Flacco: 'It doesn't feel any different'

OWINGS MILLS -- Joe Flacco doesn't get consumed with the extraneous aspect of football off the field, and while playing the game he rarely changes his stoic expression or takes his gaze off his downfield targets unless it's to use his peripheral vision to elude an incoming blitz.

The Baltimore Ravens' towering rookie quarterback is building a reputation for having a singular focus, a strong arm and surprisingly nimble feet.

And the Audubon, N.J., native is treating Sunday's game against what amounts to his hometown Philadelphia Eagles as just another opponent to challenge with his precocious game.

"I don't really know what it's going to be like, but right now I'm really just approaching it like any other game," Flacco said. "It doesn't feel any different. It just feels like they're another NFL team coming in.

"We're getting ready to go out there and give it our best shot and try to put another win on the season. It should be pretty cool, but, at the same time, they have some different guys on the team than when I grew up watching them. I'm playing against them now, so it's a lot different."

A first-round draft pick from Delaware, Flacco has remained grounded and low-key regardless of whether he throws a bunch of touchdown passes, or a pair of interceptions with a paltry 58.1 quarterback rating, as he did during last week's 30-10 setback against the New York Giants.

Living with his brother, Mike, near the Ravens' training complex and remaining in close proximity to his parents, Steven and Karen Flacco, the big rookie hasn't allowed his NFL celebrity status to go to his head. Plus, Flacco says he's usually not even recognized when he dines at area restaurants.

For Flacco, staying low-key just means staying true to his own nature.

"I guess it was just the way I was brought up, really just who I am," Flacco said. "It's not really a task to stay humble. It's just that everybody has their own personality, and it's just who I am."

Flacco grew up cheering for the Eagles and knows the lore of Randall Cunningham and Reggie White by heart. His whole town is pretty much devoted to the Eagles as diehard fans, but he's working on converting them into cheering for a different kind of bird.

He never envisioned himself wearing green, though.

"I always dreamed of playing in the NFL, but I never really picked out a team that I would like to play for," Flacco said. "Philadelphia was really close to us, and we ended up watching it every Sunday, but I never really pictured myself playing for those guys."

Over the past five games, Flacco has completed 61.4 percent of his throws for 969 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions for a 95.2 rating. Not coincidentally, the Ravens are 4-1 over that span.

During his first five NFL starts, Flacco completed 62.5 percent of his throws for 844 yards, one touchdown and seven interceptions for a 60.6 rating. The Ravens began the season 2-3.

Yet, the ebb and flow of the season hasn't gotten him down.

"You're going to have good games and sometimes you're not going to have good games," Flacco said. "You have to realize that. It comes down to how you handle the games you don't play well in. I guess I've been brought up to do a good job of that. I'm just being myself."

Being Joe Flacco has meant ignoring the taunts of intimidating defenders, hanging in the pocket until the last second, absorbing big hits and having the wherewithal and athleticism to dash outside when protection breaks down to make something out of nothing as he did against the Giants when he led Baltimore with 57 rushing yards on six scrambles.

It also means occasionally displaying a dry sense of humor and always deferring to veteran players. After games, Flacco routinely waits his turn behind older teammates prior to stepping up to the podium for interviews.

"In the times, he's seen adversity Joe has handled it very maturely," center Jason Brown said. "I don't know if he just doesn't know any better. It's like, 'Hey, don't you know billions of dollars are at stake here in terms of everybody trying to chase the common goal of a championship?'

"He shakes it off and just says, 'I want to go back to the work and get better.' That's the best attitude you can have."

Flacco ascended to the starting job not only through merit, but primarily through circumstance.

When former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith suffered a tonsil infection during the preseason and former starter Kyle Boller incurred a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery, Flacco got the nod as the last quarterback standing.

That unorthodox route to the starting job fulfilled Flacco's desire to never accept sitting on the bench. Now, he's entrenched as the Ravens' guy for the present and the future.

"Everyone displayed concerns because Joe is a rookie quarterback coming from a small school and nobody knows anything about the young kid," Brown said. "But what you guys didn't see is this young man when he got here displayed a tremendous work ethic. He didn't treat his career starting out as though he was going to have a redshirt year.

"He came in acting like a professional and prepared himself as a starter even though Troy Smith and Kyle Boller were ahead of him. That shows you the type of young man he is."

For the season, Flacco has completed 62.0 percent of his throws (171 of 276) or 1,813 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 6-4 record as a starter matches Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, the third overall pick from Boston College who has passed for 2,159 yards on 59.7 percent accuracy for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Although comparisons have become understandably commonplace, Flacco hasn't concerned himself on keeping up with Ryan. Of course, Ryan has the luxur y of an established deep threat in Roddy White, a presence absent from the Ravens' methodical passing game.

Flacco has also made a name for himself by haunting the Ravens' film room, coming in to work on his one day off Tuesday to study hours of film. At home Tuesday nights, he eagerly awaits faxes of the game plan from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson.

"His whole thing is to get better from Sunday to the next," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He spends a lot of time here watching tape. He's here all day on Tuesday. He just works to make himself better."

Flacco is currently ranked 12th in the AFC in passing, but has drawn high marks for his composure, maturity and courage.

His progression isn't a surprise to NFL coaches, including the Eagles' Andy Reid.

"He's fearless in the pocket," Reid said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "In college, Joe stood in that pocket and hung onto that ball to the last second trying to make a play.

"He still has that tenacity about him, but he gets the ball out even quicker. He sees things so well right now. I just have been very, very impressed with him."

Flacco is athletic enough that he has a 43-yard reception under his belt as well as 142 rushing yards, two touchdown runs and has only been sacked 18 times.

"I'm not a big believer in the combine per se, but one thing that showed up was that he was an athlete and you could see that he could run," Cameron said. "That showed up in his agility drills. Initially, I knew, 'This guy runs like he's 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4.'"

The pressing challenge for Flacco this week is dueling with veteran Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's confusing blitz packages, and the physical ability of defensive ends Darren Howard and Trent Cole to penetrate the backfield. The Eagles are tied for the NFL lead with the Pittsburgh Steelers with 36 sacks.

Whatever transpires Sunday, the Ravens would be shocked if Flacco displays much emotion. The Ravens haven't had to coddle Flacco like a typical rookie.

"He's Joe, he doesn't get upset," Harbaugh said. "You don't have to massage Joe at all. He goes to work on the job he's trying to do this week. It's really all about football with Joe."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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