It's Different This Year, But Flacco Still Joe Cool

July 30, 2009|By KEVIN COWHERD

The voice was loud and angry.

It rose above the noise of the fans watching the Ravens train at McDaniel College on Wednesday, like the whine of a blender in a crowded bar.

"Hey, Flacco!" the voice cried. "What about the handicapped zone?"

Joe Flacco shook his head.

"Guess that's supposed to make me feel bad," he said softly.

The Ravens quarterback had just spent a few minutes signing autographs after the team's morning practice. But he hadn't made it over to a group of fans in wheelchairs, having been pulled aside by a member of the team's public relations staff to do a media interview.

Now the voice let him have it again.

"You can't make everyone happy," said a newspaper guy walking with Flacco.

"Yeah," said Flacco, "I'm finding that out."

This summer, as the Ravens prepare for a new season, it seems everyone wants a piece of Flacco.

A year ago at this time, he was the tall, gangly first-round draft choice out of Delaware with the big arm who was expected to finish second to Troy Smith for the starting quarterback job.

But Smith came down with a viral infection and Flacco made the most of the opportunity, playing solidly in helping the Ravens to a 13-6 record, including playoff wins over the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans.

This year, Flacco acknowledges he's "the guy" in the offense and great things are expected of him.

But coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens said the laid-back Flacco seems no different in demeanor from last year, when he earned the nickname Joe Cool, which still makes him cringe.

"I don't know, I'm not very cool," Flacco said. "I am laid-back. I don't know if that's a great name for me. But I'll take it."

Well, it's better than Joe Laid-Back. Which wouldn't work at all in the NFL. Not on game days, anyway.

On the other hand, Flacco said he was anything but relaxed at camp last year.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. " ... You feel like a rookie. You feel like a freshman in college and a freshman in high school again. You don't know what to expect practice-wise, and you don't really know the offense. So you're kind of scared of getting in there and messing up. ...

"Now I've been through it. I'm more comfortable with everything. I know what to expect. There are a lot of things I'm not worrying about that I was worrying about last year. I've been able to come out here, relax and play football, which is what you want to do."

Now he's one of the acknowledged leaders of the team, the guy who picked up the phone a few nights ago and called retired wide receiver Derrick Mason to tell him how much he's missed.

"Yeah, I talked to him, and I hope what I said meant something to him," Flacco said. "Derrick was a great part of our team last year, very important to us, and we all love him around here. So we hope he comes back, and we'd be grateful.

"But if not, we have the receivers that we're going to win with, and we feel we're just as capable a team without him."

To the Ravens, it was just another sign of their young quarterback maturing as a leader.

"His personality is the best," wide receiver Mark Clayton said of Flacco. "That's the most important thing for a quarterback: how he carries himself. It's hard to rattle him. With that, we're confident in our leader, man. He's our leader, and we'll follow him from now until forever."

So there it is. The nervous rookie who rolled into camp last year in his parents' '92 Volvo is now a budding star who tools around in a new Chevy Tahoe.

The media won't leave him alone. The fans clamor for his picture and autograph. He even has his own commercial, a Reebok spot for NFL.com, for which he has taken a raft of good-natured abuse from teammates and his family in Audubon, N.J.

If you haven't seen it, it features Flacco on a skeet-shooting range, of all places.

He picks up a couple of footballs, yells "Pull!" and guns a couple of passes far into the sky that appear to shatter two discs.

I say "appear to" because apparently the Reebok people made him swear a blood oath not to reveal whether special effects were used.

All he'll say is that the commercial took 90 minutes to shoot somewhere in Towson.

"I don't know," he said with a smile when I asked about special effects. "I got to leave it up to your imagination."

Well, OK. If you're leaving it up to me to decide, I'd say this: There's no question special effects were used.

The guy's good. But no one's that good.

Not even Joe Cool.

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