Caldwell to thank for Flacco's huge upcoming payday

Jim Caldwell's first game as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens got off to an unpleasant start.

The Ravens failed to record a first down on each of their first five possessions in a 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos on Dec. 16. The offense tallied just 38 yards over their first 22 plays and before they could blink, Denver opened up a 31-3 advantage.

At that point Baltimore had lost three in a row to drop to 9-5, and its stranglehold atop the AFC North dissipated as the Cincinnati Bengals sat just a game behind.

But boy, did the men in purple and black turn things around. And in a hurry.

Baltimore amassed a season-high 533 yards as it clinched the AFC North title a week later in a 33-14 smashing of the New York Giants.

A week prior to the Denver loss, Caldwell was elevated from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in place of Cam Cameron, who had held the position since January of 2008.

Cameron had drifted away from the Ravens' identity ... running the football. He called running plays only 40.1 percent of the time in Baltimore's first 13 contests of the year.

With Caldwell at the helm, the Ravens ran the ball on 51.4 percent of the team's offensive snaps. He also utilized rookie running back Bernard Pierce to take the load off of Ray Rice. The Temple product carried the ball 67 times for 300 yards over his first 13 games, but rushed it 80 times for 434 over the final seven contests, including the postseason.

During a four-game postseason run that ended with its 34-31 victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore tallied 170, 155, 121 and 93 yards on the ground, with at least 33 rushing attempts in each playoff tilt.

And what did establishing the run do? It opened up the vertical play-action passing game for quarterback Joe Flacco.

"Joe Cool" certainly reaped in the benefits.

The big-armed Delaware product targeted a receiver 20 or more yards down the field on 17.3 percent of his passing attempts during the regular season, which led the NFL.

Those deep passes hit their mark during a magical postseason ride where Flacco joined the record books alongside Joe Montana and Kurt Warner with 11 touchdown passes. Flacco completed six throws of at least 50 yards, with three of those going for scores.

And like Montana did during the playoffs after the 1989 season, Flacco did not record an interception.

After completing 12-of-23 passes for 282 yards and two scores in a win over Indianapolis in the AFC Wild Card Round, Flacco went and outplayed both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to help the Ravens capture the conference crown.

He was 18-of-34 for 331 yards and three touchdowns against the top-seeded Broncos in the Divisional Playoff, then totaled 240 yards and three scores on 21-of-36 efficiency in the AFC Championship Game triumph over the New England Patriots.

Flacco capped off his extraordinary stretch with a Super Bowl MVP.

"I'm a Joe Flacco fan, I've been a Joe Flacco fan," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "For him to come in and do what he did today and make some of the throws that he made, that's what we've always seen."

Flacco threw three more touchdowns in Baltimore's ousting of 49ers in New Orleans to help the Ravens capture the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in franchise history. Flacco connected on 22-of-33 attempts for 287 yards in the triumph.

"I don't think it's going to settle in for a while," Flacco said of the Super Bowl win. "We don't make anything easy. It was a hard-fought game on both sides. I think we gave the country a pretty good game to watch. Not to our liking necessarily, but that's the way it goes sometimes and that's the way we do things."

Now that the Super Bowl is over, Flacco is officially a free agent, and he'll likely be looking for a contract in the $20 million per year range, which is more than the Broncos gave Manning.

Flacco rolled the dice and turned down a substantial offer from the Ravens prior to the year.

Now that gamble is going to pay off.

Whether or not the pundits now think Flacco's elite is irrelevant; the only question that now matters is if the Ravens think he is.

And if the answer is yes, they will acknowledge his demands.