The Baltimore Ravens learned a critical lesson last season, one that was remedied with the recent signing of wide receiver Steve Smith: Quarterback Joe Flacco needs all the help he can get. Even with a Super Bowl ring and a $120 million contract in hand, Flacco isn't going to help this franchise contend for another championship on the strength of his skills alone. He needs more weapons around him, which is exactly what the 34-year-old Smith can give him.
This should come as no surprise to the countless skeptics who wondered how Flacco would fare once his annual salary rivaled the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. He simply isn't worth the kind of money Baltimore paid him in the wake of that Super Bowl XLVII win over San Francisco. Flacco was in the right place at the right time, a man fortunate enough to find his ultimate rhythm when it was most beneficial to him and his franchise. Such cash is reserved for signal-callers who can carry entire teams on their backs, not the quarterback Flacco was in 2013, when injuries and inconsistency within his supporting cast led to the worst season of his six-year career (19 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and a 73.1 passer rating that ranked 32nd in the NFL).
The key for Flacco during that Super Bowl run is the same thing that will make him successful going forward: The man needs his employers to recognize his limitations. This much became true from the moment Baltimore decided it didn't need wide receiver Anquan Boldin on its roster after he helped Flacco thrive during that championship run. The Ravens traded Boldin to San Francisco last March, with the belief that he wasn't worth the $6 million to remain on their roster. All he did was make himself look like a bargain for the 49ers while catching 85 passes for 1,179 yards in the process.
Flacco needed Boldin for the same reasons he should be grateful for Smith's arrival. Both are veteran receivers with a habit of making tough catches, moving the chains and bringing an invaluable nastiness to the game. Whatever Boldin and Smith lack in lost speed and aging bodies, they make up for with reliability and productivity. Each plays with a chip on his shoulder, and Smith -- who openly has said he can't wait to see his old team, the Carolina Panthers, later this fall -- ranks among the most fiery receivers this league has ever seen.
In Flacco's case, it was obvious the Ravens needed more passion in their locker room, especially while they were grinding their way to an 8-8 record last fall. Most of the strongest personalities on that squad vanished during a 2013 offseason limited by salary-cap restraints, including linebacker Ray Lewis and safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. The belief was that the Ravens were primed to go from being a defense-dominated squad to an offensive-minded unit that would go as far as Flacco could take them. That expectation proved to be foolhardy at best.
The beauty of Flacco's game is that it's built around smarts, a big arm and a calmness under pressure that served the Ravens well during that Super Bowl run. He's at his best when his critics are expecting the worst of him. But when quarterbacks like that play with supporting casts that aren't as strong as necessary, a funny thing tends to happen: People start paying more attention to what they can't do instead of what they can do.
Flacco isn't the kind of quarterback who is going to rally his teammates with stirring speeches. He's not likely to jump on a teammate (as Denver's Peyton Manning has), thrive with limited resources (in the way New England's Brady has done over the past couple years) or elevate his play when injuries plague the talent around him (the Ravens were so beaten up at one point that they were playing over-the-hill targets such as Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley). When Flacco is at his best, he's comparable to the Giants' Eli Manning, who does similarly impressive work in high-pressure moments. At his worst, Flacco is like Houston's Matt Schaub, who is likely going to be dumped by that franchise after a slew of interceptions led to his benching last season.
With Smith's arrival, the Ravens have added a player who can ignite their offense through sheer force of personality. He also can set an important example for the rest of Baltimore's receivers. Smith has acknowledged that his days of being a No. 1 wideout are over (the five-time Pro Bowler had 64 receptions and 745 yards in 2013). What he still can do is block with incredible tenacity, move the chains with clutch third-down catches, and hold his teammates accountable for playing at a certain level every time they take the field.
Derrick Mason brought those dimensions to the Baltimore offense for years, and Boldin supplied them during his three seasons with the franchise. Now Smith gets to prove his value while also becoming a reliable third option for Flacco. The quarterback already has a dangerous deep threat in Torrey Smith and a stellar tight end in Dennis Pitta. If Smith can produce numbers similar to what he did for Carolina last year, the Ravens likely would be ecstatic.
It's already safe to assume good things will happen in Baltimore. Steve Smith made life easier for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton the past three years and has grown into a mature leader after being a combustible, hot-tempered talent early in his career. Now that Smith has moved to the next chapter in his career, he is telling Baltimore reporters that he is "not Anquan Boldin." That may be true, but there's also this reality: Ravens fans who watch Smith's impact on Flacco will be grateful for an act that will feel familiar.