This time a year ago, Joe Flacco was still viewed as a quarterback who couldn't get his team to the Super Bowl. He was still playing for a big contract after betting on himself by declining the Ravens' initial offers.
He was still waiting for the Ravens to put their full faith in his right arm and open up their offense.
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Today, Flacco enters the 2013 regular season with a Lombardi Trophy on his growing resume, a nine-figure contract and the respect of the football world after taking home the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. Many things have changed in Baltimore during the past 12 months, especially since the Super Bowl, but those close to the 28-year-old quarterback say Flacco isn't one of them.
As an encore, Flacco, who has racked up team accomplishments since his rookie season in 2008, wants to take his individual game to the next level this season. It won't be easy with increased expectations and the loss of two key receivers. But if anyone can shrug off all this pressure, it's Flacco.
"I don't know if there is — in terms of demeanor — anyone better than Joe to handle something like this," said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who like Flacco is a Delaware alumnus. "He's so even-keeled. Things just kind of roll off his shoulders. At the same time, I think he's extremely motivated. I don't think people realize how competitive he is. … This is a guy who is not going to flinch when the criticism comes or the adversity hits, and that's what makes him special."
Staying sane in the spotlight
Flacco isn't exactly thrilled about the attention that came with his new status and the media requests that have been piling up. But in his mind, it beats the alternative.
"When I think about [the past year], I kind of just think, 'Wow. That was awesome. Let's go do it again.' That would be a great way to start each offseason," Flacco said. "But there wasn't a ton of times where I sat back and thought about it, to be honest with you. I did it. I enjoyed it. Then it was just about getting back to what we normally do."
After Flacco coolly threw a record-tying 11 touchdown passes in the postseason and was named Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, the following days were chaotic.
At his postgame party, Flacco revealed that his wife, Dana, was pregnant with their second child. He then jetted to Florida to cruise around in a convertible with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Later that day, he wore a suit and a five o'clock shadow on the "Late Show with David Letterman." One topic of discussion was his uncertain contract status.
Back home in Audubon, N.J., there was talk about a parade or some other kind of public celebration for Flacco, but the quarterback quickly put the kibosh on that. But when Flacco, as he does every year, showed up at the Audubon High School baseball booster club dinner, the locals packed the restaurant to get a glimpse of their hometown hero.
Four weeks after leading the Ravens to the Lombardi Trophy, Flacco became — at the time — the highest-paid player in NFL history. And after signing a six-year, $120.6million contract that will set him up for life, Flacco stopped for chicken McNuggets at a McDonald's in Aberdeen on his way back to New Jersey. While he did purchase a house from former Ravens center Matt Birk, Flacco's idea of splurging was supersizing his value meal.
"You kind of wind down and you get done with all the crazy things that surround the Super Bowl [and] you're back here before you know it," Flacco said. "The last thing I'm thinking about is what I'm going to go buy. It's funny the way it works. Really, the only thing I thought about since signing the big contract was, 'Man, I want more.' You get a lot of money and you realize it's pretty cool. Let's see if we can go win some more so we can get some more for everybody."
Getting the contract taken care of restored a sense of normalcy for Flacco. Most important, it allowed him to get back into the team's Owings Mills practice facility, where throughout the offseason he lifted weights, threw passes or watched game tape.
"His schedule didn't change in that regard," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He loves to study film, loves to be around the guys. This is a great environment for him, but I think, oftentimes, people expect these guys to change. The fact of the matter is they don't."
Leading the Ravens his way
One thing that won't change is his leadership style, and the Ravens are quite content with that.
Flacco will give few fiery speeches, but he won't dance out of a tunnel of flames at M&T Bank Stadium before games. He isn't going to channel his inner Ray Lewis now that the legendary linebacker retired. Flacco has been a leader in his own way, though he understands why reporters keep asking him whether he's ready to assume a larger locker room role.
"Ray Lewis was such a big face and such a presence around here for so long. So when there is a void like that, people just naturally want to ask how it is going to change this year without him," Flacco said. "So I just deal with that question and answer it however I feel like that day."
But Flacco acknowledged that he would be "irritated" if people assumed he wasn't already a leader.
Days after the 30-point loss to the Houston Texans last October, one team meeting grew tense. Some defensive players, led by safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, voiced their frustration to coach John Harbaugh about having to wear full pads in practice before departing for the bye week. There were also complaints about the game plan for Houston.
The Ravens came out throwing, but Flacco threw two interceptions and the offense couldn't sustain drives, forcing a proud, tired defense to remain on the field for more than 38 minutes.
The defense felt embarrassed, leading to raised voices and finger-pointing. Flacco stood up and interjected. He told the room that the coaches put together the right game plan and that he took the blame for the offense's not executing it. And instead of dwelling on the loss, he encouraged everyone to focus on the long road ahead.
"Joe didn't take anybody's side — us or the coaches," tight end Ed Dickson said. "He just said, 'We've got to do better, guys.'"
Weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain backed Flacco, telling his fellow defenders it was up to them to go onto the field and stop somebody.
That heated meeting was a significant moment for a Ravens team that grew into a champion.
"It was just a crazy meeting. … It was just one of those things that happen in the moment," Flacco said. "The last thing we needed was a divided locker room and people getting [angry] at this person for this. We needed to stick together as a team and lose as a team and win as a team. Losing one game wasn't going to define who we were, and that was the biggest thing I was trying to get across."
Former Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, who played with Flacco during the quarterback's first three seasons, said that even early in his career, Flacco led by his actions and demeanor, even if he wasn't saying much. Mason could count on Flacco to never be rattled in the huddle.
"His leadership came with his calmness. He never was a big talker in the huddle. He never was a rah-rah guy," Mason said. "And I don't think that's changed because I don't think that's him."
The next challenge
One thing that could stand to change with Flacco is his consistency. He has won more games in his first five seasons than any other quarterback. With him under center, the Ravens never have missed the playoffs. And he has been to three AFC championship games and one Super Bowl. But Flacco has yet to put together a 16-game season impressive enough to get him selected to the Pro Bowl.
While team goals are his first priority, Flacco concedes that he does care about individual honors.
"It would be a lie if I said no," Flacco said. "Yeah, you want to be a Pro Bowl quarterback so that's another thing that people can stop saying. But at the same time, it's not the No. 1 thing on my list. … It's not going to end my world if it doesn't happen."
In 2012, Flacco established career highs with 317 completions and 3,817 passing yards. His 22 touchdown passes were the second-highest total of his career and his 10 interceptions tied a career low. And even though the Ravens asked him to attempt many difficult downfield throws, Flacco raised his completion percentage by more than 2 points.
"When you look at [what] he can do, there are moments he can play as well as any quarterback in the NFL," said Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback who is now an ESPN analyst. "The difference is not having those weeks where guys leave the stadium and think, 'How the heck did that just happen?' That's the challenge. I really believe in the NFL, it's about consistency as far as what separates the good players from the best players."
After Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in December, Flacco threw 15 touchdown passes and just one interception in seven starts, though he played sparingly in the regular-season finale.
If Flacco is to play at a similar level this fall, he will have to do it without two favorite targets. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded in the offseason and tight end Dennis Pitta suffered a hip injury early in training camp that is expected to keep him out most of the season. Looking for the right mix of pass-catchers, the Ravens have shuffled new wide receivers in with the first-team offense, including rookies Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown. Behind the scenes, Flacco had pushed for those youngsters to get chances.
"It's going to be a total group effort, just like it always is, and it's going to be an ongoing process of getting a comfort level with all the guys that are out there. But it's always like that," Flacco said. "What fun would it be if we were perfect in everything that we did? Football is not about that."
That challenge is what Flacco lives for, not the fame and the prosperity that come when he conquers it. After achieving his childhood dream by winning the Super Bowl, all Flacco wanted to do was get back to work and see whether he could do it again.
"We're going to play the way we always do and we're going to win a lot of games and we're going to give ourselves the best chance we can to go out and do the exact same thing we did last year," Flacco said. "But we can't promise that, and you can't just expect that. This is a tough league, and we've got to go out there and work for it."
Can you expect a Super Bowl MVP to improve?
Looking at how the past five quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl MVP award fared the following regular season compared with the previous one.
SB XLI: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
2006 season: 4,397 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 9 interceptions
2007 season: 4,040 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 14 interceptions
SB XLII: Eli Manning, New York Giants
2007 season: 3,336 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions
2008 season: 3,238 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 10 interceptions
SB XLIV: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
2009 season: 4,388 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, 11 interceptions
2010 season: 4,620 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 22 interceptions
SB XLV: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
2010 season: 3,922 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 11 interceptions
2011 season: 4,643 passing yards, 45 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
SB XLVI: Eli Manning, New York Giants
2011 season: 4,933 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 16 interceptions
2012 season: 3,948 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 15 interceptions