A little over 10 months ago, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti provided a timetable for negotiations with quarterback Joe Flacco on a long-term contract extension.
"I would anticipate an extension that starts in 2012," Bisciotti told The Baltimore Sun. "Our goal is to get it done for 2012 for sure."
The clock is officially ticking. The Ravens start the offseason with numerous questions to answer. They have 13 unrestricted free agents, including star running back Ray Rice and Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs. They have gotten older in several key spots on both sides of the ball and their offensive line appears headed for another shake-up.
But as usual with the Ravens, much of the attention this offseason will almost certainly be on Flacco, 27, and the negotiations that could make him the franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future or force him to go into the final year of his rookie contract without a long-term commitment from the team.
"It's an interesting point in the contract. It's four years completed on a five-year deal. That's usually a time for both parties to assess where it's going," said Andrew Brandt, a former agent and NFL executive who now writes and talks about the business of football for the National Football Post and ESPN. "It's just tough to say whether the Ravens are going to start contract negotiations in earnest. Typically at this stage of a QB's career, this is where they make significant money, in their second contract in their mid-to-late 20s. It will certainly be interesting to see if the Ravens make this a priority. Time will tell."
Last April, Flacco was critical of the organization for waiting so long to begin negotiations with his representation. However, as he packed up his locker last Monday, a day after the Ravens' season ended with a 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Flacco downplayed any questions about his contract, saying, "We'll see how it goes. If it goes, it goes."
In an interview with The Sun about four weeks earlier, Flacco was a little more expansive.
"The bottom line is I'm not too worried about it either way," said Flacco, who agreed to a five-year, $11.9 million deal that included nearly $18 million in additional incentives after the Ravens drafted him with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft. "Do I feel like I deserve one? Yeah. Do I feel like I'm going to get one? Yeah. If I don't get one, is it going to be a huge deal? No, it is what it is. It's not up to me. It's up to me to go out and put our team in the best spot to win football games."
Flacco has certainly done that that. His 44 regular-season wins are the most by a quarterback in his first four seasons in NFL history. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and Flacco has already won five playoff games, and played in the AFC championship twice.
In the loss to the Patriots, Flacco out-played the great Tom Brady, throwing for 306 yards and two touchdowns and leading his team down the field in the final minute for the game-winning or at worse, game-tying drive. However, Lee Evans couldn't hang on to the go-ahead touchdown and Billy Cundiff then missed a 32-yard field goal that would have prolonged the game.
The performance capped what was an uneven season for Flacco, who set a career-low in completion percentage and tied a career-high in interceptions, and had his lowest quarterback rating and passing yards since his rookie season.
The Ravens don't comment on contract negotiations so it's not clear if Flacco's performance has affected Bisciotti's stated plans to start negotiations before the 2012 season. However, several football insiders acknowledged that it should at least give the organization something more to think about.
"I know the Ravens' plan had been that Ray Rice was their first priority, then they were going to move to Flacco. That is kind of what I was told," said Charley Casserly, a former general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans who is now an analyst for NFL Network and CBS Sports. "But [with Flacco], I don't think it's a simple contract on either side. Joe Flacco, he's a guy that is evolving. I think that as he gets better and as he gets more consistency, it becomes more crystallized what you pay him. I don't think it's a simple contract to do because he's an evolving guy."
Casserly disputed the notion that Flacco would be entering the final year of his contract because the Ravens could put the franchise tag on the quarterback. But that would mean they would have to pay Flacco a figure at the average of the top five salaried quarterbacks.
"He's going to be there," Casserly said. "Both sides have a reason to get it done. From the Ravens' point of view, you don't want to get in a situation where you have to franchise him year after year because then the numbers gets out of whack on your salary cap. From Flacco's point of view, the guaranteed money is the incentive. You want to keep him around. What's the alternative? There isn't a viable alternative right now. He's obviously a guy that has shown flashes of being pretty good, and he was really good in the championship game, which was the biggest game of the season. That has to make you feel good about him."
In looking at recent contract extensions signed by veteran quarterbacks, it's difficult to draw any parallels with Flacco. The Kansas City Chiefs signed quarterback Matt Cassel to a six-year, $63 million deal ($28 million guaranteed) in 2009. Last year, the Buffalo Bills agreed to a six-year, $59 million deal ($24 million guaranteed) with Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Arizona Cardinals inked Kevin Kolb to a five-year, $63.5 million pact ($21 million guaranteed).
However, a strong case could be made that Flacco has significantly out-performed all three while winning a lot more games in the process.
"Certainly Joe and his agent would make the case that the recent quarterback deals were based off of much smaller simple sizes than he's put up, deals like Kevin Kolb and Matt Cassel," Brandt said. "Those all range in the $20 million guarantee and then $10 million average rate. Everything is negotiable but you'd think that the sample sizes is much smaller than what Flacco's done. The other end would be like [the New York Giants' Eli Manning] and [the San Diego Chargers' Phillip Rivers] from 2 1/2 years ago. Those guarantees were in the $35 to 38 million range. That might be another level than certainly what the Ravens were [willing to do]."
Brandt, who was the vice president of the Green Bay Packers from 1999 to 2008 and also served as a consultant for the Philadelphia Eagles, admitted that he can relate to both sides and is interested in seeing how the negotiations play out.
"I see the body of work that Joe has put up, especially in the postseason compared to other QBs and I see the Ravens not ready to stick both feet in the waters yet," Brandt said. "As I said, this negotiation will be a significant one in Flacco's career. It will be quote, unquote the negotiation. And for the Ravens, it will be significant, too. Once they do it, he's their guy. There is no looking back. Having been a team guy and an agent, I see both sides."
Sun staff writer Matt Vensel contributed to this article
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