|David Drapkin/Associated Press|
|Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco is eyeing a big offensive season after playing second fiddle to the defense.|
Whatever it is, was or has been, quarterback Joe Flacco is here now.
His teammates spent the offseason telling anyone who'd listen that 2012 will be Flacco's year, and that the Ravens have become his team. The 6-foot-6 gunslinger doesn't disagree. And that's why, when Baltimore opens its season at 7 p.m. ET on Monday night against the rival Cincinnati Bengals, he's planning to ramp up the tempo, ramp down the huddling and light up the scoreboard, giving the viewing public a product that's decidedly different from what it's used to getting out of the Ravens offense.
"I hope it is different," he said over the weekend. "We've never really had a top offense here. That's just the way it's been. But we have the talent now. I'm not saying we're gonna score 50 points every game. But that's our goal. If it doesn't look different, I'll be disappointed."
Flacco is right to say the Ravens have never exactly hung their hat on offense. At least, they haven't since the years immediately after the franchise left Cleveland in 1995. In 1996, Baltimore ranked third in the NFL in total offense and second in passing offense. The next year, they were ninth and fifth in those categories. Vinny Testaverde was the quarterback. Ted Marchibroda was the coach. Ray Lewis was in his early 20s.
In the 14 seasons since, though, the Ravens haven't finished in the top 10 in either total or passing offense. Over that span, they ranked in the top 15 in total offense just three times and ranked among the top half of the league's passing offenses just twice -- finishing 16th in 2001 and 11th in 2006.
Accordingly, Flacco has been good, not great. Over the first four years of his career, he ranks eighth in the NFL in passing yards (13,816), 19th in completion percentage (60.8) and 12th in touchdown passes (80). He's done what he's needed to -- winning a playoff game in each of your first four seasons is nothing to sneeze at -- but always felt like he could do more.
"Well, I think I'm pretty good," he said, in a matter-of-fact manner that hardly came off as cocky. "And I think I can throw the ball around. Like any quarterback, if I'm the (offensive coordinator), we're not as worried about establishing the running game, we're throwing it all over the field, we're getting it in the athletes' hands. I think that's how all quarterbacks think."
Starting Monday night, those thoughts might come to life.
People in the Ravens organization have long explained Flacco's statistical mediocrity as a function of what he's been asked to do. It's true that Baltimore doesn't load up on the 5-yard slants or slip screens that inflate many other quarterbacks' numbers. The Ravens have eschewed the short stuff in favor of a downfield passing game designed to take advantage of the Ray Rice-powered running attack and Flacco's howitzer of a right arm.
That's fair reasoning, and represents a smart way to gradually develop a player like Flacco, a young quarterback who was thrown onto a team perpetually in "win-now" mode. Unlike a rebuilding team, the Ravens couldn't afford to ride out very many of the hiccups that inexperienced signal-callers inevitably go through.
However, circumstances are again changing. Ray Lewis is 37. Ed Reed will turn 34 on Tuesday. Suggs is hurt. The bottom isn't necessarily going to fall out on defense, but the Ravens might need to veer from the tried-and-true script. And that's where the fast-paced, volume-based offense that coordinator Cam Cameron installed in the offseason comes into play.
"We've gone (with the) hurry-up (offense) in the past, and I think we're good at it," Flacco said. "It's part of being more aggressive. Like I said, we really haven't had a good offense here. We've shown promise, we've gotten better, but we have to prove it. Going out and being aggressive gives us the best chance to do that."
The personnel should help, too. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, drafted together in 2010, started to come of age last season. Receiver Torrey Smith is going into his second year as one of the NFL's most promising vertical threats. Rice's versatility makes him a natural fit for a hurry-up offense, and new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell's experience running Peyton Manning's no-huddle attack with the Indianapolis Colts ties everything together neatly.
Being honest, Flacco, who ran a no-huddle spread in college at Delaware, said he's always wanted this. While the old structure allowed the Ravens to take advantage of Flacco's strengths without forcing too much on him too quickly, the new setup, he thinks, will make him a more efficient, rhythmic quarterback.
"This is gonna be the kind of offense where you string together the completions," he said. "No matter how long those completions are, that has a way of frustrating the defense. And they get frustrated, and those big 'chunk' plays will come. In the past, we were running the ball and throwing deep; I'd hold on to the ball, sit back and read the defense. It's harder to get rhythm, playing that way. This is different. The ball's coming out quick."
That will mean, like Flacco said, more completions. It will also mean more plays. If the plan is working, instead of running 60 plays per game, the Ravens could run around 70; less time wasted on the play clock and less punting adds up to more snaps. In essence, think Oregon-meets-the-NFL.
"You run that many plays, you keep the defense on the field, and late in the game, it's gonna be tough on them," Flacco said. "Yeah, we'll be tired out there. But as much as our offensive linemen are gonna be tired, those defensive linemen will be more tired, because they're rushing upfield, taking on blocks and chasing. We plan on putting lots of pressure on the defense."
And in doing that, the hope is to take the pressure off the Ravens' own defense, one that's been asked to carry the day every Sunday for more than a decade.
Maybe Baltimore's offense will never enjoy the kind of sterling reputation its defense has earned through the years. But at the very least, Flacco thinks it's time to start closing the gap.
"We're hoping that the difference is, now, we'll be able to put teams away, instead of letting them hang around like we have," Flacco said. "We shouldn't be playing all these close games with the defense we have. We're looking to have that killer instinct."
Will it look a little funny at first tonight? Sure, it might.
But if Flacco's vision for his team springs to life, it'll be well worth getting used to.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.