The recent news of Derrick Mason’s retirement isn’t shocking. He’ll be 38 next week and his 2011 season was pretty much a disaster. And that’s a real shame. If you recall, when the Ravens cleaned house at the start of training camp — cutting Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg — they did that to clear some cap space with, from what I read, the intentions of re-signing some of those guys to smaller contracts. Gregg wound up in Kansas City, Heap went home to Arizona, McGahee was reborn in Denver and Mason chose the Jets over the Titans and the Ravens. That was a little heartbreaking.
Mason’s run in New York was short lived and he was traded to Houston and was cut two months later. The main point here is the second he decided not to return to Baltimore, his career ended. The Jets are a mess and Mark Sanchez is very, very middling quarterback. Houston was stacked with wide receivers, but you figure a veteran like Mason could have helped out the young Texans. He obviously didn’t.
This all got me thinking about how underrated Joe Flacco really is. Sure, he had so-so numbers this year (3,610 yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs, 80.9 rating) but he’s had more wins (48) since 2008 than any other quarterback, including the postseason. And honestly, what has the guy had to work with, receiver-wise?
In 2008, Flacco’s rookie season, the Ravens ran the ball better than any other team and Flacco wasn’t asked to do much. His top three receivers that year were Mason (1,037 yards, 5 TDs), Mark Clayton (695, 3) and Heap (403, 3). The third receiver on the depth chart was Demetrius Williams. I’ll pause for a minute while you Wikipedia him.
The following year, Flacco’s top three receivers were Mason (1,028, 7), Ray Rice (702, 1) and Heap (593, 6). The receiving corps was so bad in 2009, Flacco had to rely on a running back and a tight end to make plays in the passing game. I hope you kept the Wikipedia tab up if you’re wondering who the third wide receiver on the depth chart was. A guy by the name of Kelley Washington. You might want to try to Google him because someone probably hasn’t taken the time to create him a Wikipedia page.
Finally, in 2010, Flacco got some help. The Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin. He was a proven receiver in Arizona and provided some much-needed help to the receiving unit. Baltimore also wasted $950k on Donte’ Stallworth and had to deal with T.J. Houshmanzadeh’s murmuring about not getting enough targets. Oh, and the whole “dropping a perfectly thrown ball that hit him right in the numbers on 4th-and-18 against Pittsburgh that would have surely been a first down” in the Divisional round last year. Thanks, Housh. (I’m tempted to replace the “H” with a “D”).
This year, Flacco had Boldin, newly-acquired receiver Lee Evans and rookie Torrey Smith. Evans was hurt for most of the year, which caused Smith to step his game up. But in Evans’s absence, the Ravens needed a third wide receiver who turned out to be an undrafted rookie, LaQuan Williams. The only person Flacco had any semblance of continuity with was Boldin. Obviously, he had second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to work with, but both saw limited time in 2010 so Flacco really had to get acquainted with five new pass-catchers while still working on his timing and anticipation with Boldin.
The driving point here is if it wasn’t for Flacco, most of the aforementioned guys would not have had jobs. Once Mason declined Baltimore’s offer, his career fizzled. Mark Clayton hasn’t been heard from in ages. Demetrius Williams might be a bar back at some establishment in Eugene, Oregon. I think Kelley Washington runs a U.S. Cellular kiosk somewhere in Tennessee nowadays. Houshmanzadeh played in nine games for Oakland this season and registered just 11 receptions. All these guys were semi-relevant in Baltimore, once they were cut or chose not to return, they were done.
So what does that say about Flacco? He is the only reason some of those guys were even a thought the past few years. Yet no one gives him any credit. Sure, his completion percentage was down this year. But for most of the year he was throwing to two rookies and a guy he’s only known for two years. Before that, he was slinging the ball to a bunch of no names and the Ravens still made the playoffs every year. Look at the “elite” quarterbacks: Brady, Brees, Rodgers. Those guys have had a certain kinship with their receivers. They’ve been with them for multiple seasons. They have developed chemistry that makes them so dangerous. I’m not saying Flacco is or even needs to be one of those guys, but what he’s done over the first four years of his career is pretty remarkable.
Now, finally in his fourth year, Flacco has some weapons. The possession guy is Boldin, he has two burners in Smith and Evans. Dickson and Pitta are budding stars. And you still have Rice coming out of the backfield. It takes time to develop a relationship with receivers. This type of thing doesn’t happen over night. People are going to still hate on Flacco, and that’s OK. But if you really sit down and look at what he’s done in his first four years, it’s quite fascinating.
It’s really a shame how under-utilized Mason and Heap were this season, but it just goes to show what a good quarterback can do. Without Flacco, Mason, Heap, Demetrius Williams, Clayton and Washington have all fallen by the wayside. With Flacco, I believe Smith, Dickson and Pitta will all become stars while Boldin and Evans will, if healthy, flourish in Baltimore.
P.S. The Ravens — offense, defense, special teams and coaches — need to bring their A-game this Sunday and for (hopefully) the two games that follow. Bring it, Houston.