I like Joe Flacco. To many local Ravens fans, I probably don't like him enough though. I'm not screaming from the rooftops about him being a top five quarterback. I'm not predicting a return to the Super Bowl. I didn't collapse in exhausted relief when he resigned with the team. Still, I would say that I like having him as my home team's quarterback. Despite my appreciation for what he can do, I think he could be headed for some trouble, and the alarm bells really started to ring when I heard of the Dennis Pitta injury.
After years of incompetent quarterback play, my team finally had someone who can actually play the position. Flacco surprised me, after years of watching the likes of Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, and Jeff Blake. Did I think that Flacco deserved to have his name mentioned among the top QBs of his time? No, not really, not yet. While he clearly has some skills, there were still too many people making excuses for him (it was all Cameron's fault!), to say that he was one of those rare individuals who could carry a team on his own. Wondering if Flacco would become the next Rodgers, Manning, Brady or Brees, has never been a huge concern for me. If he reached that level, great. If he didn't, well, that's okay too. Building the talent up around your QB, to get the most out of them, can work too (hmm, Eli?). Unfortunately, things probably aren't really falling into place for Flacco right now.
Do you remember when Flacco was throwing passes to Derrick Mason? It was one eight yard comeback route after another. Over and over again. It never stopped. Mason was getting near the end of the road, but could still run that one route effectively enough to get open, and give Joe a place to dump the ball off if he was in trouble. You could count on him. When the team figured that time was running out for Mason, and that he was probably a bit limited in what he could continue to do, they traded for Anquan Boldin (again, a receiver that they didn't draft, since they don't know how to do so at this position). Now, Anquan wasn't quite like Mason, but he still provided a nice security blanket for Joe to throw to, and despite it becoming quite apparent that Boldin was slowing down and couldn't get much separation, Joe took advantage of Boldin's reliable hands quite frequently. Outside of those two receivers, who else has been a reliable option to go to, if Joe was feeling pressure? Well, that would be Ray Rice, and everyone knows how often Joe throws to him.
Sometimes people talk about checkdown passes a bit too negatively, as if there is something cowardly about not taking every opportunity to fling the ball down the field. Personally, I think they're great, and believe that finding someone who can provide that reliable outlet for a QB, is often a bit harder to find than an overrated deep threat. Years of watching Travis Taylor cringe before trying to catch a short pass, which he inevitably dropped, probably influenced my opinion of this. Taylor seemed to do much better though, when running deep, where he was less likely to get leveled the second he caught the ball (even there he still wasn't great). Catching short passes seems to take guts, and seems like a surefire way to become your QB's best friend.
So, the Ravens trade away Anquan Boldin for a 6th round pick. Honestly, I had no problem with this, but I based this on the assumption that the team would seek a replacement of some sort. Then it seemed to dawn on everyone that Dennis Pitta would take over this role of catching relatively short passes and going across the middle. Yes! I was thrilled with this possibility. After watching the team slowly acknowledge the fact that Pitta was obviously better than Ed Dickson, he was primed to explode! Unfortunately it was his hip that exploded, in one of the first days of training camp.
So, what is the current picture? The Ravens have two starting receivers in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, who have mostly been successful as deep threats, and otherwise somewhat inconsistent. Jacoby is entering his 7th NFL season, and his best year produced only 562 yards for a team (Texans) that let him walk despite being desperate to find a second receiver. It wouldn't have even cost them much to hold onto him, it that means anything. Expecting him to suddenly blossom, seems unlikely at this point. Torrey Smith, who I do like, has also mainly been a deep threat, and has similarly struggled to become much of a presence in the short passing game. Coming out of college, there was some criticism of his hands and route running, but in his current role this hasn't been a huge issue. Torrey's measurables from the combine suggest he could be good at running shorter routes, because of his excellent agility (0.805 Agility Score) and explosiveness (0.891 Kangaroo Score), but he hasn't demonstrated this yet. If there is one area that might cause some concern that Torrey might not become more well rounded, it could be his tiny 8 5/8" hands. Either way, neither has proven capable of playing this role yet, so expecting it to just happen suddenly is probably a bit overly optimistic. Beyond these two receivers, you get into wild speculation about Tandon Doss (hmm, nothing happening there) and the 7th round rookie, Aaron Mellette.
If your receivers are mainly running fairly deep routes, well that means your line is generally going to have to protect the QB for a longer time, correct? It does take longer to run twenty or so yards, than ten, right? Unfortunately the Ravens line is a bit questionable. Yanda is the clear star, and he is starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list. After Yanda, things begin to go downhill. Osemele appears to be developing fairly well, but it's still a bit too early to be sure. We have no idea who the center will be, though I think things will go better if Shipley starts over the more likely option of Gradkowski. Our tackles are either erratic and overrated (Oher), or obese blobs like McKinnie, who has shall we say "issues" with maintaining interest and focus (though he does have strippers to pay, so that may provide some motivation). If I am being generous, I would describe the line as average, and that assumes they live up to their potential. Expecting a high degree of dominance from this group, seems a bit unlikely at this point.
So, Joe's receiving options probably require and extra second or two to get open (for longer range passes that generally have a lower completion percentage), and a line that probably needs him to get the ball out fairly quickly. Yes, there is still the option of dumping the ball off to Ray Rice, but with the rest of the passing game appearing to be less potent, you would think that defenses could clamp down on Rice a bit more tightly.
While I didn't expect the 2013 Ravens to have a high flying offense, I thought there were enough promising signs of improvement on the defense to allow Joe to play a low key and cautious game. With the loss of Pitta, I think an unfortunate domino effect occurs. First, without a reliable short range option, what does Flacco do when he is under pressure? It seems likely that his two options are to take a sack, or fling the ball up and pray, in which case his completion percentage would probably go down (from an already average result of 59.7% in 2012, and an even lower 57.9% in his much discussed playoff run), and his interceptions would go up (though he has usually been good in this department).
Considering the increased expectations (which are probably a bit unreasonable)that come with his new contract, fans could get a bit surly. Even when things were going fairly smoothly, Flacco was only throwing for an average of 3,665 yards per year during the last 4 seasons, when other QBs were routinely throwing for over 4,000. In 2012, 11 QBs managed to reach this mark, with Flacco coming in at the 14th spot. In 2011, 10 QBs reached 4,000 yards, and Flacco finished in 12th place. As far as touchdowns go, Joe similarly came in at the 15th and 13th spot. Again, rather average results. I'm not saying this to pick on Flacco, but to expect a move up the rankings, as his surrounding talent weakens, seems unlikely. You could argue that such stats don't really matter, but I think there will be a lot of people, even amongst the team's management, who will be scrutinizing these numbers now that they are paying so much for them.
Another issue relating to his contract, is the way that it is structured. While I could criticize how much the team paid him (yup, I think he was paid too much), I am more concerned with how they divided up the payments. As it stands, the contract is somewhat back-loaded, and will need to be restructured after the 2015 season (after which his cap hit jumps from 14.5 to 28.5 million dollars). For the moment I'll ignore the fact that the team will have very little leverage at that point to get Joe to take a lower salary. The relevant point is that it is set up for the team to theoretically win within the next three seasons. If we begin to accept that this season will probably be disappointing, then 1/3 of that window of opportunity is already wasted.
So, what is the team going to do? Well, they haven't proven to be terribly good at drafting or developing wide receivers, so I suspect there is a good chance they will make a foolish trade or free agent acquisition, as they have done in the past to address the receiver position (Please don't sign Brandon Lloyd! Please don't sign Brandon Lloyd!). They currently have about 3.5 million dollars in cap space, though there appears to be little available in terms of free agents. Getting back on the "pay an aging possession receiver more than he is probably worth" merry-go-round, probably isn't a good idea anyway. In the meantime, I have to suspect that the team will try to focus on the running game. There was already talk about Bernard Pierce getting more carries, but if the passing game takes a serious step backwards, this might become even more of a reality. I don't know if relying on the running game, and a hopefully resurgent defense, will be enough, particularly in this age of explosive aerial attacks, but it seems like their only choice. Grind it out. Try to avoid making mistakes. Hope for the best. Welcome to the 2003 Ravens!
This also leaves the team in a peculiar situation when it comes to Dennis Pitta. He is a talented guy, and will be a free agent after this season. Can you resign him, and hope he recovers from the injury? Or, do you end up having to let him walk (limp?) out the door on his way to another team. I'm just disappointed that I won't get to see what I thought could be a very good season by a young and emerging talent, who may never be the same again.