OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Working with three former first-round picks could have been a daunting challenge for new Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban.
No quarterback rises to such heights without having great confidence and, frankly, some ego to go with his talents, but Urban has effectively managed a room that includes a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and a Heisman Trophy winner drafted four months ago using a balance of fun and attention to detail. That atmosphere and plenty of hard work have left starter Joe Flacco, veteran Robert Griffin III, and rookie Lamar Jackson trending upward as the preseason concludes Thursday night.
Flacco appears poised for his best season in a few years, Jackson is coming off his best performance of the summer, and Griffin has impressed so much after a year away from the NFL that the Ravens are considering entering a season with three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for the first time since 2009. Fourth-string quarterback Josh Woodrum even has a 98.5 passer rating in limited preseason snaps while serving as a knowledgeable asset in the classroom and on the practice field.
So, what stands out about Urban, who spent the last seven years as the wide receivers coach of the Cincinnati Bengals?
“The thing that I think he does the best is allows you to feel like a football player, not a robot,” said Griffin after taking a playful dig at Urban’s short stature. “Not like pushing this button and then you go there, and pushing this button and you go there. I think he allows you to feel the game. He wants you to feel like you’re being fluid in the pocket, that you’re moving naturally. He’s also a stickler for, ‘Hey, when versus this coverage or versus this coverage, you’re supposed to go here.’ But he understands that maybe sometimes somebody gets through or you felt something and that’s why you made that throw.
“He doesn’t try to coach the playmaker out of you.”
Such a philosophy easily relates to mobile quarterbacks like Griffin and Jackson, but one of the first things Urban noted about Flacco this spring was his natural arm talent, something that hasn’t been utilized effectively in recent seasons. It’s no coincidence the Ravens have placed more emphasis on the deep passing game in training camp with Flacco regularly connecting with explosive newcomer John Brown as well as the improving Chris Moore during practices.
Flacco is practicing better than he has in years, even if everyone has at least a slightly different theory as to why. The 33-year-old is healthier than he’s been in a long time as he’s now three years removed from a serious knee injury and completely over the back ailment that cost him the entire 2017 preseason and lingered into the regular season. The offseason additions of Brown, Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and first-round tight end Hayden Hurst give Baltimore a more diverse set of skill position players after too many years of halfhearted attempts to put better talent around the veteran quarterback.
Opinions vary on just how much Jackson’s selection has impacted Flacco, but it’s human nature in any line of work to feel more urgency when the boss brings in a potential threat to your livelihood, even if the starting job is unquestionably his for the foreseeable future. Shoddy footwork was a common criticism of the Super Bowl XLVII MVP over these last few years, but Urban has seen a player more than willing to be coached entering his 11th season.
“They’re little things,” said Urban, who immediately emphasized mobility, movement in the pocket, and footwork timing during spring workouts. “Generally, Joe has not balked at a single thing: not any drill work, not any extra little conditioning drill work, not extra meeting time, nothing. He’s been open, willing, ready, and wants to [succeed] very badly, and that’s just evident. I love how he’s competing in practice.”
Much has been made about the time Urban spent with Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg in Philadelphia to help revitalize Michael Vick’s career with many naturally connecting those experiences to Jackson. However, their rapport goes beyond the rookie’s development as Mornhinweg admits the challenge of handling both coordinator and quarterbacks coaching duties was enjoyable but “a long, hard grind” as the Ravens offense struggled the last two seasons.
The new arrangement allows Mornhinweg to spend more time on the big picture of the entire offense and less with the quarterbacks while Urban serves as the liaison. That change shouldn’t be overlooked as Mornhinweg will be tasked with trying to take advantage of Jackson’s athleticism in some special packages while not upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense. Assistant head coach Greg Roman and Urban will also have input in that process with both having experience coaching mobile quarterbacks.
“Just the way [Urban] talks, the way we get in that room and the way he coaches it up, I think him and Marty have a connection, and they can talk the same lingo,” Flacco said. “I think that definitely helps when you get in the room. Last year, Marty was in our meetings constantly. Now, it allows him to go be a coordinator and bounce around from meeting to meeting, go up and spend some time by himself and work on the game plan. I think James has handled it well. He does a great job relaying that message. He’s somebody that we can talk to in meetings and bounce ideas off of, and then he can go relay them to Marty. It’s just a very good situation.”
While the 2018 performance of Flacco and the offense remains paramount as the Ravens try to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the long-term development of Jackson will remain important. Much progress has been made as the Louisville product has adjusted to more complicated verbiage — which is quite common transitioning from college football — and to playing under center more frequently. Urban has worked with Jackson to widen the base of his throwing motion in hopes of improving his accuracy and has even had him practice calling plays in front of a mirror to express the terminology in the huddle more naturally.
Each quarterback has noted enjoying working with Urban, but the 44-year-old is not afraid to offer tough love when necessary. Jackson noted this past week that the quarterbacks coach was critical of him for not getting sufficiently warmed up before the Indianapolis game, his worst performance of the summer. He made a point to be ready upon entering the game in Miami before running for a touchdown and throwing another while completing 70 percent of his passes.
Many have expressed concern about the hits Jackson has absorbed this preseason, but Urban says it’s a delicate balance between wanting to keep him safe and not eliminating what attracted the Ravens to him in the first place. Urban and Griffin have coached and mentored Jackson about the importance of sliding and avoiding contact when possible, but both acknowledge taking some hits is going to be part of the 21-year-old’s maturation process.
“Lamar has been a sponge,” Urban said. “Lamar shows just enough personality that you really like, but he’s respectful. If he said it once, he’s said it a bunch of times: ‘Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl. That dude is real.’ That kind of thing — it’s been great.”
Every image or morsel of information regarding Flacco and Jackson has been over-analyzed from the moment general manager Ozzie Newsome traded back into the first round to take the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner in April, something Urban made a point to joke about in the spring to break the ice and ease any tension that could have existed. The two may not be best friends ready to rent an apartment complete with bunk beds, but any notions of chilliness are overblown.
“There’s absolutely no animosity,” Woodrum said. “The media loves to make up stories just because they know people will read them. There’s no animosity or anything. Our unit in there is just awesome. We have a great time. We bounce ideas off each other. We try to help each other be the best we can because there’s only one of us on the field at once. If one of us shines, it makes the whole room look pretty good.”
There’s no telling what the future might hold for Flacco and Jackson beyond this season — and for Griffin and Woodrum much sooner than that — but Urban has catered to each individual’s needs this summer, leaving the quarterbacks, Mornhinweg, and the entire offense in a better place entering the season.
It’s a breath of fresh air the Ravens hope will translate to more success.