Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.
No matter what you ask him, it’s difficult to get Joe Flacco worked up.
This will shock virtually no one who’s watched him play quarterback for the past decade. “Joe Cool” has become his identity, a rallying cry for those who believe he’s at his unflappable best in the most stressful games and a lament for those who question his passion for the most scrutinized job in American sports.
But the latter criticism, that he might not care enough, does bring a smile to his face and prompt a spirited response.
“There’s a little bit of you that wishes you didn’t care so you could just go out and play and react,” he said. “But listen, this is my life. We all care. I don’t want to say especially me, but I carry a lot of load for the team and how they prepare. A lot of people look at me and say, ‘This is how Joe’s doing it.’ So yeah, I care a ton. This is what I love. And the more I care, the more I think it bleeds into everyone else.”
He paused for a moment.
“Listen, it doesn’t bother me that much if people feel that way,” he said of his critics. “Because they don’t know.”
Actually, Flacco has become rather animated in recent weeks as he tries to lead the Ravens to a seventh playoff appearance in his 10 years as the team’s starting quarterback. On the field, he’s moving with more ease and throwing with more zip than he was early in the season, when he was still recovering from a back injury that kept him sidelined the entire preseason. In the locker room last week, he engaged reporters and teammates in a lively discussion — complete with pantomiming — of what constitutes a catch in the modern NFL.
When Flacco was drafted in 2008, he joked that not only was he unaccustomed to NFL-level scrutiny, even classmates on the Delaware campus were unlikely to know him by name or sight.
Such anonymity ended long ago. It’s hard to watch television for an hour or drive 15 minutes around Baltimore without seeing Flacco’s face. His job performance is likely to be a top-five topic in the city at any given moment.
He’s fine with that.
“It’s not too weird,” Flacco said. “You know how big this game is and how important the Ravens are around this town and how much people want us to win. It’s not surprising anymore.”
Because he plays quarterback and because his contract eats up a substantial chunk of the team’s salary cap, he’s as likely to be lumped with the franchise’s leaders — owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh — as he is with fellow players. After Harbaugh, he’s the Ravens’ most frequent spokesman, an interesting fit for such a subdued person.
Flacco isn’t the least bit naive about any of this.
“That’s the way this position is these days,” he said. “It’s always been like that, but I think even more so today, with how much media there is, how much the position is talked about and really how much of an investment it is to pay a quarterback. I think it’s impossible to talk about a quarterback and not lump him in with those [leaders]. They’re not just signing a quarterback for a ton of money and not bringing him in on the whole big picture. If you’re going to put your faith in a quarterback like that, they’re going to have to be an insider or it probably won’t work too well.”
Sometimes, when he’s watching film of himself, Flacco reacts just as a fan might. How could he not see that defensive back lurking in the path of his intended pass? No kidding it was going to be intercepted.
But more often, he said, it’s difficult for a casual observer to judge a play — and by extension, a game plan — accurately.
“Even if I was to get on and try to talk about how a quarterback played, you can give generic answers as to why you think a guy didn’t play well or why he did,” he said, putting himself in the shoes of a critic. “But the bottom line is you weren’t in the meetings during the week. You really don’t know what they’re looking at or what they’re looking for, what routes the receivers are supposed to be running or where the quarterback’s eyes are supposed to be. You’re really just guessing and giving a generic outlook on how a guy played.”
Sometimes a poorly executed play produces a fantastic result. Other times, a good decision ends in an interception or incompletion.
“What you think you see and what you think a guy did wrong, maybe he did right,” Flacco said. “Or you see a touchdown pass, but the guy might’ve been wrong. Something crazy might have happened. You don’t know that. That’s the toughest thing when it comes to judging play on a football field.”
He understands that statistics — he still ranks in the bottom third of the league in passer rating despite his recent resurgence — often paint an unflattering portrait of his work. He doesn’t dispute that they’re right at times. He simply argues it’s more on-point to ask whether the offense has done what was necessary to win that week’s game.
Flacco rattles off his weekly schedule almost on autopilot — family time Sunday night and Monday, first glance at the next opponent Monday evening, morning lifting session Tuesday followed by review of the previous week’s film and installation of next week’s running scheme, walk through the base pass and run schemes and then practice them Wednesday, go through the same routine for third-down and goal-line plays Thursday, install the red-zone plays Friday morning and wrap it all in a bow by midafternoon.
“I’ll hang around for a little bit if I have to, but once I leave the building on Friday afternoon, I want to feel prepared,” he said.
When the team gathers for a brief walk-through Saturday, Flacco wants every play to feel like second nature. He snapped his fingers rapidly to emphasize the point.
There’s real comfort in the routine, which mitigates the anxiety Flacco still feels when he wakes up at the team hotel on game day.
Occasionally, he’ll reference not staying at the Ravens’ facility any longer than he must on a given day. Critics might use that as ammunition to question his commitment, but that’s not it, Flacco said. He’s the kid who needs to study for an exam and then set his materials aside the night before rather than cram until the last minute.
“I’m not a guy that likes to continue looking at stuff Saturday night,” he said. “And then Sunday morning, you’re trying to iron every detail out. I don’t know if some guys are like that, but that stresses me out. If on Saturday night, I still had to look at stuff, I’d say, ‘Joe, what the hell are you doing?’ ”
He worked longer hours as a rookie, but said that was because he lacked the confidence to understand when he was sufficiently prepared. He feared leaving a stone unturned.
Lingering at the edges of everything Flacco does as a football player is his second life as a proudly boring suburban dad.
He grew up in a big New Jersey family, the oldest of six siblings. He and his wife, Dana, are now building a small army of their own, having welcomed four children since they married in 2011.
Flacco likes to drop his eldest, 5-year-old Stephen, at school before he drives to work at the Ravens’ training complex in Owings Mills. It’s not unusual to hear him dispense advice to a teammate about what to expect from young children. Like many harried parents, he nods off early most nights, usually before 10 p.m.
He wants to keep life as normal as possible for his kids. He had no plans to spoil them at Christmas, for example. But he knows it’s not practical for them to grow up exactly as he did.
“Look, they come here and they think it’s work,” he said, gesturing at the Ravens’ plush practice facility. “It’s definitely tough to have them think about things the way I probably did as a kid. But you try to as much as possible.”
Despite the back injury this year and season-ending knee surgery two years ago, Flacco said his life at home is hardly defined by pain. Where some teammates who’ve played as long as he has talk about avoiding the stairs or struggling to chase their kids, he said he feels fine much of the time.
“Certain weeks, if you get bumped up, then you might feel it the next day,” he said. “But honestly, it’s tough to remember back and say, ‘I didn’t feel sore at all.’ I think it’s still pretty similar, I really do. It’s not like I’m a lineman and no matter what, the game is physical. There’s weeks where I get hit a lot and weeks where I don’t. My body’s still holding up to the point where, no matter what, I feel good at the end of the week.”