By Jamison Hensley | firstname.lastname@example.org
September 8, 2008
The Joe Flacco era commenced yesterday with little fanfare from the strong arm that made him the Ravens' franchise quarterback.
Instead, Flacco's initiation into the NFL was defined by his legs, his wits and his grit.
Running 38 yards into the end zone off an audible and providing the key block on the Ravens' other touchdown, Flacco placed his hard-nosed stamp on the Ravens' season-opening 17-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
In a town where a blue-collar defense has dominated the football landscape for the past decade, Flacco supplied a workmanlike performance of his own, one that was warmly embraced by the sellout crowd of 70,978.
In the first half, fans waved purple placards that read, "Wacko 4 Flacco." In the second half, the crowd chanted, "Let's go Flacco," something none of the previous 15 starting quarterbacks in Ravens history had ever inspired.
"I kind of thought I heard it, but I wasn't really sure. I thought, 'Why would they be doing that?'" Flacco said with a laugh. "Hey, if I can keep them on my side like that, it will be a good time."
The 18th overall pick in this year's draft, Flacco was thrust into the starting role because medical issues sidelined the team's top two quarterbacks, Troy Smith (tonsil infection) and Kyle Boller (season-ending shoulder injury).
Not surprisingly, he finished with a less-than-stellar stat line: 15-for-29 passing for 129 yards and a 63.7quarterback rating. But the key was he didn't turn the ball over and turned up the intensity when it was required.
With the Ravens holding a 10-3 lead late in the third quarter, Flacco delivered a significant blow by scrambling 38 yards for a touchdown, his longest run in a game since high school.
The memorable dash began with modest expectations.
"I started running, and I was thinking, 'first down, first down, first down,'" Flacco said of the run that came on first-and-10. "I got to the first-down point, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't think there's anybody there.' I just started going upfield, and I just thought, 'I'm going to get in the end zone here.'"
The play started with a fake handoff and a rollout to the right by Flacco, who received some help from a couple of teammates.
Center Jason Brown hustled nearly 20 yards downfield to take out one defender, and wide receiver Mark Clayton blocked a cornerback inside the 5-yard line.
That created a clear path for Flacco, who dived into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
"The whole time I was thinking, 'Please, if somebody's about to run and hit you, just slide,'" Brown said. "But the kid has so much heart. I knew that he wasn't going to do that. He had his eyes dead set on the end zone. He was going to get in there no matter what."
The touchdown was more impressive because it wasn't planned that way.
"I thought he was supposed to hand it off to somebody," Brown said.
But Flacco noticed the intended run play wouldn't work because the Bengals were blitzing up the middle. So, rather than handing the ball off to his running back, Flacco called an audible that kept the ball in his hands.
"It was really more of a mental play than it was a physical one," coach John Harbaugh said.
Flacco's physical play had occurred earlier in the game after a rough start.
His first pass ended with tight end Todd Heap fumbling. His second drive began with the Ravens backed up at their 3.
Then, on the third series, Flacco converted a third-and-one with a quarterback sneak before really throwing his body into the mix.
After Clayton took Derrick Mason's flip on a double reverse, Flacco hit the Bengals' Dhani Jones twice, knocking the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker to the ground. That freed Clayton to race down the left sideline for a 42-yard touchdown.
"I'm supposed to block, but I really think I'm just supposed to not mess anything up and get in the way," Flacco said. "So I don't know what I was doing there. It was pretty exciting."
The Ravens supported Flacco with 229 rushing yards and a dominating defensive effort. But they also stumbled at times.
There were five dropped passes, including one by Heap in the end zone.
The impressive part was Flacco never seemed to blink.
"Joe was unbelievably poised," Clayton said. "For me, I don't consider him a rookie quarterback. He prepared well, and he came out here and he was ready to put us in a position to win the game."
Said Mason, "He is starting to really come into his own right now."
Still, the Ravens realize there is a learning curve for Flacco.
He just happened to pass the first test.
"This was the beginning for Joe," Harbaugh said. "Now we've got an idea of where he's at, and what he needs to do is get better. He played well, but he needs to take this week to next week and make the most improvement maybe he will ever make in his career. That should be his goal."
So, will Flacco be the starting quarterback for now?
Harbaugh quickly replied, "We'll see."
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