Joe Flacco is no longer barraged with questions about former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, finding consistency or even his capability to win the big game. Now the owner of one of the richest contracts in the history of the sport and two weeks away from receiving a sparkling Super Bowl ring, Flacco's status as the Ravens' franchise quarterback will probably never be this secure.
Yet as he took the field Tuesday, the 28-year-old felt no different than he did during organized team activities the previous five years.
"The only thing that is different is I probably don't know 80 percent of the guys' names on our team at this point," Flacco said. "I would say that is the only difference."
Signs of change are everywhere at the Under Armour Performance Center these days, from the Lombardi Trophy that sits in a glass case in the lobby to the title-winning banners that hang in the indoor practice facility to the various new faces that occupy the locker room.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the two players who have defined the Ravens' defensive excellence for over a decade, weren't traditionally at OTAs this early anyway, but their lockers have long been cleared out and will be given to other players.
The personality and face of the Ravens' offense, however, remains unchanged.
"Joe has done a great job throughout his career in his own way," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Nothing is going to change Joe. Joe is going to be who he is. I don't think a change in the roster is going to change Joe. A change in the contract isn't going to change Joe. Joe is Joe, and that's what you love about him."
Flacco insists that the departure of Lewis and Reed, along with the loss of other well-respected and outspoken veterans like Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard, doesn't put the leadership onus all on him. However, he readily acknowledged that it is important for him to be at these OTAs, working with the coaching staff and continuing to gain chemistry with the organization's young group of pass catchers.
"I think people make a big deal out of it but that happens every single year," Flacco said when asked about the unprecedented roster turnover of a reigning Super Bowl winner. "I got here five years ago and you could probably count on one hand the guys who were here five years ago still here today. That's how much our team has changed over in that short amount of time. Obviously, we lose some guys but I think we always do a great job of getting some in return and making up for it with some young guys. I feel very confident about where we're headed."
During one three-play sequence in Wednesday's workout, Flacco hit tight end Ed Dickson in the right flat, threw a high pass that Tandon Doss hauled in over new safety Michael Huff and then found Torrey Smith streaking toward the end zone.
A couple of plays later, he connected on a touch pass with Deonte Thompson in the back of the end zone, a play reminiscent of two of Boldin's postseason touchdown catches.
It wasn't quite the San Francisco 49ers' defense in February, but Flacco, wearing a red non-contact jersey and black shorts, was very much in his element leading the Ravens' offense.
"He leads by the way he plays," said new Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who as a Denver Bronco last year, was on the wrong end of Flacco's playoff resurgence. "You saw that definitely in the playoff game. He did an outstanding job. He orchestrated that offense real good and he's doing the same out here so it's no surprise."
Flacco maintains that he was able to enjoy a "normal" offseason if there is such a thing for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who enjoyed one of the best postseasons ever by a signal caller. After an uneven regular season that saw his long-time offensive coordinator get fired in December and spurred more questions about his ability to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl, Flacco threw 11 postseason touchdowns and zero interceptions.
He was at his best in Super Bowl XLVII, burning the 49ers for 287 yards and three first-half touchdowns. He was named the game's Most Valuable Player and the resulting trip to Disney World was one of several perks that the low key quarterback would enjoy.
Flacco was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, spent some time in New York for fashion week and even his routine trips to McDonald's or the airport drew onlookers and amateur photographers.
He received even more attention and scrutiny when about a month after the Super Bowl, the potential free agent signed a six-year, $120.6 million extension that included $51 million in guaranteed money. At the time, it was the biggest contract ever given out to an NFL player, though Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has since surpassed Flacco's deal.
"I honestly don't think too much about the contract. When I think about it, it's all good," Flacco said, drawing plenty of laughter. "I don't have a Super Bowl ring yet but I guess in a couple of weeks I will. When I think about that, it's all good. But I can honestly say, those things aren't something I think about every day and affect the way I come in here and perform. When somebody asks me, or every now and then when I have some down time and you happen to think about it or somebody brings it up, then yeah, you think about it and it has a good effect on your outlook on the day. But other than that, I can honestly say that it's pretty normal."
And for Flacco, what he now considers normal is working under the hot Maryland sun, barking out play calls and encouragement to teammates while leading an offense that is hoping to build off what it accomplished more than three months ago.
"We probably have a lot of new faces and a lot of young guys," Flacco said. "This will be my sixth year. It's tough to believe. I think we've always had a locker room where everybody kind of shares roles and you have so many guys that are very responsible and know how to go to work. I think that's why we've been able to continuously have success even though our team has changed a lot."
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