positions needed to improve, mainly QB and offensive line. The wide receivers are as good or I dare say without Mason, even better? Yes, I said even better. I realize that Mason caught a ton of passes last year as Flacco's main target, but he was Joe's first option. If Mark Clayton moves over to assume that role, his stats will be very similar to Mason's, just you watch. Newcomer Drew Bennett gives Flacco a huge target and runs crisp routes with great hands, so the lack of speed should not make a difference with him. The progress that Demetrius Williams and Marcus Smith have both made in the off season will only give them and Joe more confidence whenever they do get the chance to be on the field. Plus, the additon of tight end L.J. Smith along with a healthy Todd Heap should greatly improve the number and variety of options in our passing game. Lastly, the emergence of second year running back Ray Rice should add a new wrinkle in the passing attack, now having a receiving threat out of the backfield for the first time in a long time!
All in all, I am confident that you will see this team improve its ranking in the passing game in 2009. Understanding that we will still be a run-first offense, this team should be in the top 20 or even top 15 by year's end in passing statistics. Flacco's arm is just too good for Offensvie Coordinator Cam Cameron to not take full advantage of after keeping him in his reins thier first season together. As Joe said in his Fantasy Files video, "Last year was just the beginning."