With veteran targets gone, Flacco wants ball in his hands

July 27, 2011 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even putting aside the 134-day lockout that ended earlier this week, it was anything but a typical offseason for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

There was the firing of quarterback coach Jim Zorn and rumblings that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Flacco weren’t on the same page.

With two years remaining on his current contract, Flacco expressed a desire for a new long-term contract in the midst of labor unrest.

Amid criticism from national media and peers such as Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley about his ability to win earlier this summer, Flacco married his high school sweetheart and saw his wedding photos become a viral sensation.

But none of that topped Monday’s news of the Ravens’ intentions to release his two longtime targets, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, who were responsible for securing 33 of Flacco’s 60 touchdown passes over his first three seasons. Suddenly, Flacco finds his safety net torn away, with only Anquan Boldin and a number of young question marks remaining.

“I had no idea anything like that was going to happen, I really didn’t,” said Flacco, who expressed strong hope that both can be brought back. “You expect to come back and see some new faces, just like every year. Definitely was not expecting to get rid of Derrick and Todd. It happens in this league, so you’ve got to learn to not be surprised by those things.”

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Surprise is exactly what Flacco has brought to Baltimore since injuries forced the former Delaware quarterback into the starting lineup to begin his rookie season in 2008. With a regular season record of 32-16 over his first three seasons, the 26-year-old has silenced initial questions of whether he could play in the NFL, but the criticism has shifted to his postseason failures and an inability to become an elite quarterback at this point in his career.

Despite seven career playoff games — all coming on the road — and a 4-3 record, Flacco’s 61.6 quarterback rating and seven interceptions (to just four touchdowns) have many questioning whether he can lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Without Mason and Heap on the field, the pressure falls even heavier on Flacco’s shoulders in his fourth season, with criticism growing louder in many circles.

“There’s some that you don’t pay attention to and there’s some that you do,” said Flacco, whose quarterback rating has increased in each of his three seasons. “I don’t really quite understand it. We’ve had a good team the last three years, and I think I’ve gotten better each year and played pretty darn good. I really don’t understand it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. People are going to say what they’re going to say. We just have to go out there and continue to win football games.”

Winning football games may prove a greater challenge after the veteran departures and the lack of an offseason for Flacco to become better acquainted with rookie receivers Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss as well as to develop better chemistry with projected starting tight end Ed Dickson. Of Flacco’s 25 touchdown passes in 2010, players currently on the roster caught just nine of those scores — seven from Anquan Boldin.

The offense can no longer rely on the leadership of Heap and Mason, but will instead look to Flacco and running back Ray Rice to assert themselves further in their fourth season together.

“It’s just time to groom those guys and mold those guys the way we want them, the way I want them,” Flacco said. “We’ll have that chance. I’ll be able to be out there on the practice field with these young receivers.

“I’ll have a chance to live everything with them, go through every step of it with them. When they’re learning everything, when they’re going through their tough times, when they’re going through their good times, I’ll be right there with them, and that’ll be a good experience.”

Much has been opined about Flacco’s freedom in the offense — particularly with making pre-snap adjustments at the line of scrimmage — and a need to “remove the training wheels” for the young quarterback in what amounts to a big season for Cameron. The Ravens stated their intent in the offseason for Flacco to be more involved in the planning and execution of the offense.

Flacco wasn’t ready to disclose what that will ultimately look like, but his intention to take the accountability for the Ravens’ successes and failures was made perfectly clear in his first day back at the training complex, speaking with more conviction than what we’ve come to expect from the laid-back quarterback.

“We have to go through a season, and we have to put in game plans and just see what we’re going to do,” Flacco said. “I just want to go out there and win football games, and I want the ball to be put in my hands. I want everybody to be accountable. I want to go out there, and I want to be in control. I want to be put in the position to lose football games.

“I want it to be on me, and if we lose football games, I want you to be able to look directly at me and say, ‘Why did we lose this game?’ I should have a pretty good answer for you. And I want you to be able to look at me and say, ‘Why did we win this game?’ and I should have a pretty good answer for you. In order to do that, you have to have trust in me, and I think we’re there.”

With all the criticism of an unprecedented offseason and the abrupt exit of his two favorite targets, the spotlight shines even brighter on Flacco. The offense is younger and will depend on him to lead — and to perform — with the outspoken Mason and the lead-by-example Heap no longer in the picture.

That’s just fine with the Ravens quarterback.

“What motivates me is being the best quarterback in the world,” Flacco said. “I don’t play this game to be average; I play this game to be the best. It doesn’t matter what other people say. I think I’m pretty damn good. I don’t need to go out and tell everybody that. … I go out there, and I play.”

And that’s exactly what he’ll need to do.

Hear Flacco’s comments to the media in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault right here.

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