Flacco named opening-day starter

OWINGS MILLS -- Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was named the Baltimore Ravens' starter for the season opener, an anticlimactic development Monday as the strong-armed first-round draft pick won the job by default after a bizarre set of medical circumstances befell both his competitors.

The announcement that Flacco will be under center against the Cincinnati Bengals accompanied his steady improvement over the final two preseason games as he made strides with his accuracy and pocket awareness.

"I've been preparing like I was going to be the starter all along," Flacco said. "I feel like I've done a pretty good job."

With former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith suffering from a tonsil infection and former starter Kyle Boller suffering from an injury to his throwing shoulder that could eventually end his season, Flacco is literally the last man standing.

Neither Boller or Smith is healthy enough to even be the backup Sunday. The team worked out free agent quarterbacks Joey Harrington, Chris Simms and Todd Bouman, but didn't immediately announce a signing. Regardless of who the Ravens sign, Flacco is the Ravens' choice to start.

"Joe is going to be the starter on Sunday," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It wouldn't be realistic to have one of those guys [Boller and Smith] as a starter, for sure. If they can back up, I think that would be an upset.

"I would say we're pretty close to ruling those guys out. We need a backup quarterback for the game, so we're looking at other guys."

Flacco was anointed as the Ravens' quarterback of the future by general manager Ozzie Newsome this spring when he was drafted 18th overall, and now the former Delaware star is their quarterback of the present heading into the Bengals game at M&T Bank Stadium.

The news was regarded as more of an eventuality than a surprise by Flacco, who haunted the Ravens' training complex over the weekend to cram in more film study.

"He's calm, he doesn't react much," Harbaugh said. "He probably saw it coming. It's not something that was too hard to figure out. He's excited in his own 'Joe' way. Everybody gets an opportunity and you take it and you run with it.

"You can definitely envision a scenario where it could be Joe's job throughout the year. We're not really predicting anything. We know Sunday it's going to be Joe, and let's go try and win a football game."

Signed to a five-year, $30 million contract in July that included an $8.75 million signing bonus, Flacco had been eliminated from the competition weeks ago prior to Smith's sudden illness heading into a scheduled start against the St. Louis Rams.

Flacco wound up playing the entire game on a few hours notice, and delivered the Ravens' lone touchdown pass this preseason to wide receiver Derrick Mason during a crisp drive to open the second half.

Then, he completed 8 of 13 passes for 72 yards in a 10-9 loss to the Atlanta Falcons to conclude the preseason.

Now, Flacco's NFL crash course has been accelerated significantly.

"It's faster than I expected, but this is what I wanted all along," Flacco said. "Things happen funny. I've gotten my opportunity, and now it's up to me to go out there and play."

Flacco completed 35 of 67 passes for 284 yards, no interceptions and one touchdown and was sacked six times during the preseason for a team-high 68.3 quarterback rating ahead of Boller (51.8) and Smith (46.8).

In two seasons at Delaware after transferring from Pitt, he completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 7,046 yards, 41 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder has his grip on the football, and has no intentions of relinquishing his hold on the starting position.

In Flacco's opinion, this is the beginning of an era.

"That's my plan, to hold on to it as long as I can," Flacco said. "In my eyes, it's going to be a lot of years."

At age 23, Flacco is following in the unsuccessful footsteps of Boller, who was thrust into the starting lineup immediately in 2003 and struggled and never developed into a consistent passer. Other quarterbacks who saw early playing time and never realized their potential: include Tim Couch, David Carr, Akili Smith, Harrington and Ryan Leaf.

Among those who survived rough early initiations were Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman. Retired Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino thrived as a rookie.

The best recent example of a rookie who succeeded when forced to play due to injuries is Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who went 13-0 in the 2004 regular season after taking over for Tommy Maddox.

"To me, it doesn't even matter," Harbaugh said. "What difference does it make? Joe's our guy, and we think he can win for us. He had a heck of a practice, and we're excited to go out there and play with him."

Flacco is already anticipating some exotic defensive schemes from the Bengals, who will try to confuse and pressure the rookie from mistakes as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL after starring at the Division I-AA level. Disguised coverage schemes and heavy blitz packages are likely to be in Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' game plan.

"I expect Cincinnati to do all they have to do to put pressure on us and come after us," Flacco said. "We're going to do all we can do to stop that and get them back on their heels and be the offense we need to be."

Despite his confidence in Flacco, Harbaugh certainly didn't envision this scenario when he launched a three-man quarterback competition during the offseason.

A former Ohio State star, Smith entered training camp with a slight edge because of his swaggering confidence and how he moved the offense. He never took over the offense, though, due to limited throwing opportunities and success in two preseason games and the illness.

Boller's injury, which he suffered on a brutal hit against the Minnesota Vikings in the second preseason game, was another blow to a reeling offense.

Because of the injuries and illness, Flacco's scheduled waiting period evaporated and an inevitable promotion transpired a lot sooner than originally anticipated.

"Providence, I guess," Harbaugh said. "In a movie script, if one of you guys wrote your movie script, no one would believe it, right?" Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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