This time a year ago, Joe Flacco was still viewed as a quarterback who couldn’t get his team to the Super Bowl. He was still playing for a big contract after betting on himself by declining the Baltimore Ravens’ initial offers. He was still waiting for the Ravens to put their full faith in his right arm and open up their offense.
What a difference a postseason makes.
Today, Flacco enters the 2013 regular season with a Lombardi Trophy on his growing resume, a nine-figure contract and the respect of the football world after taking home the Super Bowl MVP award. Many things have changed in Baltimore during the past 12 months, especially since the Super Bowl, but those close to the 28-year-old quarterback say that Flacco isn’t one of them.
As an encore, Flacco, who has racked up team accomplishments since his rookie season in 2008, wants to take his game to the next level this season. It won’t be easy with increased expectations and the loss of two of his favorite receivers. But if anyone can shrug off all this pressure, it’s Flacco.
“I don’t know if there is — in terms of demeanor — anyone better than Joe to handle something like this,” said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who like Flacco is a Delaware alumnus. “He’s so even-keeled. Things just kind of roll off his shoulders. At the same time, I think he’s extremely motivated. I don’t think people realize how competitive he is. . . . This is a guy who is not going to flinch when the criticism comes or the adversity hits, and that’s what makes him special.”
Flacco isn’t exactly thrilled about the attention that came with his new status and the media requests that have been piling up. But in his eyes, it beats the alternative.
“When I think about [the past year], I kind of just think, ‘Wow. That was awesome. Let’s go do it again.’ That would be a great way to start each offseason,” Flacco said. “But there wasn’t a ton of times where I sat back and thought about it, to be honest with you. I did it. I enjoyed it. Then it was just about getting back to what we normally do.”
Four weeks after leading the Ravens to the Lombardi Trophy, Flacco became — at the time — the highest-paid player in NFL history. And after signing a six-year, $120.6 million contract that will set him up for life, Flacco stopped for chicken McNuggets at a McDonald’s in Aberdeen, Md., on his way back to New Jersey. While he did purchase a house from former Ravens center Matt Birk, Flacco’s idea of splurging was supersizing his value meal.
“You kind of wind down and you get done with all the crazy things that surround the Super Bowl [and] you’re back here before you know it,” Flacco said. “The last thing I’m thinking about is what I’m going to go buy. It’s funny the way it works. Really, the only thing I thought about since signing the big contract was, ‘Man, I want more.’ You get a lot of money and you realize it’s pretty cool. Let’s see if we can go win some more so we can get some more for everybody.”
Getting the contract taken care of restored a sense of normalcy for Flacco. Most importantly, it allowed him to get back into the team’s Owings Mills practice facility, where he could be found throughout the offseason lifting weights, throwing passes or watching game tape.
“His schedule didn’t change in that regard,” offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “He loves to study film, loves to be around the guys. This is a great environment for him, but I think, oftentimes, people expect these guys to change. The fact of the matter is they don’t.”
One thing that won’t change is his leadership style, and the Ravens are quite content with that.
Flacco will give few fiery speeches, and he won’t dance out of a tunnel of flames at M&T Bank Stadium before games. He isn’t going to channel his inner Ray Lewis now that the legendary linebacker has retired. Flacco has long been leading in his own way, though he understands why reporters keep asking him whether he’s ready to assume a larger locker room role.
“Ray Lewis was such a big face and such a presence around here for so long. So when there is a void like that, people just naturally want to ask to how it is going to change this year without him,” Flacco said. “So I just deal with that question and answer it however I feel like that day.”
Days after the 30-point loss to the Houston Texans last season, one team meeting grew tense. Some defensive players, led by safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, voiced their frustration to Coach John Harbaugh about having to wear full pads in practice before departing for the bye week. There were also complaints about the game plan for Houston.
The Ravens came out throwing, but Flacco threw two interceptions and the offense couldn’t sustain drives, forcing a proud, tired defense to remain on the field for more than 38 minutes. The defense felt embarrassed, leading to raised voices and finger-pointing.
Flacco stood up and intervened. He told the room that the coaches put together the right game plan and he took the blame for the offense’s not executing it. And instead of dwelling on the loss, he encouraged everyone to focus on the long road ahead.
“Joe didn’t take anybody’s side — us or the coaches,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “He just said, ‘We’ve got to do better, guys.’ ”
Former Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, who played with Flacco during the quarterback’s first three seasons, said that even early in his career, Flacco led by his actions and demeanor, even if he wasn’t saying much. Mason could count on Flacco to never be rattled in the huddle.
“His leadership came with his calmness. He never was a big talker in the huddle. He never was a rah-rah guy,” Mason said. “And I don’t think that’s changed because I don’t think that’s him.”