Club's nurture, Flacco's nature proving to be promising fit

November 19, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

Ten days ago in Houston, the Ravens were fresh off a big win and the team's media relations staff had corralled Joe Flacco for the post-game news conference. But the rookie quarterback had to stand off to the side and wait his turn.

While coach John Harbaugh was answering questions, eight-year veteran Todd Heap came into the room. Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' public relations whiz, flashed a look that told Flacco that Heap would be cutting ahead and speaking with reporters first. "I know," Flacco said.

Then three-year veteran Haloti Ngata entered the room, and Byrne again turned to Flacco. "I know," Flacco said. "Him, too."

And so Flacco patiently bided his time, allowing everyone else to step in front of him, talk and then hit the showers. Rookies go last.

I dredge up this little anecdote because it's actually one of the few times in recent weeks that we saw an explicit reminder that Flacco is, in fact, a rookie. It's a credit to Flacco, but especially to the Ravens' coaching staff, that the quarterback is developing so quickly and efficiently. This is worth noting after Sunday's bruising loss to the Giants.

It was not one of Flacco's better performances, but it could prove to be one of his most important ones. The stats and the result tell us how bad it was. But I'm more curious about how bad it could have been and how Flacco handled the conditions and circumstances.

There he was on Sunday, with a swirling wind overhead, a raucous Jersey crowd screaming at him, a deficit shining bright on the scoreboard. And he looked completely unaffected. He was somehow running a no-huddle, as calm on the field as if he were at a midweek practice. Statistics are fine and all, but that's how you gauge the future. You drop a rookie into adversity and see not just how he performs, but also how he reacts.

With the score out of reach, the Ravens wisely didn't call on Flacco to air it out, to force the ball downfield and risk more interceptions. They're protecting him, nurturing Flacco from week to week. It's an important point to make, because before the season, all around town, the water-cooler talk focused on whether the Ravens were rushing Flacco along. It was the city's dire warning: "Remember what happened with Kyle Boller?" Boller was constantly referenced like some Manhattan Project gone awry.

Well, it has become apparent the Ravens probably aren't dealing with another Boller. The fact that Flacco left Giants Stadium with his psyche still intact is telling, because if there were ever a breaking point this season, it could have been Sunday.

Instead, everyone's sights have already moved to the next game. No one's talking about Flacco as if he's fragile and breakable. No one seems concerned that a trial by fire might singe or scar. And no one seems too worried about whether the Ravens are repeating history. In fact, Boller, injured and out for the year, seems all but forgotten.

The circumstances were not ideal. It would have been nice if there had been a veteran quarterback to show Flacco the ropes. In fact, it would have been nice if Boller were around. But he has made few locker-room appearances this year. The Ravens haven't really needed his services. In fact, Boller has already sold his Maryland home.

It's as if he has moved on. And it's as if the Ravens have moved on, as well.

It's now Flacco's throwing arm that represents the future, which doesn't seem like such a scary prospect. No, he isn't great. And certainly Sunday he wasn't great. But you do sense he's packing some of those intangible qualities that good quarterbacks possess - a steely demeanor, an unflappable focus, an ability to lead a huddle and maybe someday also inspire it.

The reviews in Owings Mills have been cautious and a bit reserved - "If you watch him play, he's made a lot of progress," Harbaugh said Sunday - but you bet they're feeling pretty good about their first-round draft pick right now.

And with good reason. It seems as if Flacco will be a good fit. And the Ravens, who have never been able to develop a young quarterback, seem capable of bringing Flacco along at a good pace, accelerated as it has been.

"I think Joe's approach is sound. It's solid. In his mind, it's football," first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said last week.

Cameron and Harbaugh will prove to be crucial to Flacco's development, but quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was as important a hire as Harbaugh made during the offseason. Credit, too, goes to offensive line coach John Matsko, a veteran coach who has his line providing better protection than Boller usually saw.

For Flacco, when it comes to television production meetings the night before a game or midweek news conferences, the rookie will always have to wait his turn. And he does it without complaints.

But everything else about Flacco tells you that he's not especially interested in waiting.

EAGLES (5-4-1) @RAVENS (6-4)

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Line: Ravens 1 1/2

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