<
>

Flacco mania in Baltimore

9/7/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BALTIMORE, Md. -- Entering Sunday's season opener, there were a smattering of signs in the stands of M&T Bank Stadium that read "Wacko for Flacco."

Those fans were ahead of the curve.

But by the end of the fourth quarter of the Baltimore Ravens' 17-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the entire stadium of 70,978 fans joined in unison with a chant of "Let's go Flacco!"

"Yeah, I heard that," Ravens receiver Derrick Mason said with a smile about the cheers for QB Joe Flacco. "And the way he played today, it was deservingly so."

Flacco, who threw for 129 yards on 15-of-29 passing, was as surprised as anyone by this rousing ovation.

"I kind of thought I heard it, but I wasn't really sure," Flacco said. "I thought, 'Why would they be doing that?'”

Indeed, the rookie first-round pick was far from perfect. But in a town like Baltimore that has seen quarterbacks such as Vinny Testaverde, Elvis Grbac and Kyle Boller stumble since the Ravens' inception 12 years ago, Flacco looked solid in leading the Ravens (1-0) to their first victory of the 2008 season.

Flacco showed leadership. He produced three scoring drives, helping put together 21 first downs for Baltimore, 12 of which were passing.

Flacco showed poise. The Bengals tried to pressure on defense, but quick decisions and getting rid of the football led to zero sacks and zero turnovers.

Flacco showed improvisation. He threw a nice block during a double-reverse that sprung receiver Mark Clayton to a 42-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, then made a nice 38-yard scoring run of his own in the second half that gave the Ravens a 17-3 lead.

With the way Baltimore's defense played, that was all the team needed from its starting quarterback. In the end, Flacco played well enough to win, and also solidify, what began as a three-way quarterback race in training camp between Troy Smith (viral infection) and Kyle Boller (shoulder, out for the season).

"This was the beginning for Joe," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who also earned his first victory Sunday. "We talked about it before the game, this is going to be a beginning. This is going to be a jumping-off point. Now we've got an idea of where he's at and what he needs to do is get better."

The running game certainly helped the rookie.

Even without starter Willis McGahee, who dressed and planned to play but was held out, Baltimore ran for 229 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. Fullback Le'Ron McClain (86 yards) and rookie Ray Rice (64 yards) pounded the Bengals' defense into submission. Baltimore also was 6-for-6 on third-and-1 conversions, which were key in keeping Cincinnati's offense off the field.

Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called a masterful game. He allowed Flacco to make comfortable, quick throws early to get in a rhythm. Then, once Cameron sensed that his group was dominating the line of scrimmage, he ran the ball heavily with a second-half lead.

Baltimore's final run-pass ratio was 46-29, which is ideal for a team starting a rookie signal-caller. The Bengals, meanwhile, struggled running the ball as Baltimore didn't allow a 100-yard rusher for the 20th consecutive game, which dates back to the 2006 season.

Cincinnati tailback Chris Perry gained just 37 yards on 18 carries and failed to get a key fourth-and-1 at the seven-minute mark that ultimately sealed the game.

"It's an old saying you heard as a little kid: It's starts in the trenches," Harbaugh said.

Not everything went perfect for Flacco. He failed to make a touchdown-saving tackle on Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph when Rice fumbled in the second half. Teammate and tight end Todd Heap fumbled Flacco's first completion and also dropped a potential touchdown pass in the end zone.

Even Flacco's 38-yard touchdown run was an adjusted call that Flacco made at the line of scrimmage, but not everyone got the memo. But the play worked well enough to give the team its final points of the game.

"I was thinking 'first down, first down, first down,"' Flacco said. "And I got to the first-down point, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I don't think there's anybody here.' I just started going up field."

It was that kind of day for Flacco. His previous career-long run was for 25 yards at the University of Delaware, and it was not for a touchdown.

Most importantly, Flacco, as a rookie, earned the type of victory that will go a long way in a locker room full of veterans.

"Joe came out and played like a guy that has played in the NFL for years," said Mason, a 12-year veteran. "He did everything he needed to do as a quarterback to win the ballgame."