A quick study as an NFL rookie, Flacco eager to keep learning

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. - It's not exactly the uniform he had hoped to be wearing this week, but Joe Flacco walked through the three-ring Super Bowl circus wearing his good suit yesterday. I say good suit, but in fact, it's his only suit.

A year from now, he wants to return, he said, but as an actual participant.

Here's why Ravens fans should start counting down the days until the 2009 season begins: Flacco, a guy who generally deals only with what's directly in front of him, has wasted no time shifting his focus to the future.

How long did it take? Oh, about a day.

The Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game on a Sunday night. The next morning, Flacco showed up in Owings Mills. While other players were packing up their lockers and saying their goodbyes, Flacco surprised coaches by requesting the film from the Steelers game. He started watching it right away, too. He wouldn't take the field again for months, but Flacco couldn't wait to start studying.

"I just wanted to go back, look at it like I always do, see what I could've done better," Flacco said yesterday. "There were things that could've been done differently. But the bottom line, it didn't happen that way and we've got to move on."

Flacco flew to Tampa this week with his girlfriend for the Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Year Award announcement. As one of five finalists, he sat at the front of the room and had no idea, he said, who would win.

Logic might suggest Matt Ryan would hear his name called. After all, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback won the more prestigious Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year award. But the one announced yesterday was voted on by fans, and the votes came during the playoffs.

I watched Flacco sit at the front of the room as the winner was to be named. He stared blankly ahead, giving no hint he even knew where he was. He could've been contemplating quantum physics. Or maybe Bugs Bunny.

Flacco's name was called, and forget about chest bumps or fist pumps, Flacco didn't even blink. Not once. It was as if he didn't even hear his name.

I know we've made a lot about Flacco's unflappable demeanor these past several months, but that's because it's unique. In truth, it's a bit jarring. And it's also a big reason the Ravens are so excited about what might be in store next season.

You don't hear about this much, but it took many in the organization a bit of time to warm up to Flacco's style.

"He's very unique. He's such a unique cat," K.C. Keeler, Flacco's coach at Delaware, told me this month. "He's so competitive, yet at the same time, takes everything in stride. You almost think he's nonchalant, but that's not it at all. There's an intensity burning inside of him, but he's not going to show that outwardly."

When the Ravens were considering drafting him, that was actually a slight sticking point. As coaches and team officials were about to enter their final draft preparation meeting, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called Keeler.

"He was looking for something to take into that room," Keeler said. "A lot of it was about Joe's leadership skills. They kept wondering why wasn't he captain here. The reality was this was always Joe's team. That's what they needed to understand. There's no greater tribute to a leader than to have a team take on your personality. And that's what Joe does. He did it here, and I think he's done it with the Ravens' offense, too.

"Joe expressed to me, he said, '[Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has] called me at home three times asking me why wasn't I the captain.' They didn't understand, so I tried to explain. Cam said, 'That's exactly what I needed to hear.' "

But it's not just demeanor; it's also the quiet ambition. It's a guy sitting in the film room the day after his rookie season ended with a loss. While others were thinking about the Bahamas, Flacco was dwelling on every mistake he had made, determined not to repeat them the next time he set foot on the field.

With the season over, he has returned home to New Jersey for a couple of months. He hasn't picked up a football, but soon Flacco knows he'll feel the familiar itch.

"I'm already bored out of my mind," he said. "But that's the way I want it right now. It's a lot of fun to sit around."

The 2008 season, which had more highs than lows, is in the books. Flacco was one of the top rookies. Diet Pepsi counted a million votes and fans thought he was the best one, in fact. But that was never really his goal.

Walking around Tampa, with banners of the Lombardi Trophy decorating buildings and street signs, wearing a suit that spends a lot more time in the closet than it does on Flacco, there should be no doubt what the goal will be in the young quarterback's second season.

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