Leaving no football unturned when searching for their franchise quarterback five years ago, the Ravens drove up I-95 to Delaware to work out the strong-armed kid who had rocketed up NFL draft boards.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson put Joe Flacco through a rigorous workout, with scouts watching his every move as he spiraled balls to wide receivers. For two and a half hours, they tested him in countless drills, including a few that were new to then Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, and Keeler has seen pretty much everything in three decades of coaching.
Flacco aced all the physical tests, but there was one more question that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome needed an answer for. Why wasn’t Joe Flacco, as a senior quarterback, a captain at Delaware?
Two days prior to the 2008 NFL draft, just before the team’s final pre-draft meeting, Cameron called Keeler and asked him for a story about Flacco’s leadership that might help convince the Ravens to draft him.
“This whole team took on his personality. He never panics. This team never panics. I’ll give you a great example of his leadership,” Keeler replied before giving Cameron exactly what he needed.
The Ravens, of course, drafted Flacco in the first round of the draft. And Flacco, of course, has won a playoff game in each of his first five NFL seasons and has the Ravens back in the Super Bowl for the first time in more than a decade. Keeler, who says he realized this was a realistic possibility before Flacco did, will be watching Sunday, beaming with pride as Flacco tries to pick apart the San Francisco 49ers defense.
“You can obviously see that I’m very proud because I know we had a little bit to do with it,” Keeler said last Thursday. “I think his family had a lot to do with it. He was very well-raised.”
Is Keeler surprised his star pupil is playing in the Super Bowl? Not at all. He saw greatness in Flacco, even when he considered benching him in his junior year, and knew exactly what to tell Cameron when he called.
In the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Delaware found itself in a rowdy dome, down by 10 points to top-seeded Northern Iowa. “We’re getting run out of Dodge,” Keeler said. “It’s 10-nothing and it’s going to be 40-nothing before we know it.” He remembers Flacco pulling his teammates together on the sideline and screaming a message over the home crowd at the UNI-Dome: “Just someone make a play.”
And then it was Flacco who went out there and made the play.
Delaware’s left tackle missed a block, “turning this beast of a defensive end loose,” as Keeler put it. Flushed out of the pocket with the defensive end in hot pursuit, Flacco found a receiver down the field.
“And all the sudden...,” said Keeler, pausing to demonstratively reenact an exhale. “We went and scored and ended up beating them by 12 [points]. ... It was the best team we’ve ever played. I just saw that moment as a defining moment in terms of his leadership. He doesn’t insert himself into a leadership role unless he has to so people think he’s laid-back. But he desperately wants to win.”
That’s why it drove Keeler nuts that he lived close enough to Baltimore to pick up sports talk radio stations.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said when asked about the criticism of Flacco, which has died down in recent weeks. “It boggles my mind a little bit that you have a guy, he drinks milk and he’s not out at the go-go joints. He’s home with his wife and his child. He’ll sign anything for anybody. He’s just a great human being.”
But there was a time when some fans at Delaware were calling for the backup, too. In his second start there, Flacco threw two interceptions in a loss to Albany. Keeler and his coaching staff discussed sitting him down, but ultimately decided that Flacco, who was rusty after sitting out a year because he had transferred from Pittsburgh, had too much talent to make a quarterback change.
“Everybody wanted the backup. They’re booing. And [sticking with Flacco] was the right move,” Keeler said. “You knew he had special talent. You don’t find a human being his size, his arm strength, his athleticism, but also with his demeanor. He doesn’t panic over anything. Nothing bothers him.”
A few months later, Flacco walked into Keeler’s office and told him he wanted to play for Delaware’s baseball team. You must be kidding, Keeler said, before telling Flacco that he had a huge spring practice season ahead of him. NFL teams would be watching in the fall, and he was going to be a high draft pick. Confident but humble, Flacco was surprised at first, according to Keeler, who talked Flacco out of playing baseball.