Joe Flacco is in the midst of a whirlwind season, from unexpectedly being handed the starting quarterback job to leading the Ravens' improbable run to the playoffs.
But the stoic 23-year-old rookie from the University of Delaware is approaching the biggest game of his brief NFL career with a matter-of-fact shoulder shrug. "It's just another game," he deadpanned.
Flacco's calm demeanor, which has been as much an asset as his strong arm in the Ravens' remarkable turnaround season, will be tested today against the Miami Dolphins. He will become just the eighth rookie quarterback since 1970 to start a postseason game.
Those around him don't expect the magnitude of the NFL playoffs to faze him.
Flacco is one of the Ravens' most laid-back players. Walking around the team's facility, the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder looks half asleep (he acknowledges that he isn't a morning person). Speaking to the media, he is equally unemotional, talking in a sort of monotone.
"That's just Joe," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. Or "Joe Cool," a nickname that is catching on with teammates and fans.
Joe Cool stays grounded.
His biggest splurge after signing his five-year, $30 million contract was a lawn mower for his mother. He lives in an apartment with his 21-year-old brother, Mike, and still hasn't bought a car. He drives a BMW dealer's loaner, with a "This is a courtesy car" sign in the back window.
Joe Cool works hard.
Flacco's philosophy is that you're never nervous if you're prepared. Determined to show that a quarterback from a small college program can play big, he is always at Ravens headquarters on his one day off during the week, watching four to five hours of tape for the next opponent. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has joked that it's a challenge to keep finding more film for Flacco.
Joe Cool wants to be a starting quarterback, not a star quarterback.
His big night on the town is having dinner with his offensive linemen at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse or T.G.I. Friday's. This isn't exactly the same as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dating music star Jessica Simpson.
"He's a starting quarterback in the NFL, but he's the same person that he's always been," said Rob Agnone, a college friend and teammate who still talks to him once a week. "That's what separates him from other people. He's in a glamorous position, but it doesn't go to his head."
On most evenings, Flacco falls asleep on the sofa while watching TV.
"His life is so boring that you wouldn't believe it," his father, Steve, said.
The past 12 months have been anything but boring. Last January, he had just finished his college career and was preparing for workouts leading up to the NFL draft.
Now, he is following the likes of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as rookies leading teams to the playoffs. But this is hardly a surprise to Flacco.
"The bottom line is that when you're a quarterback and you want to be a good player in this league, you think about going to the playoffs and you think about being a winning quarterback in the playoffs," he said.
Flacco could have lost confidence earlier this season. Looking back, the first-round draft pick probably should have lost confidence.
An injury to Kyle Boller and an illness to Troy Smith allowed Flacco to leapfrog from No. 3 quarterback to starter just weeks before the season opener. In his first five games, Flacco received a rough initiation to the NFL, throwing one touchdown and seven interceptions.
The night before the next game - a contest in Miami - Cameron addressed the Ravens' six first-year players on offense during a team meeting and told them that they were no longer rookies. Then, he pointed at his unassuming prodigy.
"You've got to lead us," Cameron told Flacco.
He responded with a breakthrough game, throwing for 232 yards and one touchdown in leading the Ravens to a 27-13 victory over the Dolphins on Oct. 19.
Including that game, Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns and five interceptions over the past 11 regular-season games - and the Ravens won nine of them.
"That was a turning point for us as a team and him as a player," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said.
Flacco's play and persona - teammates still can't tell when he's rattled - have won over the locker room.
"I've played with guys when you drop back and say, 'Lord have mercy, I hope he gets rid of the ball and throws it to the right person,' " Anderson said. "We know if we block, Joe has a big-enough arm and he is smart enough to make big-time throws.
"That's the kind of guy you're going to fight for."
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who has played with 16 starting quarterbacks in 13 years with the Ravens, can appreciate Flacco's unshakable presence.
"Once one good play or bad play is gone, he lets it go," Lewis said. "A lot of guys can't do that. Joe is one of those gifted ones. He's going to be a special kid."
The Ravens' offense has grown because Flacco has done so. Even though he didn't play at perennial powers such as the University of Southern California or the University of Texas, he has been able to absorb everything that the coaching staff has thrown at him.
This was supposed to be a time of adjustment for Flacco. The last non-major college quarterback drafted in the first round was Steve McNair in 1995, and it took him until the end of his second season to become a full-time starter.
The Ravens are paying Flacco the rookie minimum of $295,000, but the pay will be going up substantially because of incentives triggered by his unexpected playing time. Because he participated in 80 percent of the Ravens' offensive plays, he will receive an extra $750,000 in each of the four remaining years of his contract. That, along with a salary increase and signing bonus, will put his final total well over the original $30 million. Flacco will also earn $200,000 for each playoff victory.
The Ravens originally planned on sitting Flacco at the start of the season, primarily because of past experience. General manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged before the draft that starting Boller as a rookie in 2003 was probably the wrong decision.
But Boller's shoulder injury and Smith's severe tonsil infection forced the Ravens to start Flacco, who had insisted he could start immediately ever since the team drafted him with the 18th overall pick.
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano credits Flacco's instant success to his maturity.
"You can [see his] confidence back there in the pocket," he said. "It really does impress me an awful lot for a rookie to be in this kind of situation."
Ask Flacco why he has progressed so quickly - it's a question that he has fielded every week - and he'll roll his eyes. "It's just football," he said.
Those close to Flacco know the explanation is not that simple.
"He is by far the smartest young quarterback I've ever been around," said Todd Bouman, a 10-year veteran who is the Ravens' third quarterback. "As a quarterback, when you know exactly what to do before the ball is even snapped, it puts a calm feeling over you."
Flacco hasn't always been this calm.
Nearly a decade ago, the Ravens' unflappable quarterback looked every bit the skittish high school freshman as he was thrown into his first varsity game for Audobon (N.J.) High School. He rushed three steps backward and threw his first pass wildly to the sideline. On the next two plays, he was mercilessly sacked.
"From that point on, he never felt that uncomfortable again," said his father. "He realized that you need to overcome your circumstance and get a hold of your emotions."
There have been times when Flacco's even-keel attitude wasn't considered a positive. Throughout high school, people questioned his competitiveness because he wasn't fired up.
"He told them, 'I don't have to scream and yell to want to tear your head off,' " his father said.
Flacco's intensity has surfaced the past two weeks in essentially must-win games for the Ravens.
On Dec. 20, he withstood the pressure of a Dallas team fighting for the playoffs and playing its last game in Texas Stadium, throwing for 149 yards and one touchdown in leading the Ravens to a victory. Last Sunday, he passed for a season-high 297 yards and completed five passes of at least 25 yards in a playoff-clinching win.
But that's what you would expect from Joe Cool.
"He's stepped up to the plate," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "When a quarterback that young understands the magnitude of the past two games, he understands the magnitude of the playoffs. We're just going to rally around him. As Joe goes, basically that's how we go."
The Ravens' Joe Flacco and the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan will become the seventh and eighth rookie quarterbacks to start an NFL playoff game since the 1970 merger. The previous six rookie quarterbacks were 2-4 in their postseason debuts:
Quarterback ........ Team ... ....... Season ... Result
Dan Marino ............. Miami .......... 1983 ... Lost to Seattle, 27-20
Bernie Kosar ..... ... Cleveland ........... 1985 ..... Lost at Miami, 24-21
Jim Everett .. Los Angeles Rams ... 1986 .... Lost at Washington, 19-7
Todd Marinovich . Los Angeles Raiders .1991 .... Lost at Kansas City, 10-6
Shaun King ...... Tampa Bay .......... 1999 ..... Beat Washington, 14-13 ,
Ben Roethlisberger .. Pittsburgh ....... 2004 .. Beat New York Jets, 20-17
Note: Pat Haden (1976) and Dieter Brock (1985) led teams to the playoffs in their first NFL seasons. But prior to joining the NFL, Haden played one season in the World Football League, and Brock played 11 seasons in the Canadian Football League.
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