Thursday, August 27, 2009
Ravens' offense in good hands with Cameron
By James Walker
AP Photo/Rob Carr
The Ravens' offense made significant strides last season, and is looking to take the next step this year under the direction of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BALTIMORE, Md. -- Cam Cameron has a quiet confidence about him this season. It's a type of optimism that comes from a coach feeling he knows a secret that the rest of the league has yet to discover.
The reason for Cameron's enthusiasm is the Baltimore Ravens' offense. For the first time in a long time, it was a watchable unit in 2008. The Ravens were No. 11 in points scored (24.1 per game) and No. 18 in yards (324 yards per game), which were both improvements from the previous season.
Now the engine behind it believes Baltimore's offense is ready to take the next step. As an organization, the Ravens have always been dominated by defense, but it's Cameron's goal to balance the team and put more points on the board in 2009.
"I know our personnel a lot better now and I think it's critical," Cameron said. "Everything we do is based on what our guys can do -- period. It all starts with that. We try to take what everybody does best and then blend it together. We don't really try to make guys something they aren't. There are certain things we'd prefer to do, but if it doesn't fit a player, we don't do it."
AP Photo/Gail Burton
Cam Cameron's creative offense helped the Ravens average 24.1 points per game last season.
Baltimore certainly had its limitations last year. The Ravens played a rookie quarterback and just one Pro Bowl skill player -- fullback Le'Ron McClain. But Cameron used his creativity to get the most out of his players as the Ravens advanced all the way to the AFC title game.
The Ravens incorporated a "Suggs package," which was their version of the Wildcat offense. There were tricky misdirections, the use of an unbalanced line, and a three-headed monster featuring running backs McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.
"The guy is a genius," McClain said. "He makes it all look easy. He's one of the smart ones, and I think he's one of the best [offensive coordinators] in the league."
Offensive coordinators are usually tied closely with their quarterbacks, and that is certainly the case with Cameron and second-year player Joe Flacco. Cameron protected his rookie quarterback at the start of last season and slowly began to loosen the reins.
Cameron continued to give Flacco more and more information this offseason to see what he could handle. The results are impressive.
He's improving at such a fast rate that I'm trying not to put any preconceived ideas on what he is," Cameron said. "I think his potential is almost limitless."
New wrinkles are constantly being added to the offense.
In Monday's 24-23 preseason victory over the New York Jets, Baltimore ran a Statue of Liberty play at the goal line for the first time. Flacco faked a quick pass, hid the ball, then gave Rice a behind-the-back handoff up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown run.
"My ballhandling was kind of wrong," Flacco said after the game. "We did a little bait-and-throw handoff and I didn't do it right. It still worked. So I'm happy."
Many of Cameron's inspirations are a product of previous stops during his career.
Cameron said he learned a variation of the Wildcat not from last year's Miami Dolphins, but way before that when he coached with Norv Turner with the Washington Redskins. In the 1990s, Turner occasionally put return specialist and former college quarterback Brian Mitchell in the backfield.
"We used to do all that stuff with Mitchell," Cameron said. "I remember one year he got two touchdowns against Denver running the option. There were some versions of it, but Brian Mitchell ... was the first time I was ever exposed to it. Then we ran a ton of versions of it in college at Indiana when I had Antwaan Randle El."
Cameron wants to get all of his players involved. So when Troy Smith returned from a viral infection last season and was the backup quarterback, Cameron went back to his college roots to incorporate Smith into the offense.
Cameron recalled that Smith ran a lot of shotgun option/handoff plays at Ohio State. So Cameron put in similar option plays for Smith to get him back in his comfort zone, and Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense was born.
John Sommers II/Icon SMI
Joe Flacco's "potential is almost limitless" according to Cameron.
"Troy did it right off the bat. He made it look easy," Cameron said. "We could run it every down if we wanted to. He's that good at it."
Other unconventional looks in the offense such as the unbalanced line and three-headed monster came from prior experiences.
Using an extra tackle in place of a tight end to create a run strength has been around for approximately 100 years, Cameron said. A lot of college teams use it, but you rarely see it in the NFL. Cameron implemented it at Indiana.
The three-headed monster was an idea born way before Cameron's coaching career. Cameron said that when he was a high school quarterback, his team had three very good running backs and it was his job to keep everyone happy while still winning games.
"I was fortunate enough to call my own plays in high school," Cameron said. "Basically, I had to keep all three involved, know what their strengths are and let them all get a few touchdowns. It's not as easy as it seems. Running backs want the ball and they should. The great ones do."
Before arriving in Baltimore, Cameron first tried the three-headed monster approach on a lesser scale as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. There he had LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.
But Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer, was the feature back and received the bulk of the carries while Turner and Sproles fought for the scraps. Cameron is more balanced with the Ravens, where he can go with the hot hand and change his feature back depending on the game.
"As a running back, you can't be selfish," McClain said. "You never know. It could be one guy this week, and the next week we have to go out and do other stuff. So it may be my week, Willis' week or Ray's week. You got to go with the flow. You just always know that Cam has a plan."
Cameron said winning helped the system work last year. But Cameron and the Ravens are pushing to be better and not rest on last year's success.
"No matter what happened last year we came up short of our goal, which was to win the Super Bowl," Cameron said. "I think we have the right kind of veteran leadership here. We definitely have the right mindset coming from [head coach] John Harbaugh. There is nobody here that's satisfied with what happened last year, and we're not about to let any of the young players be satisfied because we're not playing for second place. Nobody else is in the league either. But here it's real."