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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco has the Super Bowl ring — or at least he officially will in a couple weeks.
The Ravens quarterback has the lucrative $120.6 million contract and the long-term security it provides.
And he has a heightened level of respect, even if some of his biggest critics now want to see him replicate some semblance of his record-setting playoff run in the regular season.
But an offseason full of changes brings more questions for the franchise quarterback. The retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Ed Reed have left a gigantic leadership void that many expect the 28-year-old to fill as he enters his sixth season. The exits of center Matt Birk and wide receiver Anquan Boldin suddenly makes Flacco one of the elder statesmen on the offensive side of the football.
Ask anyone in the Baltimore locker room whether Flacco is treating this offseason or his style of leadership any differently and you’ll receive a similar response. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP was already the kind of leader teammates respect, even if it lacks Lewis’ camera-friendly fire or Reed’s outspoken nature.
“Joe has done a great job throughout his career in his own way,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Nothing is going to change Joe. Joe is going to be who he is. I don’t think a change in the roster is going to change Joe [and] who he is. A change in the contract isn’t going to change Joe. Joe is Joe, and that’s what you love about him.”
Flacco is also experiencing his first full offseason with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. While many have wondered what the former Indianapolis head coach can do with the offensive system with ample time to plan after being thrown to the fire last December, Flacco downplayed any notion that the Ravens will look dramatically different on offense in 2013.
Of course, the start of the regular season is still more than three months away, so much could happen, both from schematics and personnel standpoints. The Ravens will hope the dramatic breakthroughs made in December that carried over into their postseason run to a Super Bowl title were only scratching the surface in terms of production under Caldwell.
“We may have changed a couple things here and there, but for the most part, it’s the same,” Flacco said. “He’ll probably add some of his concepts in just because he’s the guy that is driving things for the most part now. So, we’ll have new wrinkles in there, but for the most part, it’s pretty similar.”
Perhaps the biggest change we’ll see between now and the start of the season is at the wide receiver position as the Ravens continue to adjust to life without Boldin as their most reliable receiver. To this point, general manager Ozzie Newsome hasn’t added a veteran receiver with a track record to supplement the outside threats that Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones provide.
Instead of looking at a scrap heap of free-agent receivers headlined by the productive but baggage-heavy Brandon Lloyd, the Ravens appear content with evaluating a cast of young receivers that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, and David Reed. All three saw time working with Smith and the starting offense during Wednesday’s practice as Jones was absent on the heels of his third-place finish in ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
Asked if outsiders have made too much of the Ravens’ need to add an established wideout to the mix, Flacco sees potential in the homegrown players who have received few opportunities to this point in their respective careers. The three young receivers who’ve been sharing time with the first unit this week have combined for 17 receptions and just 35 targets.
With tight end Dennis Pitta expected to work more from the slot, the Ravens don’t need any of the young options to match Boldin’s impressive production, but they do need at least one to become a viable target. And much of that development will fall on a veteran quarterback entering the prime years of his career. For years, it was veteran pass catchers such as Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, and Boldin nurturing Flacco’s development, but the Ravens believe Flacco can now do the same for younger receivers.
“I like the idea of having guys that we’ve had, we’ve drafted here, or we’ve picked up here and grooming them and getting those guys to become great wide receivers,” Flacco said. “They definitely have the talent to do it; I think we just need to get them some [game-time] reps and their confidence can take off.
“One of the biggest things about Anquan is that he knew he was the man. So, when he went out there, he didn’t care what happened. He was the man. You don’t realize how much that helps out your play and your team’s play. And when these young guys can get to the point where they’re out there and their attitude is that, they have all the ability in the world, and I feel very confident with those guys.”
None of the Ravens’ many youthful options are a sure thing. Doss has drawn the strongest comparisons to Boldin because of his crisp routes and strong hands shown in practices, but those skills haven’t transferred to game action in limited opportunities and he’s struggled to stay healthy. Thompson shows breakaway speed, but the biggest knock on him at the University of Florida was his inconsistent hands. Reed faces questions about both his durability and his hands.
Perhaps a receiver from a second tier of players that includes LaQuan Williams, Tommy Streeter, and Aaron Mellette will turn heads over the next few weeks and push their way into the conversation.
And there remains a very real possibility that the Ravens make that veteran addition through a trade or by simply waiting until cuts are made over the course of the preseason.
None of these uncertainties seem to faze Flacco, who views change as part of life in the NFL. He simply takes the lessons learned from the veterans before him and passes them along to newcomers. The Ravens hope the confidence Flacco holds in his own ability will hopefully rub off on an unproven group of players in which he sees much promise.
His style hasn’t changed, but his success speaks for itself in terms of how he’s viewed as a leader in the locker room and on the field. It’s a major reason why the Ravens aren’t nearly as concerned about the veteran leadership lost this offseason as everyone else seems to be.
“We’ve always had a locker room where everybody kind of shares roles,” Flacco said. “You have so many guys that are very responsible and know how to go to work, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to continuously have success even though our team has changed a lot. It’s because all of those guys that have been there before us really show us how to do it and then everybody just kind of takes that lead.
“And I think that’s where we are. I think that’s where I am.”