Flacco's time to lead the Ravens

WESTMINSTER – Joe Flacco flicked his wrist like a basketball player swishing a free throw, launching a crisp spiral that landed in the waiting hands of wide receiver Mark Clayton. The Baltimore Ravens' strong-armed quarterback made the throw look easy with his classic mechanics, almost casual during the first day of training camp Tuesday at McDaniel College.

It's that kind of form along with an upgraded receiving corps that has generated optimism throughout the organization that Flacco will take the next step in his evolution as a quarterback as he enters his third NFL season.

That confidence was on display during a rapid-fire response from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron when asked what Flacco needs to do to prove his readiness.

"Nothing," Cameron said sharply. "I know he is. To me, the work ethic is the key. He's ready to have a great season because of the work he's put in.

"He's worked extremely hard. Past experience will tell you that guys with his talent level with the kind of team that we hope to be, he's going to play well. He doesn't really have to show me anything."

When the Ravens tabbed Flacco out of the University of Delaware in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft, the 6-foot-6, 238-pound New Jersey native immediately displayed several traits.

He had a big arm. He was more mobile than he appeared to be at first glance. And he was tough enough mentally and physically to operate in pressure situations, becoming the first NFL quarterback to ever win two playoff games as a rookie.

Now, the Ravens are looking for even more from Flacco after trading for Anquan Boldin this offseason as well as retaining Derrick Mason and signing speedster Donte' Stallworth.

"I'm definitely more comfortable," Flacco said. "It's second nature to come here, walk out onto the field. Everything feels great. I feel very confident, very comfortable. And I'm sure everybody feels the same way."

During this offseason, Flacco has become less reticent and more willing to take on an active leadership role.

He has organized several throwing sessions with Boldin and Stallworth.

He traveled to Arizona to work on his timing with tight end Todd Heap.

And the 25-year-old has become more inclined to voice his opinion about team matters, publicly and privately.

Flacco is taking on more of an ownership as the guy the team is counting on to make the key audible, stand in the pocket with pressure coming and deliver the throw while getting hit.

"As a quarterback, it has to be your offense," Flacco said. "Yeah, I want to be able to go out there and just run the show and go up and down the field, blow out points on the board and come out successful.

"That's what it's all about. That's what we're here doing, working on. When we get everybody here in a couple days, we'll see what we've got." In two NFL seasons, Flacco has completed 61.7 percent of his throws to produce 6,584 yards, 35 touchdowns and 24 interceptions with a respectable 88.9 passer rating.

At the end of last season, he had an aching hip and a sore ankle.

During the playoffs, Flacco was injured and mostly ineffective as the Ravens' season ended in an AFC divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

With all of the added weapons, including two talented rookie tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, things could be different this time provided that Flacco is healthy and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice maintains the high standard he established last season.

"I think we added guys who are going to make us better," Flacco said. "We're all getting more and more confident. I think we're more talented and it just lends to playing better."

This offseason, Flacco traveled to Los Angeles to work on his fundamentals with a college baseball pitching coach.

He hasn't stepped back from any offseason activities involving football.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh has seen a steady progression from Flacco. Consequently, he'll be granted more freedom and given more responsibility.

"As Joe gets into this thing deeper and deeper, the whole offense becomes his offense," Harbaugh said. "So, he can do more things. He can make more adjustments at the line of scrimmage, execute under fire a little bit when he's got to play fast."

The Ravens have identified red-zone efficiency as an area where they want to see improvement from the offense in general and Flacco.

"We need to be better in the red zone," Harbaugh said. "So, that'll be something that I think he'll take the next step on.

Flacco says he only took one short vacation since the season ended, a trip down to the Jersey Shore. It's safe to say that the low-key Flacco wasn't partying and fist-pumping like "The Situation," of MTV fame.

He takes his job very seriously.

"That's the way it works in the NFL," Cameron said. "The quarterback gets the ball on every down. A quarterback has to play well over a long period of time, 65 to 70 plays.

"What Joe has to do is continue to grow, continue to get better, and don't feel you have to do it all. There are 11 guys out there. It is Joe's job to lead us."

In two seasons, Flacco has started every game. He has gone 20-12 as the starter in regular-season games and won three of five playoff starts.

"Joe has done the hardest thing of all in his first two years, and that's learn how to win," Cameron said. " Now it's just a matter of winning more and tightening up any details he didn't understand the past couple of years. That's normal.

"I'm looking for growth, for consistent performances in practices and meetings. Normally, the game takes care of itself. With his talent level and drive, we'll get him where we want him to be."

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