Ravens hoping Flacco takes game to next level

ORLANDO, Fla. – Joe Flacco grew up as a towering state champion high school baseball pitcher in New Jersey capable of intimidating batters with his powerful fastball. Now, the Baltimore Ravens' strong-armed quarterback has returned to his baseball roots in an concentrated effort to improve his football skills.

In the latest move to try to provide Flacco a boost heading into his third NFL season, Ravens offensive coordinator and new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn had Flacco spend a week at the University of Southern California earlier this month where he trained with a pitching coach.

The baseball workout was intended to strengthen the smaller muscles surrounding his throwing shoulder to try to upgrade his arm strength, accuracy, durability and longevity.

Between the new approach to training, signing wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Donte' Stallworth and hiring Zorn, a former NFL quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks, to replace Hue Jackson, it has been a multi-pronged effort to try to propel Flacco into the elite passer level.

"I want Joe to be a championship quarterback," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday morning during the NFL owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. "There are terms like ‘elite quarterback' and ‘franchise quarterback.' All of those things are where we expect Joe to go. He does even more so than we do. You know how Joe is. He already thinks he's the best quarterback in the NFL.

"But he knows that he's always going to have a lot of work to do. I know physically he needs to get stronger. Mentally, he needs to get sharper. Technique-wise, he needs to get more pronounced. But the expectation is to be the winningest quarterback in the NFL."

Flacco has already proven to be capable of winning.

In two NFL seasons, the former first-round draft pick from Delaware has spearheaded the Ravens to two consecutive playoff appearances.

He has won three of five career playoff games. Last season, though, Flacco dealt with several painful injuries, including a sprained ankle and a badly bruised thigh and hip.

Although he wound up completing 63.1 percent of his throws for a career-high 3,613 yards and 21 touchdowns, Flacco didn't thrive at times the way he was expected to.

He fell off toward the end of the season, slumping to uncharacteristic 53.9 percent accuracy during the last four games of the season, including the postseason.

His passing average dipped to 122.7 yards per contest during that span, including a 4-for-10 , 34-yard, one-interception performance in the Ravens' playoff win over the New England Patriots.

Traditionally guarded about discussing injuries, Harbaugh acknowledged that Flacco endured major bruises up and down his left leg during the latter portion of the season that caused swelling. Flacco was obviously hobbling around and didn't have normal mobility or mechanics.

"It affected his mobility, it wasn't affecting his performance to the extent that he couldn't win for us or that he wasn't our best option," Harbaugh said. "Joe is tough. He was fighting through it, and he was very courageous about it."

Harbaugh expressed confidence that Zorn's arrival will aid in Flacco's development.

Flacco was extremely close with Jackson, but the low-key 25-year-old is expected to mesh well with Zorn, who was fired as the Washington Redskins' coach after last season.

"Hue did a great job," Harbaugh said. "I think Jim has a chance to grow Joe to the next level, the next phase of the progression. The fact that he played the position is a plus, but you don't have to have played the position to be a great coach.

"He's got some wisdom from inside the position. His personality is a natural fit for Joe. Jim is an out-of-the-box thinker. He's got a real easy personality. He's a very thoughtful guy. That's kind of how Joe is, too. I think they're going to hit if off personality-wise."

In two NFL seasons, Flacco has passed for 6,584 yards, 35 touchdowns and 24 interceptions with an 84.9 quarterback rating.

A Philadelphia reporter wondered if Harbaugh draws comparisons with Flacco to Brett Favre. Eagles coach Andy Reid used to make that link between Favre and Donovan McNabb.

"That's not Joe, he's been asked about Brett Favre," Harbaugh said. "He refuses to go there. He'll go, 'I'm Joe Flacco. You'll be talking about me in a couple of years.' He does it in a low-key way, but that's what he is basically saying. He refuses to be compared to anybody. I wouldn't have the audacity to do that."

Meanwhile, Harbaugh is bothered by the absence of left offensive tackle Jared Gaither from the offseason conditioning program.

Although the workouts are voluntary, there are rumors that Gaither, who hasn't signed his first-round restricted tender, is skipping workouts to show his dissatisfaction with not being given a long-term deal.

Harbaugh had a long talk with Gaither's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, at the owners meetings. And there are indications that Gaither will report to workouts as soon as next week.

"I really believe Jared is going to be a premier offensive tackle in this league," Harbaugh said. "The thing we need him to do is to get up there and start working on it. I talked to Drew Rosenhaus and he tells me he's getting Jared in shape.

"The last time I checked Drew Rosenhaus doesn't coach the offensive line in the National Football League. Jared needs to be in our weight room with our players with our offensive line, becoming the player he can become."

The restricted free agent signing period ends April 15. Any team that wants to submit an offer sheet for Gaither would owe the Ravens a first-round pick as compensation should the team decide not to match.

"There's no leverage that's gained by not being with the team working out," Harbaugh said. "If he thinks he's gaining some kind of leverage well he's not making himself the best player he can be. So, that's our position. Come out and go to work and become a great player."

The 6-foot-9, 340-pound former University of Maryland player has impressive blocking skills and athleticism, but he battled neck and foot injuries last season and had to be replaced by Michael Oher several times.

The last conversation we had right after the Indianapolis game right in the locker room was I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, we're going to have a great offseason. You need to get bigger and stronger and therefore more durable,'" Harbaugh said. "And he was right on that. He absolutely was, ‘Coach, that's what I'm going to do.'"

Harbaugh raised the point that staying away from workouts doesn't build confidence in making a major financial commitment to a player.

"This is a team sport," Harbaugh said. "Come in and be the very best you can be. As a coach and

a general manager and an owner you look at that and you say, ‘That's the kind of guy we want to have for the long term that we want to make a long-term investment because we can trust him and count on him to be there. The other thing is you kind of go, well, I don't know. Is this the kind of guy we can trust and count on?"

The Ravens met with Cincinnati Bengals free agent kicker Shayne Graham and his agent, David Dunn, at the owners meetings.

About a week ago, the Ravens got in touch with Arizona Cardinals free agent kicker Neil Rackers. When he was the Eagles' special teams coach, Harbaugh worked out Rackers a few times when he was coming out of the University of Illinois.

The Ravens would like to sign a kicker prior to the draft to compete with incumbent Billy Cundiff.

Graham fell out of favor in Cincinnati after missing a pair of field goals during the Bengals' playoff loss to the New York Jets.

"We like Shayne Graham a lot," Harbaugh said. "Shayne is a highly sought after guy, too. He's a guy who's had a lot of success. Obviously, they had some operation problems that hurt them a little bit.

"But he's a hard worker and I think he's determined to prove himself again. I know he's knows what kind of kicker he is. It would be an interesting possibility. We'll see how it shakes out."

Harbaugh reiterated that he expects safety Ed Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to continue to play football and not retire due to a painful nerve impingement in his neck.

Harbaugh said he has exchanged several text messages with Reed, adding that they aren't "any deep conversation."

"What I understand him saying is the door is always open," Harbaugh said. "He isn't going to play beyond what his body is going to allow. At the same time, I think he's going to play this year. I think he's going to play next year and the year after that until he says he's not."

The Ravens could use two more cornerbacks since it's unclear when Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington will be able to play after suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments last season.

Harbaugh said he thinks the Ravens will sign a veteran and draft a cornerback.

The Ravens haven't offered a contract to Frank Walker, but haven't ruled out bringing him back.

Walker has been unpopular with fans due to his tendency to draw penalties.

"It's funny you ask the question and the whole fan base, everybody's going to be like, ‘Don't do it.' But Frank's a better player than what people think. I get as frustrated with Frank as anybody does and Frank knows that. He'll tell you about it and he'll laugh about it. Frank has got as much talent as any corner in the league.

"He's tough, he's competitive, he's a physical guy. He loves to play the game. When he gets carried outside of his technique he struggles just like any corner does. When he stays within himself and plays technique, he plays very well." Walker has drawn some interest from other NFL teams, including the Oakland Raiders.

"Frank has got some other options right now, too," Harbaugh said. "People have respect for him. We may not be able to get him signed back. Right now, I'm not so sure that he's not the best guy out there. You can give me a list of guys and we could think about it, but.. "He knows how we play. He knows how we practice. He knows the expectations. We've had him for two years. We've been through some moments as we all know. And those moments you kind of grow through those things. Hopefully, he understands now what's expected of him."

NOTES: The Ravens were relieved to re-sign Mason to a two-year, $8 million contract.

"I would say it was touch-and-go because anytime a guy goes into free agency it's touch-and-go," Harbaugh said. "You just never know. I was confident that he would be back because he told me that he wanted to be back, and I told him that we wanted him back.

"We both knew that we could get a deal done. I think he was interested to see what was available. By the same token in his heart, it would have been hard for him to leave."

Harbaugh said that the team hopes to sign Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to a long-term deal at some point.

"Absolutely, nobody would disagree with the fact that Haloti Ngata is a guy that we have every intention of making a Raven forever," Harbaugh said. "I know Haloti wants to be a Raven and I know he wants to do a long-term contract just as soon as he possibly can. I want to see it done as soon as possible and I think Ozzie would, too."

The Ravens don't expect veteran cornerback Samari Rolle to play football again due to his history of neck problems that have required surgical procedures.

"His health is the No. 1 concern," Harbaugh said. "There's been no indication that I've heard from anybody that Samari is going to be physically ready to play. We would have to be very convinced that he would have no risk." ..

The modified overtime proposal passed by a 28-4 margin with the Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns voting against the measure.

The vote only needed 24 votes to pass.

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