“Who’s your quarterback?”
“Yeah, I know.”
Is that the way quarterbacks are judged? Maybe. But by January, fantasy seasons are over, and all that remains is reality. The AFC championship game is Sunday, and Joe Flacco is in it, facing off against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the second year in a row. Since Flacco entered the NFL in 2008, Brady has quarterbacked 53 victories, counting both the regular season and playoffs. Aaron Rodgers has overseen 57, Drew Brees 56. With the Baltimore Ravens, Joe Flacco has 61, more than any other quarterback.
Maybe that’s value.
“I’ve never played with a guy with that much talent,” veteran Baltimore wide receiver Anquan Boldin said.
Why, then, does there seem to be this debate, even as Flacco approaches his third AFC title game in his five years in the NFL? In Baltimore and elsewhere, there is so much public discourse about Flacco’s game that it becomes repetitive, inescapable. “It’s frustrating, sometimes, to listen to a Baltimore radio station,” said K.C. Keeler, Flacco’s coach at the University of Delaware.
Keeler believes some elements of Flacco can’t be questioned. When Flacco’s career with the Blue Hens ended in 2007, after he took his team to the Football Championship Series national title game and made himself into a first-round draft pick, Keeler knew he had speeches to give all offseason — to his own team, to youth groups, to boosters. He wanted to, needed to, incorporate Flacco. So he asked his outgoing quarterback a simple question: “What made you great?”
Flacco thought about it, Keeler said, but not for long. “I’m not afraid to fail,” Flacco told Keeler.
“I really think that, in essence, is who Joe Flacco is,” Keeler said. “He’s not afraid to fail.”
There is, it turns out, value in that.
Saturday night lives
Whatever happens, Flacco and Baltimore will always have last Saturday night. He threw for 331 yards, more than in any of his 11 career playoff games. He completed three touchdown passes, another postseason high. He kept the Ravens alive long enough for the opposing quarterback, none other than Peyton Manning, to make the critical mistake at the crucial juncture.
“To see Joe have that kind of a game in that kind of an environment is something all of us who are in Joe’s corner knew was there,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said last week.
Those who are in Joe’s corner know, too, that the play that will be remembered from that 38-35, double-overtime victory in Denver is the kind of play Flacco can make perhaps better than any other quarterback in the league. With less than a minute remaining, the Ravens trailed by a touchdown. They had the ball at their 30. They had no timeouts.
“I’m telling you,” said wide receiver Torrey Smith, the recipient of two touchdown passes from Flacco that day. “Y’all might think we’re lying about it, but I’m being so serious when I say: When we went to the huddle, no one doubted for a second that we were going to score.”
Flacco, Ravens teammates said, entered the huddle calmly. There is no other way he knows how.
“People watch him saunter up to the center, all unemotional,” Keeler said. “It’s not no emotion. It’s just that he’s done everything in his power to prepare. If he’s successful, that’s great. If he’s not, okay. He puts himself in position where there’s no pressure on himself.”
Because there is so much argument over the quality of Flacco’s play, there also is argument about the demeanor that precedes it. As calm as Brady, for instance, appears in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, his fire can be unmistakable on the sideline in his interactions with teammates. Yet when Flacco enters the huddle, it could be the first quarter or the fourth, the Ravens could be leading or trailing. How to tell?
“No matter how big the game is,” 17-year veteran linebacker Ray Lewis said, “the game never gets too big for Joe.”
His playoff performances speak to that. Last year, he became the first quarterback to win a postseason game in each of his first four seasons. This year, he extended that streak to five. In the six playoff games he has played over the past three seasons, he has posted a quarterback rating of higher than 95 five times.
“There’s no need to get all worked up over stuff like that when you know you have put all of your time, all of your effort into going out there and having fun and winning the football game,” Flacco said. “There’s no need to blow it out of proportion and get overwhelmed by that kind of thing. I think when you have that mind-set, it is easy to go out there and stay calm and play in that moment.”
There is, the Ravens believe, enormous value in that.
“It’s got to be a good thing to be even-keeled at that position,” Harbaugh said. “And, when you look at the guys who have played the position over the years — you can go back and look at all the great quarterbacks — not too many of the great ones didn’t have that. They managed to slow it down in the biggest situations and apply fundamentals and technique and reads.”
With the Ravens needing a touchdown and facing third down, Flacco lined up with the fleet Smith to his left, the swift Jacoby Jones to his right, and bought time. Before the game, Lewis, the face of the Ravens for their entire existence, had done his best to formally pass on the job of team leader to Flacco, playfully punching him, telling him it was his time.
“Anytime somebody like that comes up to you — a leader like that, a guy that’s had so much success in this league and is so loved by so many people,” Flacco said, “it’s obviously pretty cool.”
With that as the backdrop, Flacco let the ball loose, toward the streaking Jones to his right. Advanced statistics show he had earned the right to be as comfortable in such a situation as any quarterback in the league. In 2012, only New Orleans’s Brees piled up more than Flacco’s 40 completions of 25 yards or more. According to Pro Football Focus, 17.3 percent of Flacco’s pass attempts targeted a receiver more than 20 yards downfield — the highest percentage in the league — and yet he has not thrown an interception on such a pass. He had connected on a 59-yard touchdown to Smith earlier in the game.
“He can launch the ball,” Smith said. “And he’s accurate with it.”
There is value in that. When Jones slipped behind Broncos cornerback Tony Carter, and safety Rahim Moore was late getting over to help, Flacco’s pass settled into Jones’s hands. Arguably the biggest play in franchise history was over.
And what did Flacco do? Ran down the frozen playing surface at Invesco Field, both index fingers extended into the air, emotion for everyone to see.
“It was obviously a pretty special moment, and we were pretty excited about it,” Flacco said flatly a few days later. “It won’t mean anything come this week.”
No longer struggling
Given where the Ravens sit now, having shredded Denver for five touchdowns and rolled into the AFC championship game, it seems impossible that, a month ago, they were flailing. Five times in seven games, Flacco had failed to pass for 200 yards. Following an overtime loss at Washington, the team fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron — the only coordinator of Flacco’s pro career — and replaced him with Jim Caldwell, the former Indianapolis head coach who was in his first year as Baltimore’s quarterbacks coach.
“For me, I’ve always said this offense goes as Joe goes,” running back Ray Rice said.
On Dec. 16, in Caldwell’s first game as coordinator, the Ravens trailed Denver at home, 10-0, just before halftime. After taking the snap at the Broncos 4-yard line, Flacco looked to his left, toward Boldin. Instead, he found Denver cornerback Chris Harris, who picked off the ball and ran the other way. Ninety-eight yards later, Harris was in the end zone, and Flacco was flat on his face, his diving attempt at a tackle woefully insufficient.
Since that day, Flacco has connected on seven touchdown passes and thrown zero interceptions. In victories over the New York Giants, Indianapolis and Denver (he played sparingly in the meaningless regular season finale against Cincinnati), he has averaged 307 yards passing.
The easy conclusion is that the interception against Denver turned the season around. Flacco isn’t into easy conclusions.
“It affected me right there,” Flacco said. “I was pretty unhappy about it. . . . [But] things like that happen, and you have to be willing to deal with it and come out and continue to play the way that you think you can.”
The way Flacco thinks he can play is every bit as well as any quarterback in the league, despite what fantasy drafters or radio callers suggest. Last spring, he created a stir when he told a Baltimore radio station that he believed he was the NFL’s top quarterback.
“I think I’m the best,” he said then. “I don’t think I’m top-five. I think I’m the best.”
“The thing about Joe is he’s never going to be politically correct,” said Keeler, his college coach. “He thinks he’s an elite quarterback, and he’s going to say that. He’s not going to think about the ramifications.”
In the week leading up to the AFC title game, Flacco downplayed the role Lewis’s retirement season is playing in Baltimore’s ride. He called the assumption that postseason games are played at a faster tempo “crap.” He carried himself in a manner worthy of the role he’s in: “The general,” Rice said.
“I don’t really do things I am not comfortable with doing,” Flacco said. “It’s just who I am.”
Who he is, on the football field, is still developing. Sunday, with a Super Bowl appearance at stake, will be another step in that process. In the offseason, he and the Ravens will enter contract negotiations. And the debate — what is Joe Flacco’s value? — will start again.