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10 Burning Questions for Camp: Can Joe Flacco return to his old form?


The last question in this 10-day series is the big one, and the answer is likely to have an overwhelming role in determining whether the Broncos can return to the playoffs, or limp home with a fourth consecutive year out of the postseason.

It is also likely to be a question that will not see its answer during training camp. However, regular-season success will not happen for Flacco and the offense without the work of the summer, because this is when he must establish a firm grasp on Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello's scheme and control of the offense from a leadership perspective.

The scheme resembles the one Flacco ran in Baltimore in 2014, when he threw a career-best 27 touchdown passes and had the second-highest passer rating (91.0) and the best ESPN quarterback rating (68.2) of his career to date.

"There are a lot of similarities," Flacco said during OTAs. "The good thing about that is there is a lot of similarities with how the plays are called and the lingo. I think it's obviously a little bit different, but I think at the core there are a lot of similarities and a lot of things that carry over."

But what doesn't carry over is his presence in the locker room. Flacco is the same man he was in Baltimore, but now he must get to know a new team with different dynamics than the one he had in Baltimore. His Denver teammates haven't experienced success with him yet. He must win them over.

So far, the signs are promising.

"Joe Flacco is always interacting with everyone in the locker room," running back Phillip Lindsay said at the end of minicamp. "You can tell that he's a born and natural leader. He's confident in his abilities and he's been there. He's been to the Super Bowl. I'm excited. He knows what he's doing. When it comes to the season, you get turned up. It's a different feeling. He's been through the fire, games in and out, so I'm excited about this season."

Flacco gives the Broncos a fresh start. But being in Denver also gives Flacco a fresh start after a four-season stretch in which he did not match his previous form.

In that span, he ranks 43rd in passer rating (82.7), 21st in completion percentage (63.9), 29th in touchdown-to-interception ratio (plus-18) and 54th in yards per attempt (6.32) among the 61 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 passes over the last four years. National skepticism about Flacco's outlook is built on numbers like these.

Hope exists in the fact that the Ravens, like the Broncos, typically featured an outstanding defense that helped create successful complementary football with Flacco at quarterback. Including the postseason, Baltimore went 106-72 in games that Flacco started. But in the last four seasons, that record was just 24-27, with a 6-2 mark in games he did not start.

If Flacco's individual production and his team's overall record remains at that level, the Broncos could find themselves spinning on the same hamster wheel of frustration that has defined their efforts since they started the 2016 season 4-0 in the wake of their Super Bowl 50 win. But if Flacco succeeds, students of NFL history will be talking about him in the same breath with quarterbacks such as Y.A. Tittle, Kurt Warner and Broncos Ring of Famer Craig Morton. All recaptured -- or even surpassed -- their younger form after making their debut with a new team after their 34th birthday.

Warner's late-career renaissance was memorable, but it wasn't immediate. Upon joining the Arizona Cardinals in 2006, he started just six games that year, posting a passer rating of 89.3, his best figure in five seasons, but still not in the class of his prior work. It wasn't until his third season in Arizona that he returned to his St. Louis Rams form, and in doing so he guided the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance and the first of two consecutive NFC West titles.

Tittle joined the Giants in 1961 after the 49ers traded him following 10 seasons. His form had slipped toward the end of his San Francisco tenure; he had not posted a passer rating of 80.0 or better in three years when he joined the Giants. The next three years were the best of his career; he was a Pro Bowler in 1961, an All-Pro in 1962 and 1963 and he took the Giants to a pair of NFL Championship Game appearances.

Then there is Morton. At age 34 in his first Broncos season, he posted his best passer rating since 1970 (82.0) and his first positive touchdown-to-interception ratio (with a minimum of 100 attempts) in seven years. In the six seasons Morton played with the Broncos, they made three playoff appearances and won an AFC title. Morton also had the best statistical season of his career in his final full year as a starter, posting a 90.5 rating in 1981 at age 38.

And, of course, Peyton Manning came to Denver for his age-36 season and quickly regained and even surpassed the form he displayed in Indianapolis. His second season as a Bronco is the finest across-the-board statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history.

So one cannot say that the Broncos are seeking something unprecedented from Flacco. Are these rare examples? Sure. But with a proper scheme and situation, a quarterback who seemed to be on the decline can recapture -- or even surpass -- the form of his younger years.

The Broncos' hopes in 2019 depend on it.

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