Not long after Marc Trestman was hired as Ravens offensive coordinator in January, quarterback Joe Flacco was given a gift by his grandfather. It was a copy of Trestman's book about his nomadic coaching career and the lessons on leadership and teamwork that he learned along the way.
Flacco appreciated the gesture, but didn't exactly dive right in.
"I'm not a reader," Flacco said with a smirk. "I figured I'd get to know him on my own."
Flacco's decision provides a small glimpse into why the Super Bowl-winning quarterback has been able to handle having four offensive coordinators in as many seasons, the revolving door of play callers creating a situation one prominent former NFL quarterback described as "dysfunctional."
Flacco has uttered nary a public complaint. He says he's entered the partnership with Trestman with an open mind and no preconceived notions. He doesn't know a whole lot about the background of a man once nicknamed "The Quarterback Whisperer," and he's not consumed by it, either. He figures that they'll spend plenty of time together in the months ahead.
For a guy who admits he's bound by routine and clings to familiarity off the field, Flacco embraces change on it. It excites him to get a different perspective and to learn new things. He views working with another new offensive coordinator as a challenge, not a crutch.
As he approaches his eighth NFL season, Flacco feels Trestman will only help him improve.
"I always tell people, it's just football. It's not that hard to learn a new offense, to get on the same page with somebody else. That's my attitude towards it," Flacco said. "I'm very conservative off the field and I'm probably stuck to my ways to a certain extent, but I think in football, I've always been a little bit more open-minded. I'm a little more aggressively minded and willing to do new things. I think you have to continue to learn to get better and better each year."
For the first four-plus seasons of his career, Flacco had Cam Cameron as his offensive coordinator, and the two had a productive but difficult relationship. Sensing that the offense needed a jolt in 2012, Ravens coach Johh Harbaugh replaced Cameron with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. The move helped spur a Super Bowl run and the best football of Flacco's career.
Caldwell left to become the coach of the Detroit Lions before last season, leading Harbaugh to bring in Gary Kubiak as the team's third offensive coordinator in 13 months. Under Kubiak in 2014, Flacco had arguably the best season of his career, setting career highs in yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27).
But Kubiak was one and done — he was hired to coach the Denver Broncos, the Ravens' opponent in their regular-season opener — and Harbaugh handed the keys of the offense to Trestman, the former Chicago Bears coach who has presided over successful offenses at numerous stops.
"Marc and Joe could make a great pairing," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who had his best seasons with the Oakland Raiders, when Trestman was his position coach. "With Marc, there's not a lot of ego there. He's very even keel. Joe and he have similar personalities. I think Marc is an unselfish guy, he sees the game through the eyes of the quarterback. Marc is not afraid to put the game in the hands of the quarterback. I think Joe could have a big year. It's going to take patience from everyone on the staff. It has the chance to be a special offense but Rome wasn't built in a day, either."
Gannon, an NFL on CBS analyst, credits Flacco for how he's handled all the turnover, but he's long preached about how detrimental coordinator changes can be on young quarterbacks. He believes it held back Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, who played under seven coordinators in his seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Gannon calls the relationship between quarterback and play caller the most "critical" one in an organization, and said that frequent change in that dynamic often prevents signal callers from reaching a necessary confidence and comfort level.
"It's dysfunctional, first of all. It's not good and I'm sure it's not John Harbaugh's first choice to have to make these types of changes around the quarterback," Gannon said. "It's really tough on the quarterback because you have to develop trust and chemistry with the play caller. That's the challenge, and I think Joe has handled it brilliantly. He's got a great temperament for things like this because he doesn't get too excited one way or the other. But if you look at the history with younger quarterbacks and [multiple] coordinator changes, the results haven't been great."
Flacco has been able to weather the changes, and at age 30, he feels he's just hitting his prime. His ability to adapt without complaint has won him admirers along the way. Gannon — who, like Flacco, played at Delaware — called him "maybe the most misunderstood" quarterback in the league, and the "perfect quarterback" for a Ravens team that prides itself on consistency and physicality.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick said it's Flacco's attitude and approach toward the changes that help the team remain a Super Bowl contender.
"It's very easy to get complacent, particularly in the offseason when it's the same system, same verbiage. But when you're challenged the way Joe has been, it kind of keeps you with that competitive edge," said Billick, now an analyst for NFL Network. "Joe views it as a positive and it energizes him in that way. Give him credit for doing that."
A good start
Trestman has worked with quarterbacks of all styles and personalities, but what immediately jumped out to him about Flacco was his intelligence.
"He's got what I consider a brilliant football mind, and he's wired to be very flexible, to be able to work with the people that surround him and try to help him get better," Trestman said. "I think part of the thing is, he's always been open to learning from everybody that he's worked with, to try and get some value out of that. I sense that with Joe. It's mutual. We both want to learn, we're both trying to get better at our specific jobs. If we can do it together, it's always better."
While his relationship with Cameron eventually fizzled, Flacco built a strong rapport with Caldwell and Kubiak, and he seems on his way to doing the same with Trestman, who has a professorial demeanor, an analytical mind and not your typical coaching background. The 59-year-old has a law degree, once sold municipal bonds during a hiatus from coaching and was playfully described in his own book by his wife, Cindy, as being "socially dysfunctional."
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"You can see the wheels spinning all the time," Flacco said of Trestman. "He's always thinking about something. It's always good to see him try to throw jokes out there. Whether they land flat or not, it's always pretty funny."
Flacco insists that his public comments about embracing change aren't lip service. And while he politely answers, his tone suggests that he's sick of fielding questions on a subject that he perceives as overblown.
The Ravens will run a system similar to the West Coast offense they used last year under Kubiak, though Trestman and new quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg will add their imprint. Ravens backup quarterback Matt Schaub, who has had five coordinators in 12 NFL seasons, described the quarterback room as on open collaboration, where ideas are traded and both positive and negative feedback is shared.
Flacco compared the environment to a group of guys, hanging out, learning football together and developing friendships. And as he views it, what's so difficult about that?
"In terms of being on a successful team, I have to go into it with an open mind, be positive about it, and then after I get to know the guy and see what he does and see how we work, I quickly realize that there's no reason I should've ever thought about not going into it with an open mind," Flacco said. "As an outsider, you tend to look at the negative effects. My job as a quarterback is to have the team feel as few negative effects as possible. It's been a lot of fun. It's always great to get different perspectives on things, meet new people and learn more football, really."