In this season of pistol offenses, spread formations, and mobile quarterbacks, it was hard not to get caught up in the offensive evolution of the NFL. After all, the league doesn’t have many seasons like the one we just witnessed, as most coaches are rather close-minded when it comes to evolving.
In the endless hours leading up to the Super Bowl, sports networks exhausted the topic of mobile quarterbacks and how successful they can be, using Colin Kaepernick’s rise as the springboard for their debate. One network asked if mobile quarterbacks will ever overtake pure pocket passers as the standard of the position, and all four of its analysts shot that idea down rather quickly. And so did Joe Flacco, emphatically.
The Super Bowl XLVII MVP isn’t the most appealing quarterback. He’s so tall that he has a weird, clumsy, but athletic movement to him when he escapes the pocket, and his erratic play in the 17 weeks preceding the playoffs is always frustrating to watch. But when the lights go on (and stay on) in the playoffs, Flacco is one of the greatest playoff quarterbacks to ever don an NFL uniform, which can be said now that he also has a Super Bowl ring to his name.
And like the last the last few championship winners, Flacco does it from the pocket before and after the snap. Over the last couple of years, he’s become a better manager of the game. and it showed last night. On a crucial fourth-quarter drive that looked like it was going to stall like the rest of the Ravens’ offense did in the second half, he made a change at the line of scrimmage that would extend the drive and ultimately propel the team to tack on an additional three points to their 31-29 lead, which proved to be crucial in the final seconds of the game.
It was third-and-one and the Ravens thought they had a first down completion after an apparent eight-yard pass to veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin. A bold challenge by brash brother Jim Harbaugh changed that, scaling back the completion by one yard after officials looked at replays. Now the Ravens were faced with third-and-inches at their own 45.5 yard line and a sturdy 49ers front.
Before the snap, a potential run play for the Ravens looked favorable. There were only six 49ers defenders in the box because the Niners’ safeties were sitting deep, and they were matched by six Ravens. A hat-on-a-hat situation was developing, leading to a good opportunity for a first down.
As Flacco was crouched under center, the 49ers safeties exchanged words and seemed to make a check in the defensive backfield. This resulted in outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who was initially lined up over slot receiver Torrey Smith, to reduce his split to the outside of Dennis Pitta, the Ravens tight end who lined up in a wing alignment. It also led to strong safety Donte Whitner coming down to the line of scrimmage and lining up across from Smith, while free safety Dashon Goldson stood in the middle of the field as the lone deep safety.
Seven defenders against six blockers wasn’t an ideal look for the Ravens even though they had quick-footed Ray Rice in the backfield, so Flacco stood up and called an audible. A look at the middle of the field revealed one deep safety, which meant man coverage by the underneath defenders. This was something that the offense could take advantage of, especially with the sure-handed Boldin raising up for passes.
Boldin was split out to the far right, a couple of yards outside the numbers, and was facing a one-on-one matchup with cornerback Carlos Rogers. Judging by his alignment, Rogers — who is known for his physicality — was surely going to play bump-and-run coverage against the receiver. Boldin stepped away from the line of scrimmage and looked to Flacco, who made a hand gesture in the direction of his receiver before communicating the audible in the backfield, and then repositioned himself.
Once Flacco went under center again, Whitner backed off and gave Smith, the slot receiver, a ten-yard cushion. It was a ploy to confuse the Ravens quarterback and force him to attempt a second audible in the dying seconds of the play clock. The cool and confident Flacco stuck to his guns and dropped back to pass.
He took a quick five steps and looked to Boldin the entire way. The crafty receiver allowed Rogers to contact him at the chest before swaying Rogers’ hands to his left prior to releasing upfield. As he ran down the sideline, Boldin had a step on Rogers and was able to turn his head toward the football to locate it.
At the 42-yard line, he slowed down, sunk his shoulders, bent his knees, and exploded vertically to track the football and haul it in for 15 yards over Rogers, who was out of position and forced to play the ball through the eyes and hands of the receiver. After the play, a confident Boldin walked toward his quarterback for instruction on the next play, one of the five leading up to the 38-yard field goal that split the uprights and gave the Ravens a 34-29 lead.
Flacco’s big audible and throw to Boldin — who was a significant factor throughout the game (six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown) — from the pocket was a defining moment.
The soon-to-be free agent quarterback has grown up in the playoffs, showing his mettle and chemistry with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. While the rest of the NFL has drastically evolved schematically with quick and short passes off of misdirection, Flacco and his coach have become the Baltimore Bombers, launching five-step passes downfield from the center of the pocket, just like in the golden age of football.