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Joe Flacco: An Appreciation

Kevin Van Valkenburg

2:24 AM EST, January 21, 2012

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Dear Joe Flacco,

It's been a bizarre week, hasn't it? You're one win away from playing in the Super Bowl, and I think I've read approximately 11 million articles -- written primarily by people living outside the Baltimore metro area -- that seem eager to inform me just how truly terrible you are at playing quarterback in the NFL. Seriously, if I hadn't actually watched you play football the past four years, if I'd been locked in someone's windowless basement without Internet or cable, I'd almost conclude you stood accused of running a dogfighting ring or something. People seem genuinely annoyed you're playing in the AFC championship game.

To be honest, I almost feel like someone is picking on my little brother. I say that because I pick on you fairly frequently -- mostly because I recognize how talented you are, and I expect a lot from you -- but I'll be damned if I'm going to let the rest of the world tee you up repeatedly without coming to your defense a little bit. Because unlike, say, 80 percent of the people so eager to dismiss you, I've actually watched just about every significant snap you've taken in your career. I might not know know as much about playing quarterback in the NFL as Steve Young, but at least I'm working with all the evidence. I'm not basing my weekly frustrations with you on a handful of games, or worse, highlights.

I've seen you play awful, and I've seen you play brilliant football. I've seen you stomp on the neck of the Steelers twice at Heinz Field, and I've seen you sleepwalk through losses to the Bengals in Cincinnati. I've seen you look rattled, and I've seen you look fearless. I've always believed the most honest evaluation of your play was acknowledging you were good, but not great. At least at this point in your career. (And frankly, I'm not sure why so many people consider that analysis such a significant diss. The truth is, an honest evaluation of my skills would probably conclude I'm a good writer, but I'm not a great one. I don't think that's anything to be ashamed of. If The Sun traded me to The Boston Globe for a writer to be named later, it doesn't mean readers would be doomed to read the journalistic equivalent of Stoney Case or Eric Zeier as my replacement. But people frequently talk about Flacco that way.) I've realized, however, the middle ground in any argument is never going to be easy to occupy. Nuance isn't particularly sexy. It doesn't make for great radio, and it wouldn't pay Skip Bayless' mortgage.

So for once, I'm going to say the heck with nuance. After watching the national media smack you around like a gang of party-goers taking drunken swings at a unibrowed pinata, I've come to praise you, Joe Flacco, not to bury you. The world beyond the Baltimore beltway seems to think you can't even lace up your cleats properly without stumbling, and it's reached the point of absurdity.

Sometimes I wonder, Joe, why people can't seem to grasp the fact that fantasy football stats don't exactly determine whether or not a player is actually doing his job, or whether he's a good fit for his team. Stats aren't irrelevant, Joe, and I don't want to cast you as a plucky 6-foot-5 football version of David Eckstein. But the idea that baseball statistics and football statistics can be viewed similarly is utterly ridiculous. In baseball, Barry Bonds can be a complete jerk and have an OPS of 1.422 and there is absolutely no doubt he's still the MVP. There is no more valuable person you can put in the lineup in his place, and it doesn't matter whether he doesn't speak to anyone or refuses to run out ground balls. Intangibles in baseball are overrated. I'll take a guy who can actually hit over a guy who is dubbed "a good clubhouse influence" by the media every single time. 

But football is a little different, Joe, and I think you understand this. Everything is married and fused together in football in a way that it's not in baseball. There is no one in baseball calling plays, dropping passes, struggling to get open or failing to give you enough time to throw. Baseball is like nine guys doing standup comedy and then calling it a "show," whereas football is like 53 guys throwing together on a violent Broadway play every week. Obviously, it isn't always pretty, but I think the fact that the people you work with know you're never going to miss a performance, and you're rarely going to flub your lines, actually matters a lot. 

You know what I think a realistic projection for your career should be, Joe? Troy Aikman. Trent Dilfer brought this up with Sports Illustrated's Don Banks this week, and I was jealous when I saw it because it's a comparison I've been thinking about for a while now, but I kept putting it off and now it's going to look like I'm just parroting Dilfer's analysis, but you'll just have to trust me on this one. I do think you could be the Aikman of this generation -- at least a poor man's Aikman -- as long as you continue to progress. Aikman never threw for more than 23 touchdowns in a single season. He never threw for more than 3,445 yards. But he was a unifying presence on a team with massive egos, protected the football and was really good on third down. His career quarterback rating was 81.6. Even in 1993, the best season of his career, his quarterback rating was 99.0. He was stoic and boring -- sound familiar? -- and he was one of the greatest game mangers of all time.

I'm going to admit, Joe, that I'm one of those people who initially was fooled into thinking Matt Ryan was better than you. In general, his game looks "prettier" than yours, and he puts up slightly better statistics than you do. But lately, I've come around to the idea that a lot of his success looks like the product of playing in a weak division and in a controlled environment. Put him in Giants Stadium against a good defense with the wind swirling in a big game and he looks like a noodle-armed check-down artist who can't handle getting pushed around.

You actually know how to throw a football in the wind, the cold and the rain, Joe. Maybe I haven't given you enough credit for that over the years. You're Jersey tough. People who don't believe in you like to dismiss some of your playoff success by pointing to the wild card game against New England two years ago that the Ravens won, 33-14, even though you were just 4-for-10 for 34 yards. But what few people know is your hip was so badly bruised in that game, you could barely push off it. And in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots threatening to creep back into the game, you scrambled for a key first down on third-and-7, stretching the ball out over the marker with your right arm. Your teammates -- who knew the bruise on your hip was the color of eggplant -- have never forgotten the guts you showed that day.

I can't defend all your decisions. Sometimes I think Ravens fans, and Ravens coaches, try to cite your "intangibles" to excuse your mediocre play. I cringed when you took a sack against the Texans and knocked the offense out of field-goal range. But in general, I think you tend to play well in big moments. You hit Anquan Boldin in the chest in the end zone in the fourth quarter last year against the Steelers in the playoffs. I think if he had caught the ball, a lot of people might view your career differently. But you've never once blamed Boldin. I see quarterbacks throw tantrums all the time when their receivers drop passes. You might shake your head, but I don't know that I've ever seen you go beyond that.

There really is no position in sports like quarterback. There is some stuff that truly does matter that we simply can't quantify. Locker rooms are complicated chemistry sets, and if people don't buy in to the idea that the quarterback can get the job done, it can poison the whole thing. That's one reason I love football. We can break it down 1,000 different ways, but there is still a mysterious, undefinable quality that some quarterbacks have, something that allows them to lead while others follow. People have completely gone overboard trying to apply it to Tim Tebow, but they've been far too dismissive of it with regards to you. You dragged this organization out of the dark ages of quarterback play, and that wasn't easy. You won over a group of cynical veterans as a rookie and helped bring together a divided locker room.

I think people tend to assume playing opposite of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs is the easiest aspect of your job, and it's a luxury every young quarterback wishes he had. But there is flip side to it that we rarely discuss. When you have outsized personalities like Lewis, Reed and Suggs on defense, you're constantly being asked, consciously or subconsciously, to not screw this up. To not take risks, and be happy winning games, 21-17. Matthew Stafford can throw 60 passes, three interceptions, two jump balls to Calvin Johnson in the fourth quarter and he looks like a hero when he wins, 49-35. Every time you throw a pass in the fourth quarter when your team has the lead, I feel like I can hear half the fan base let out a collective groan. That's a huge burden to bear.

The Ravens have asked you, over the years, to win your share of gunfights, but most of the time, they ask you to do it with a set of steak knives instead giving you a pair of six shooters. Fans who think you're going to morph into Drew Brees the day Cam Cameron gets a pink slip are kidding themselves a little bit, because you don't have Brees' lightning-quick release and you're not the take-charge, vocal leader he is. But I really do think you're going to take a step forward if you ever get the chance to run an offense in which you're actually allowed to put three wide receivers on one side of the field. Or if you get receivers who can consistently catch. Anyone knocking your dip in completion percentage without acknowledging that your receivers have had trouble separating from coverage and holding on to the football this year is being extremely unfair.

We've arrived at a moment in your career, Joe, where the majority of football fans feel like one game is going to define you. It doesn't seem to matter that you've never failed to reach the divisional round of the playoffs, or that you've won more games than any quarterback in NFL history his first four years in the league. Instead, they look at you and they think, "I just don't trust him in big moments."

But I look at you, Joe Flacco, and I see a reflection of this city. You're flawed, to an extent. People from afar tend to mock you and dismiss you. But we've seen you on your best days. We know what you're capable of. We know how much you've grown over the past four years, despite some obstacles put in your way. You don't have to be Tom Brady to win Sunday. You just have to be the best version of yourself you can possibly muster.

Maybe you were right when you were joking around with the media last week. Maybe you won't get any credit, even in victory. But that's OK. Let everyone believe you're contributing almost nothing. Let them punch numbers into a spreadsheet and point out your flaws while overlooking your strengths.

In the end, the man who holds the trophy writes his own legacy, no matter how large the chorus of nonbelievers may be.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kvanvalkenburg