Ravens maneuver through draft to get their man Joe Flacco
By Joe Platania
When Terry Bradshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, he drew big laughs for stating, "I'd like to put my hands under [center] Mike Webster's butt one more time!"
That line might fall under the category of "too much information," but it's a crucial component of what will make former Delaware quarterback and Baltimore Ravens first-round draft pick Joe Flacco a success.
If Flacco doesn't pan out, he will flame out as the latest in a long list of Ravens quarterbacks who have come to town with high hopes, only to leave with nothing to show for them.
(Mark Campbell, University of Delaware Athletics Media Relations)
"We decided it was time to pull the trigger on the quarterback that we felt was the guy to lead our football team into the future," general manager Ozzie Newsome said after a decidedly un-Ravens-like draft. Flacco was taken with the 18th overall pick after the Ravens traded with the Jacksonville Jaguars out of the eighth selection, then with the Houston Texans to move up from pick No. 26.
The days of standing pat and waiting for a Jonathan Ogden, Todd Heap or Terrell Suggs to fall into the team's lap seem to be over. The Ravens now have the look of a more proactive organization, willing to take chances instead of relying on past philosophies and occasional good luck.
"[Trading down] basically put some things in motion that we had been working on in the last eight or nine days," Newsome said. "Once we got on the clock, I think we had at least three people we had talked to, and what we thought our best option was to go back to [Jaguars general manager James Harris] and make that trade."
The approach was questioned heavily, especially when two other quarterbacks, Louisville's Brian Brohm and Michigan's Chad Henne, were still available when the Ravens tabbed Rutgers running back Ray Rice late in the second round with the 55th pick.
But Newsome's methodology was necessary last weekend in a draft that featured 33 trades, 25 of them on the first day. Baltimore was involved in three of them, and the movement eventually netted the team a total of 10 picks after it entered the weekend with only nine.
It was the third largest draft haul in team history, two short of the record of 12 selections made in 1997.
However, it is Flacco who is clearly the cornerstone of the class.
"Getting Joe is a culmination of tape work, workouts and a lot of information that we’ve been able to gather over the course of the last two months," Newsome said.
Flacco, the first Delaware product taken in the first round and only the second Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) player drafted in Ravens history, has been compared in recent days with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Ravens' own first-round trade target in 2003, Kyle Boller.
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Flacco has Roethlisberger's size and Boller's strong arm and tenacity. But because of the Blue Hens' predominant shotgun scheme, what he doesn't have is much familiarity with his center.
Joe Flacco, meet Chris Chester.
CENTER OF ATTENTION,
IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Flacco's first off-field impression is that of a laidback young man who believes he can handle any situation. But getting under center and taking snaps, while seemingly an innocuous part of football, is something he will have to learn quickly.
"I think I’m prepared to do that," he said. "I think everybody has to make an adjustment, and I think I’m just as prepared as anybody else is. I did play a lot in the shotgun in Delaware, but I think I have the ability to play under center just as well.”
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's scheme in Baltimore will test Flacco's abilities. Five- and seven-step drops will be the norm instead of the shotgun-style, two-step, set-your-feet variety.
It's a system that has produced outstanding performances from a wide variety of quarterbacks.
"You just find over time that these guys are all different," Cameron said of his proteges. "Drew Brees is one version of a great quarterback. Philip Rivers would be another. Kurt Warner has run this system, too. There has been a variety of body types, a variety of personalities. Jim Everett was a big, tall guy that had a lot of success in this system. Troy Aikman [was successful].
"But if you look at them, they’re all different in their own way. What they are is tough, they’re all smart, and they’re all extremely competitive. So I’ve really never compared them, and I think that’s [wise]. You really don’t want to short-change a guy because you never know. You can sometimes compare them to someone, and then you put a ceiling on him. I just really wouldn’t want to do that to Joe. I think we’ll just let him be his own guy.”
It's no surprise that with Flacco's size, footwork and mobility have been drawbacks.
"That’s one of the things he’s going to have to work on," said director of college scouting Eric DeCosta. "All of these players, whether it’s a tackle, quarterback or running back, have things that they need to improve on when they get up to this level."
Despite the lack of under-center experience and the seemingly lower level of competition Flacco faced at Delaware, one thing that can't be questioned is his ability to make all the throws necessary in the so-called "route tree."
An examination of DVD footage from Delaware's 59-52 win at Navy last fall revealed a quarterback with a strong arm and, most importantly under a coach such as John Harbaugh, good pace and tempo.
On Flacco's first drive, he threw two quick slants, followed by a deep out-route to the right side, the pattern that asks the most of a quarterback's arm. After another right-side out, he then turned to the left side and zipped a pass into a small defensive seam for a 20-yard gain. A bubble screen gained 13 yards to the 1-yard line and the Blue Hens scored from there.
All of those snaps were taken from the shotgun, but despite the NFL's propensity not to use it that much, Cameron doesn't seem opposed to incorporating more shotgun than has ever been seen in Baltimore, especially when quick-timing West Coast-style throws are implemented.
"Our offense has evolved to where it’s almost 50-50 underneath center and shotgun," Cameron said. "We’re really looking for a guy who can function in the shotgun. That’s where the game has evolved a little bit. It’s changed over the last 10 or 15 years. We want kind of a shotgun guy that can evolve underneath the center."
TROUBLE IN STEEL CITY
Flacco's collegiate career was an evolution of sorts.
After red-shirting his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, Flacco got into three games for the Panthers as a backup in 2004. However, according to his father, Stephen, the coaching staff seemed set on the more-heralded Tyler Palko as the starter.
"We felt they weren't going to give him an opportunity to play," Stephen Flacco said. "They had made their mind up who was going to start. We didn't want him sitting on the sidelines. That's not good."
Flacco's detractors have pointed to his transfer, his demeanor and the fact that he was never a captain at Delaware as signs that he runs away from competitive situations.
"That's obviously not true," Stephen said. "He was looking for competition. He left because he wasn't allowed to be engaged in the competition."
With the sting of rejection still clear in his voice four years later, Flacco agreed.
"I wanted to prove that I was capable of playing, and I just didn’t [get a chance]," he said. "I still carry that with me. I still carry it with me that I’m a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues in college football and prove who I was. I’m going to carry that with me for the rest of my life and hopefully use it for the best.”
A PIVOTAL TIME
So, what will the Flacco era bring that the Scott Mitchell, Tony Banks, Chris Redman and Boller eras haven't? More importantly, when will it begin?
Apparently, not right away.
"We said all along that the quarterback job is going to be a competition," Harbaugh said. "Whoever gives us the best chance to win at any particular time is gong to be our quarterback. It’s like every other position. It’s not like every other position because it’s the quarterback, but the best quarterback is going to be the quarterback who plays. We’re not ruling anything out.
"But like I said many times, we have two good quarterbacks on campus right now that we’re excited about, and we shouldn’t diminish those two guys, either.”
However, it seemed that national pundits were already dismissing the idea of a competition; most draft analysts suggested that merely because Flacco was drafted so highly, he should be anointed the immediate starter.
The conundrum of how much or if a rookie quarterback should see the field has vexed coaches, players and fans for years.
Cincinnati's Carson Palmer carried the clipboard behind veteran retread Jon Kitna, but Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and John Elway were thrown to the wolves right away.
For that matter, so was Boller, a quarterback the Ravens traded to get in the first round and threw onto the field without a veteran on the roster to mentor him.
That's a familiar-sounding pattern. But given Boller's inconsistency over the years, it's one that has many wondering if Flacco is the right fit for the Ravens.
“Well, I think it fits great," Flacco said. "They’re a team that’s looking for a quarterback, and they’re competing their quarterbacks, and they want a guy to stand out and come in and do the job for them.
"It's just a great opportunity for me to go in and play football and compete and prove to people that I’m a good quarterback, so I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.”
It will all start with that first snap from under center.
The rest of the Ravens' 2008 draft class:
(Round 2, 55th pick overall)
Position: Running back
Strengths: Great leg drive and can run between the tackles. Good at blitz pickup and can keep his balance, no matter how much he gets hit.
Weaknesses: Lots of tread off the tires; carried the ball 910 times at Rutgers. Can't turn the corner and won't be a factor catching passes. Lacks speed and has had shoulder injuries.
Quotable: "He mainly delivers a blow instead of taking a blow. Could he play a 16-game schedule? I think he can." -- Newsome
(Round 3, 71st pick overall)
School: Miami (Fla.)
Position: Inside linebacker
Strengths: Very good dropping back into coverage with low center of gravity and lower-body strength. Extremely athletic. Was recruited by Oklahoma, Ohio State and Louisiana State University.
Weaknesses: Smallish for the position and not very strong. Can't fight off blocks against larger offensive linemen on pull sweeps.
Quotable: "He knows and understands how to play the game. … I told him he couldn't have No. 52 when he gets here." -- Newsome
(Round 3, 86th pick overall)
School: Notre Dame
Strengths: Long on confidence, strength and aggressiveness, which also came through as an amateur boxer. Great work ethic and can be valuable as a punt returner as well.
Weaknesses: Shorter-than-usual arms hamper him when he tries to wrap up ballcarriers. Not enough top-end speed to aid in deep middle coverage.
Quotable: "He's going to be my personal bodyguard." -- Harbaugh
(Round 3, 99th pick overall)
School: Texas El-Paso
Strengths: Strong enough to collapse an interior rushing lineman with a seal block. Has plenty of quickness and agility.
Weaknesses: His athletic sense hasn't necessarily translated into football sense. Doesn't react well to delayed blitzes. Didn't play football until 10th grade.
Quotable: "He's tough, smart, talented, athletic, he can run, he has good feet. He's got everything except experience." -- UTEP head coach Mike Price
(Round 4, 106th pick overall)
School: New Mexico
Position: Wide receiver
Strengths: Is a tight route runner, with quick feet and the ability to stop on a dime. Can catch any ball in stride when it's thrown accurately and can make yards after the catch.
Weaknesses: Can't execute double moves and fake out defensive backs. Doesn't catch with his hands enough and is not coachable at times.
Quotable: "Would thrive best in an environment where he has a strong support system ... could be very good on special teams." -- Pro Football Weekly
(Round 4, 133rd pick overall)
School: Weber State
Strengths: Versatility to play both positions, although it's more likely he will play guard in the NFL. Very good sweeper and puller and can get to the second level.
Weaknesses: His aggressiveness works against him at times as he can get too far out in front of himself and stumble on blocks.
Quotable: "He's a tough, nasty guy in the same mold as Marshal Yanda or Tony Pashos." -- DeCosta
(Round 6, 206th pick overall)
Strengths: Tenacity and great work ethic landed him on special teams as a freshman with the Bearcats. Will fly to the ball with deceptive closing speed.
Weaknesses: Wasn't recruited to bigger Division I-A schools because they thought he was too small and slow. Also could use a little more strength.
Quotable: "Life is too short to stop and listen to the peanut gallery. ... The only problem with the NFL is that they don't have a test for heart." -- Nakamura, blogging on www.scout.com
(Round 7, 215th pick overall)
School: Virginia Tech
Position: Wide receiver
Strengths: Has the size the Ravens need at this position and can catch anything thrown his way while making yardage after the catch. Also strong enough to break tackles.
Weaknesses: Not much in the way of acceleration or top-end, breakaway speed. He is not a smooth, tight route runner.
Quotable: "Must work on his route running to gain separation more consistently ... has enough tools to make it as a backup receiver." -- The Sporting News
(Round 7, 240th pick overall)
Position: Running back
Strengths: Tenacious attitude and strong work ethic translates into a speedy, physical back.
Weaknesses: Field vision is lacking and blocking ability is suspect. No presence in the pass pattern.
Quotable: "Should contribute on special teams and fit best in a stretch-zone running game where he can stick his foot in the dirt and go." -- Pro Football Weekly
Issue 3.18: May 1, 2008