The Ravens were ready to break the team huddle to start practice recently when Joe Flacco took off his helmet and his teammates erupted in laughter.
"The guy was wearing a [skull] cap," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "You know, the thing that Ray Lewis wears."
For the past four seasons, the quarterback has been scrutinized more than any other athlete in Baltimore. His body language has been interpreted and critiqued. His quotes have been dissected and, at times, mocked. And his performance every weekend during the football season has ranged from acceptable to terrible, depending on whom you ask.
As he enters the most important season of his young career, Flacco is supposed to be feeling the pressure that comes with increased expectations and responsibilities. He is supposed to be consumed by his contract situation and the fact that he'll enter the season as a lame-duck quarterback.
But watching him during training camp play practical jokes on teammates, command the huddle and hit a wide receiver in stride across the middle, observers have never seen him look more in control or more at ease.
"I was down to watch him practice, and it was obvious that this is his team," said K.C. Keeler, Flacco's coach at Delaware. "He was killing it that day. It was all Joe. He's gotten a certain comfort level with everything. It's all kind of come together."
Heading into Monday night's season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Flacco, 27, conceded that he's more comfortable than he has ever been. With the addition of wide-out Jacoby Jones and the continued maturation of Smith and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, Flacco feels this is the best offensive personnel that the Ravens have had in his tenure.
He has meshed well with new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell and he's been buoyed that some of his suggestions in terms of play calling and offensive philosophy have been "taken a little bit better" than they had in the past. That includes the implementation of a no-huddle offense, which Flacco thrived in while he was at Delaware.
"I'm really confident," Flacco said. "I think we have a good group of guys, and we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we weren't looking at ourselves like [a top offense] and giving ourselves a good chance to go out there and put up a lot of points. It takes a lot of work and we have a big step to make. I'm not saying that we're going to put up 50 every game from the very beginning, but I do believe we're going to have a good offense, and I do believe we're going to get better and better as the season goes on."
Does Flacco's future in Baltimore depend on it? Probably not.
The Ravens, who drafted Flacco in the first round in 2008, are committed to him going forward despite his rookie deal expiring after the season. The two sides have been negotiating with Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, since February, but at this point, talks appear to be at a stalemate.
"It is what it is. If they don't want me here anymore, I think it's their loss," Flacco said. "If I'm not good enough to be here, then that's the way it is. If I go out and perform the way I think I should this year, then I think I'm getting more expensive. Things are going to work out with the way we go out and play. It's not my job to worry about it."
Flacco has given Linta permission to continue the negotiations during the season, vowing it won't be a distraction.
"Joe is single-minded of purpose and his focus is on taking the team to the next level," Linta said. "He has a contract, and he's fine with it."
Asked about his earlier statement that his contract is not on his mind, Flacco said, "Come on, everybody thinks about it a little bit. But when I'm [at the training facility], I don't think about it one bit. It's exciting that we're even having conversations, but that stuff doesn't affect me. I've been playing football for a long time and I love to play this game. That's what it's about. My job is to go out and play."
Flacco has said on several occasions that he expects to be in Baltimore long-term, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh credited Flacco for "making a conscious decision to not make [his contract] an issue, and I know that because of how the negotiations have gone."
Though teammates are well aware of the situation, they say that's mostly because of the media's fixation on it rather than Flacco discussing it. Pitta is Flacco's closest friend on the team, and the only reason he knows about the negotiations is he asks about them. Smith agreed.
"I think that speaks volumes about Joe because he's not worried about it at all," Smith said. "It doesn't faze him, it doesn't faze his game. He's not like, 'All right, I got to play well so I can make that happen.' He lets everything take its course. You can just see it with the way he is playing, the throws that he is making. There have been a lot of 'wow' throws that we've gotten to see all preseason."