- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes says Flacco doesn't work hard enough.
In other words, there has been no shortage of offseason jabs at Flacco, who has become the biggest punching bag in the AFC North during the NFL lockout. The list of detractors questioning Flacco's ability to take the Ravens to the next level appears to be growing every month.
But there is hope for the talented, fourth-year quarterback. Flacco, 26, is still young and entering his prime. So now is the time to put all of those concerns to rest.
With that in mind, here are five ways Flacco can silence his many critics in 2011:
No. 1: Flacco must beat Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Analysis: There are no more excuses. Flacco has to beat his biggest rival in a big game. Flacco has two career wins against Pittsburgh but both come with an asterisk. Roethlisberger missed those games due to a concussion in 2009 and a suspension at the beginning of the 2010 season. Flacco is 0-6 in his career against the Steelers with Roethlisberger under center, which includes an 0-2 record in the playoffs. The good news is Flacco doesn't have to wait long for another shot. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 1, and Woodley has already upped the ante for Flacco, who must perform well. A big win against Pittsburgh early could set the tone for the Ravens, who need to move on from last year's heartbreaking playoff defeat. It also would lift a huge burden off Flacco and could begin to change his reputation as a quarterback who struggles in big games.
No. 2: Flacco must perform well in the playoffs
Analysis: Advancing to the AFC title game as a rookie was one of the best and worst things to happen to Flacco. He did something few rookie quarterbacks have accomplished. But it also raised the bar much higher for Flacco than it is for your typical young quarterbacks. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs but played well in only one of those seven games. Other than Baltimore's wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last January, the Ravens have carried Flacco in the postseason. In Flacco's four playoff wins, Baltimore's defense held opponents to just 10 points per game, while Flacco did enough to manage the offense. If Flacco wants to become a great quarterback, that needs to change. The Ravens' defense cannot pitch a near-perfect game every time in the postseason (see recent playoff losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Steelers). There will be times Flacco has to carry the team with his arm in a big game. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers last season was a perfect example of how a hot quarterback makes a world of difference in the postseason.
No. 3: Thrive against the AFC North
Analysis: There is a reason Woodley and Jones were blunt in their criticism of Flacco. Based on what happened on the field in recent seasons, they both have the right to speak on Flacco's struggles. The Steelers and Bengals have been two of Flacco's biggest nemeses early in his career. Flacco is a combined 5-9 against his two AFC North rivals and has thrown 11 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 14 career games. Regardless of whether you believe Jones and Woodley should have made their comments public, the numbers back up their claims. Flacco has to play these teams at least four times per year and needs to perform better against AFC North competition.
No. 4: Bring back the deep ball
Analysis: Some teams have figured out how to defend Flacco and the Ravens' offense, because Baltimore hasn't thrown the deep ball much the past couple of seasons. Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin are both possession receivers, and when they're not open, Flacco often checks down to running back Ray Rice. The offensive pattern has become predictable and drawn the ire of media and fans in Baltimore. Despite a lot of talent, the Ravens finished a disappointing 22nd in total offense last season. Flacco has one of the prettiest deep balls in the league, and it will be up to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to find more ways to play to Flacco's strengths. The Ravens have lacked a deep threat in the past but hope rookie second-round pick Torrey Smith brings the speed they've been looking for to keep defenses honest. Including playoffs, Flacco only had one 300-yard passing game all last season, and it came against the 2-14 Carolina Panthers.
No. 5: Win a Super Bowl
Analysis: Winning a Super Bowl is the great equalizer. Baltimore's roster is stacked, which is why there is so much pressure and Super Bowl talk surrounding Flacco. Quarterbacks always get most of the credit for the team's success or most of the blame for its failure. So Flacco could silence everyone -- Woodley, Dhani Jones, media and fans -- by finally winning the big game. Even getting the Ravens to the Super Bowl would do wonders for Flacco's reputation.
If Flacco follows these five not-so-easy steps, he will have a much quieter offseason in 2012. Can Flacco accomplish some, or all, of these goals this upcoming season?