Big things expected from small-school product Flacco

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Ray Lewis had some advice for the rookie teammate who would command the greatest amount of attention during the first practice of the Baltimore Ravens' mandatory minicamp.

"Don't be scared to be the second Ben Roethlisberger," Lewis told Joe Flacco before the Ravens took the field on a rainy Friday.

The message was clear: As a rookie quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004, Roethlisberger enjoyed considerable success, largely because he made himself a complement to a strong defense rather than taking it upon himself to carry the team on his young shoulders.

Like Roethlisberger, Flacco is a first-round draft pick. Like Roethlisberger, who came from Miami of Ohio, Flacco, a former Delaware Blue Hen, does not have major-college pedigree. And like Roethlisberger, Flacco has a top-notch defense he can lean on.

"When you're able to surround that much (defensive strength) around a person who has any type of talent, it makes them blossom," Lewis said. "That's why Ben Roethlisberger grew up so quickly."

There's no telling how fast the growth process will be for 23-year-old Flacco -- that is, beyond the 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame that Mother Nature provided.

One practice doesn't reveal a whole lot, although in Flacco's case it did show many of the qualities that convinced the Ravens to make him the highest-drafted quarterback in franchise history (18th overall). He threw the ball with fairly good accuracy and excellent velocity, which is his most compelling attribute. He was part of the lone highlight play of the non-contact session, connecting with wide receiver Mark Clayton on a 50-yard bomb.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Flacco's performance was that he didn't appear the least bit rattled despite the fact that Lewis, Ed Reed, Bart Scott and other members of one of the NFL's top defensive units were on the other side of the line. By all indications, his voice never cracked when he called plays and he showed good command of the huddle.

"It was a fun time," Flacco said. "You just go out there and relax, play football the way you know how to do it and try to make it as simple as possible for yourself. You have to tell yourself that you know what you're doing, just go out there and execute and do the best you can."

"He showed us why we drafted him," first-year Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He made some really nice throws. He was quick with the ball for the most part, but that's something he's got to improve on. He was quick with his feet for the most part, but that's something he's got to improve on. I thought he threw a nice wet ball, which, in the AFC North, is important."

Flacco's quick, compact delivery is what excites new Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron the most about the rookie. Throughout his coaching career, Cameron has learned and taught an offensive system that places great emphasis on the quarterback's ability to get the ball out of his hand in a blink. He saw what it meant to some of the position's greatest players, including Dan Fouts and Troy Aikman.

And it was among the first things that jumped out at Cameron when he studied videotape of Flacco's games at Delaware.

"I remember watching his tape and then meeting him," Cameron said. "And I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me. This guy's 6-foot-6? You watch him on tape and he plays like he's a guy who's 6-3 or 6-4.' Height can be a liability, but I don't see that (being) the case with him, because he's got good feet and he's got a quick arm. Sometimes a long arm leads to a long delivery, but he doesn't have a long delivery.

"Joe's going to get quicker and get stronger and improve, but he's naturally quick with the ball for a big guy, and I think there is some rareness to that."

Of course, the ability to get rid of the ball quickly only matters if the ball ends up in the right spot. And it means nothing if the quarterback hesitates with the ball because he is uncertain about the coverage he sees.

That is the largest question about Flacco. Can a kid from a small school such as Delaware make the transition to the NFL? Sure, his career passing numbers for the Blue Hens were phenomenal: 7,046 yards, 41 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions, and a completion percentage of 63.4.

But it's one thing to shred the secondaries of Towson and Monmoth in front of 18,000-plus crowds. What's going to happen on third-and-long when he has to decipher the complexities of the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme under the din of 70,000-plus roaring fans at Heinz Field?

"Any of us who have been in it long enough ... none of us really know," Cameron said. "You look over the history of quarterbacks in the draft ... it's all best guess because you really can never truly know how a guy's going to handle the day-to-day adversity an NFL quarterback goes through. I think that's what separates the guys. It's not arm strength. It's, can they withstand the mental and physical grind?

"No matter where you draft them, until they go through it and come out of it, you really don't know. So I'm not going to sit here and say, just because we drafted a guy at any point that makes him a guaranteed success or a guaranteed failure. There is no magic formula."

Flacco faces a significant adjustment in the speed of the game. NFL defenders are many times faster than those he saw at Delaware. A receiver doesn't stay open for long, if he ever truly is open at all. The closing speed of a defensive back or a linebacker can get the best of even the most experienced quarterbacks from the biggest of college programs.

Kyle Boller, QB
2007 Statistics
G/GS: 12/8

Comp: 168

Att: 275

Yards: 1,743

TD/INT: 9/10

Troy Smith, QB
2007 Statistics
G/GS: 4/2

Comp: 40

Att: 76

Yards: 452

TD/INT: 2/0

"The whole game is faster," Flacco said. "You get in there and you get comfortable with the offense, and once you get comfortable with the offense and get those reps, I think the game just naturally slows down for you."

Officially, the Ravens maintain that they are looking to fill the void created by Steve McNair's recent retirement from a three-way competition that includes veteran Kyle Boller, second-year man Troy Smith, and Flacco.

Unofficially, Flacco will have every opportunity to win the job as a rookie.

His first-round status says as much. So does the fact that Boller has been a disappointment since the Ravens made him the 19th overall pick in 2003. Boller is big, strong and athletic, but has performed inconsistently and left himself open to plenty of second-guessing with poor decision-making.

Smith won the 2006 Heisman Trophy, but the fact he stands only 6-0 is a drawback because he is more effective on rollout plays that don't have a huge place in the Ravens' scheme. As Cameron points out, with the inclement weather found in all four AFC North cities, it is no coincidence that Roethlisberger, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, and Cleveland's Derek Anderson are towering athletes with large hands. It also is no coincidence that the Ravens have added such a quarterback in Flacco.

Still, Harbaugh is determined to avoid putting the rookie under center too soon. It's an extremely tough call to make, because no first-time NFL quarterback is ever really ready for what awaits him. There are always mistakes, always ugly moments that call into question the wisdom of the team that selected him.

The trick, presuming the talent has been correctly identified, is picking the right time when the mistakes aren't too many or too devastating. Harbaugh insists the Ravens will be patient, even if many others outside of the franchise are not.

"We're not going to put him in there until he's ready to be our guy, if he's ready to be our guy," the coach said. "So I think that takes pressure off him, it takes pressure off us, it takes pressure off the other guys. When he's ready and you feel, 'He can get the job done, he can win for us,' you'll feel good about putting him out there."

On Draft Day, Flacco said that that day would come sooner rather than later.

One day of practice didn't change his opinion.

"I have confidence in my ability," Flacco said. "Obviously, things are going to take care of themselves. I've got a lot of learning to do, and after being here for a day I can see that. It's been a lot of fun so far, and I can't wait to continue the process."

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