Joe cool

Eerie calm drives rookie from 3rd string to first postseason

January 04, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Joe Flacco is in the midst of a whirlwind season, from unexpectedly being handed the starting quarterback job to leading the Ravens' improbable run to the playoffs.

But the stoic 23-year-old rookie from the University of Delaware is approaching the biggest game of his brief NFL career with a matter-of-fact shoulder shrug. "It's just another game," he deadpanned.

Flacco's calm demeanor, which has been as much an asset as his strong arm in the Ravens' remarkable turnaround season, will be tested today against the Miami Dolphins. He will become just the eighth rookie quarterback since 1970 to start a postseason game.

Those around him don't expect the magnitude of the NFL playoffs to faze him.

Flacco is one of the Ravens' most laid-back players. Walking around the team's facility, the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder looks half asleep (he acknowledges that he isn't a morning person). Speaking to the media, he is equally unemotional, talking in a sort of monotone.

"That's just Joe," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. Or "Joe Cool," a nickname that is catching on with teammates and fans.

Joe Cool stays grounded.

His biggest splurge after signing his five-year, $30 million contract was a lawn mower for his mother. He lives in an apartment with his 21-year-old brother, Mike, and still hasn't bought a car. He drives a BMW dealer's loaner, with a "This is a courtesy car" sign in the back window.

Joe Cool works hard.

Flacco's philosophy is that you're never nervous if you're prepared. Determined to show that a quarterback from a small college program can play big, he is always at Ravens headquarters on his one day off during the week, watching four to five hours of tape for the next opponent. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has joked that it's a challenge to keep finding more film for Flacco.

Joe Cool wants to be a starting quarterback, not a star quarterback.

His big night on the town is having dinner with his offensive linemen at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse or T.G.I. Friday's. This isn't exactly the same as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dating music star Jessica Simpson.

"He's a starting quarterback in the NFL, but he's the same person that he's always been," said Rob Agnone, a college friend and teammate who still talks to him once a week. "That's what separates him from other people. He's in a glamorous position, but it doesn't go to his head."

On most evenings, Flacco falls asleep on the sofa while watching TV.

"His life is so boring that you wouldn't believe it," his father, Steve, said.

The past 12 months have been anything but boring. Last January, he had just finished his college career and was preparing for workouts leading up to the NFL draft.

Now, he is following the likes of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as rookies leading teams to the playoffs. But this is hardly a surprise to Flacco.

"The bottom line is that when you're a quarterback and you want to be a good player in this league, you think about going to the playoffs and you think about being a winning quarterback in the playoffs," he said.

Flacco could have lost confidence earlier this season. Looking back, the first-round draft pick probably should have lost confidence.

An injury to Kyle Boller and an illness to Troy Smith allowed Flacco to leapfrog from No. 3 quarterback to starter just weeks before the season opener. In his first five games, Flacco received a rough initiation to the NFL, throwing one touchdown and seven interceptions.

The night before the next game - a contest in Miami - Cameron addressed the Ravens' six first-year players on offense during a team meeting and told them that they were no longer rookies. Then, he pointed at his unassuming prodigy.

"You've got to lead us," Cameron told Flacco.

He responded with a breakthrough game, throwing for 232 yards and one touchdown in leading the Ravens to a 27-13 victory over the Dolphins on Oct. 19.

Including that game, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns and five interceptions over the past 11 regular-season games - and the Ravens won nine of them.

"That was a turning point for us as a team and him as a player," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said.

Flacco's play and persona - teammates still can't tell when he's rattled - have won over the locker room.

"I've played with guys when you drop back and say, 'Lord have mercy, I hope he gets rid of the ball and throws it to the right person,' " Anderson said. "We know if we block, Joe has a big-enough arm and he is smart enough to make big-time throws.

"That's the kind of guy you're going to fight for."

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who has played with 16 starting quarterbacks in 13 years with the Ravens, can appreciate Flacco's unshakable presence.

"Once one good play or bad play is gone, he lets it go," Lewis said. "A lot of guys can't do that. Joe is one of those gifted ones. He's going to be a special kid."

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