By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
MIAMI -- After Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tucked the ball under his arm, put his head down and barreled five yards into the end zone with four minutes remaining in Sunday's first-round playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins, Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton threw his arms in the air and ran to embrace Flacco, who was yanked off the grass and pounded on the head by offensive lineman Jason Brown.
Running back Le'Ron McClain joined the celebration, jamming his face mask into Flacco's to offer an enthusiastic congratulations for the play that secured Baltimore's date Saturday with the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans. Flacco, meantime, tossed the ball lightly to the ground, hiked up his sagging football pants, waded through the well-wishers and jogged, head down, off the field, where he immediately dived into a conversation with his coaches.
"No matter what is going on, he's just so mellow," Clayton said in the locker room later. "Nothing fazes him. You can hit him in the mouth 10 times, and he'll get back up, stand in the pocket and make the throw. He's just a very poised young man."
Players say Flacco's composure has been his most valuable attribute as he has made the unlikely journey from small-college gunslinger to playoff-tested rookie in less than a year, steadily leading a young offense that, like Flacco, seems to have improved from week to week. After Sunday's 27-9 victory, Flacco answered questions with the same cool he showed on the field during his first NFL playoff game, insisting he hadn't experienced any pregame jitters.
"In order to go out and play well, you have to be confident in yourself, and there has to be a certain level of knowing guys respect you," Flacco said. "The guys have been like that since Day One. I know the guys got my back."
Teammates say Flacco earned their respect from his first regular season start, when he commanded the offense with authority if not absolute precision. And they appreciated the fact that, leading up to his debut, Flacco studied. McClain, a second-year Pro Bowl running back, said he often walked into the film room at 6 a.m., only to find Flacco had arrived 30 minutes earlier. Family members say Flacco falls asleep in his living room chair by 10:30 p.m. on many nights, exhausted by the day's workload.
"He's a born leader," McClain said. "If we protect Joe and execute and give him time to throw, it's unbelievable what he can do."
His mediocre numbers Sunday (9 of 23 for 135 yards) don't illustrate the skill with which he guided the offense late in the game, when Miami still hoped to pull an upset. This season, he had the third-best passer rating (91.7) on the road and threw just five interceptions in the Ravens' last 11 regular season games, and none Sunday.
"He's a great kid," running back Willis McGahee said. "He's been a very great leader. He's not a rookie anymore. He's doing veteran things on the football field."
It wasn't clear even a year ago that he would get a shot in the NFL. At Audubon (N.J.) High, he played for two coaches in three years and never experienced a winning team. From there, Flacco went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he sat on the bench under Coach Dave Wannstedt, who had pinned his hopes to Tyler Palko -- a local star who would later go undrafted, carry a clipboard for the New Orleans Saints and be out of football in 2008. Demoralized, Flacco left Pitt after two seasons and transferred to division I-AA Delaware, which competes in the Colonial Athletic Association and was on nobody's radar screen.
"When he left, it was not a good time for him, us, or anyone close to us," said his father, Steve Flacco.
Flacco's rifle arm and production at Delaware, where he threw for 7,046 yards in two seasons and set 20 school records, impressed the Ravens so much they took him 18th overall in the draft, but Flacco entered a three-man fight in training camp for the starting quarterback job as the apparent third-string guy. It was only after Kyle Boller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second preseason game and Troy Smith's tonsil infection dragged on for weeks that Flacco earned the starting nod. Baltimore, which finished 5-11 last season, won its opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, 17-10, as Flacco completed 15 of 29 attempts for 129 yards.
Six weeks later in a 27-13 victory over Miami, Flacco hit 17 of 23 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions to earn NFLPA rookie of the week honors. Over the last 11 games, he registered a 90.2 passer rating, grew more comfortable finding his second and third options on routes and kept mistakes to a minimum.
"I'm playing with confidence," Flacco said. "I just felt better and better each game."
He's gotten settled personally, too. Flacco shares a two-bedroom place with his brother, Mike, who is attending school in Baltimore and has baseball aspirations. After spending all day in meetings and at practice, Flacco usually eats out with his brother and then rarely stays awake long enough to see the 11 p.m. news. His parents attend all of the home Ravens games and plan to road-trip to Pittsburgh if the Ravens win and meet the Steelers for the AFC championship.
When asked how his son could make such a quick rise after such a bumpy road to the NFL, Steve Flacco insisted the answer was contained in the question itself.
"Here's how he did it," Steve Flacco said. "Having gone through the [struggles] from the time he was in high school, he shows up there knowing, 'I can do this; I just need to do these things.' . . . He's had to really fight and struggle to overcome a bunch of things to get there. Setbacks are no problem for him.
"This has been a trip. This has been a cruise."