JOHN HARBAUGH HAD seen enough. It was a cold and windy January night in Gillette Stadium, and his Ravens were on track to cede the AFC Championship game to the Patriots For the second straight year. That they were merely trailing 13-7 as the first half ended was a gift, in light of the team's plodding and conservative play. The coach yanked off his headset and marched toward the locker room, jaw clenched, chin leading the way. When he's in that mood, his players would rather lower their shoulders and take on a 250-pound fullback than lock eyes with their boss. But one Raven dared to stare him down: Joe Flacco. And after the two men exchanged glances, they nodded in agreement. For the entirety of Flacco's five-year NFL career, they'd been having the same debate. What kind of team do we want to be? What's our identity? When do we decide it's on the quarterback, not the defense, to get us to the Super Bowl? In that moment, in that one shared look, the debate was over. "I think we all realized," Harbaugh recalls, "that it was time."
The coach marched into the locker room and straight to the leaders of Baltimore's defense, players with big personalities and bigger egos, some future inhabitants of the Hall of Fame. Harbaugh did not need their permission for what he was about to do, but he did want Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs to hear it from him first.
Here is the deal! All second half, we're cutting loose on offense. We're going to spread them out, run no-huddle, attack on every play. I'm putting the ball in Joe's hands. He's going to win the game for us. Let's go!
The defense erupted in approval. Harbaugh then shared the news with the offense, and the energy inside the locker room surged even more—Flacco's teammates had been waiting for this moment too.
And so in the second half a new era of Ravens football began. There was Flacco, rushing his team to the line of scrimmage, barking out audibles from the shotgun, controlling the game's ebb and flow. And with one razor-sharp throw after another, the quarterback carved Bill Belichick's defense apart -- a perfect fade to Anquan Boldin; a frozen rope to Dennis Pitta; a back-shoulder arrow to Torrey Smith; a skinny post to Boldin; Pitta, again, over the middle.
The Ravens scored 21 unanswered points on three touchdown throws by Flacco. When he walked off the field up 28-13 with 2:11 remaining, he made a beeline for Harbaugh, a playful smirk on his face. He gave him a shove, then another. Harbaugh grinned, planted two hands on Flacco's chest and drove him backward in mock anger. Flacco came at Harbaugh one last time, grabbing him by the collar as if he might slam his coach to the turf. Both men laughed.
The entire interaction lasted under 10 seconds. But it was years in the making.
AT AGE 28, Flacco is among only seven starting quarterbacks in the league with a Super Bowl ring, but there isn't another player in the NFL whose supporters and detractors are further apart in their assessments. (Eli Manning probably comes the closest.) Those who see Flacco as the prototypical winner cite the fact that he's been under center for 63 victories (including the playoffs) over his first five years in the league, the most to start a career in the Super Bowl era. But his critics find it hard to believe he did anything other than ride Ray Lewis' coattails.
And that's just the beginning of the bile thrown Flacco's way. He's been called a flake, a choker, an overrated game manager and a Sesame Street character (owing to his resemblance to Bert). People have made fun of his eyebrows, haircut, inconsistency, cliché-heavy news conferences and goofy wedding photos. But in the end, the most frequent jab fired at Flacco is that he's just ... so ... boring.
It's a common misconception, albeit an understandable one. Part of it comes down to numbers: Flacco has never thrown for 4,000 yards or 30 TDs in a season, and he's never been ranked in the top 10 in yards per attempt. Analytics experts have constructed entire mathematical theorems to argue he's the very definition of average. When Flacco signed a $120.6 million contract in the offseason, briefly making him the game's highest-paid player, The Onion joked that Aaron Rodgers now needed $989 trillion to reflect his true market value.
But the boring label is not just a reflection of his playing style, of course. Flacco is a type-B personality in a type-A profession, a distinction that makes him not only unique at his position but oddly disquieting. A few years ago, then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron approached Flacco the night before a big game. He had a proposal: How about you get up in front of the offense tonight and give us a fiery speech, the kind Ray Lewis gives to the defense? I think this is your night to get us going. Flacco looked at him as if he'd just proposed swimming naked across Chesapeake Bay.
"That's not me," Flacco says. "I love Ray, and I love how he always spoke from the heart, but if you listened to those speeches, a lot of them didn't even make sense. He meant everything he was saying, but I didn't know what he was talking about 90 percent of the time."
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Flacco's closest friends, says: "It takes a lot to get to know Joe. When you first meet him, you might think, Joe doesn't really like me, and he's kind of rude. But it's just because he's shy. He's not a very outgoing person."
Away from the fishbowl of fame, Flacco is dry-humored and sarcastic. And he can be surprisingly self-aware, willing to poke fun at his own reputation. Asked once if he'd ever agree to star in a reality show about his life -- he's the father of one (with another on the way) who married his high school sweetheart and spends most Friday nights eating pizza with his parents and grandparents -- Flacco deadpanned, Sounds like the most boring reality show of all time.
"You think I'm boring? I think that's cool," Flacco says. "I don't know if I'm an everyday person, but I don't think I'm an a—hole. If you think I'm boring, I don't see why it's a negative thing. All I've ever wanted was to be respected within the building."
That's something all quarterbacks say, even as they privately throw tantrums. But Flacco really doesn't care what anyone outside the Ravens organization thinks. A few years ago, a Baltimore sports-talk-radio host asked him where he thought he ranked among the league's quarterbacks. When he replied that it was important for him to believe he was the NFL's best, his comments were virally mocked. "I guess I should have said, 'You know what? I think I'm the 20th best,'" Flacco says now with a shrug. "That's exactly what you want to hear from your quarterback, right?"
It's perhaps not surprising to learn that growing up in Audubon, N.J., the player he longed to emulate was Niners quarterback Joe Montana. Classy, reserved, confident and respected. And when he retired, he gave his life back to his family. To Flacco, it almost seems as if Montana belongs to a different era. No one ever questioned his leadership or complained that he didn't scream at his receivers when they dropped catchable passes. Flacco doesn't understand why the fact that he has a similar mentality is cited as one of his shortcomings.
"Look at Peyton [Manning]," Flacco says. "He has guys on eggshells all the time. If they do the wrong thing, they're thinking, 'S---, he's going to kill me.' And that works for him. But at the same time, I think it's tough to play in that environment. Sure, if you're not consistently putting in the effort, that's when I'm going to call you out. But if you're putting in a full effort and you do something that costs us the game, what the f--- is yelling going to do? The game's over. Let's move on and get better."
FLACCO'S BACKSTORY IS both improbable and explains so much about how he's wired. His father, Steve, a mortgage broker, is all of 5'11". His mother, Karen, a stay-at-home mom, is 5'6". Yet somehow Joe, the oldest of six kids, grew to be 6'6". And thanks to the bazooka dangling from his right shoulder, he became the best football player that tiny Audubon has ever seen.
Even if his folks hadn't raised him to be humble, his experience at the University of Pittsburgh, where he got stuck behind Tyler Palko on the depth chart, would have beaten it into him. After Flacco transferred to Delaware in 2005 and began setting passing records, he still seemed unaware of what possibilities the future might hold. Prior to his senior year, he told his coach, K.C. Keeler, that he was interested in playing baseball for the Blue Hens in the spring. Keeler was flabbergasted, informing him that NFL scouts were already calling, asking if they could come watch practices. You have a chance to be a first-round pick, Keeler told him. Flacco seemed taken aback.
The Ravens ended up grabbing him with the 18th pick in the 2008 draft, but they weren't sure what they had at first. Cameron was confident that Flacco's flawless mechanics, big arm and huge hands would help him succeed in the wind and cold of AFC North games. But he didn't want to put him on the field as a rookie; Flacco barely knew how to take a snap from center after playing in the shotgun most of his career at Delaware. In the end, the team had no choice: After the two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, were set back by injury and illness, the rookie was the only QB left standing.
Soon enough, a meme that has dogged Flacco throughout his career was born: The defense doesn't trust him. He quickly hit rough waters -- one touchdown, seven interceptions in his first five games. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs voiced his frustrations during a midseason radio interview. "I think [Flacco] is all right," Suggs said. "But like I said, in the end, Troy should be the starter. He's the better man for the job." Flacco rebounded to help Baltimore sneak into the AFC championship game, only to throw three interceptions in a loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.
In his second season, the contours of the debate that consumed Flacco and his coach began to take shape. How do you change the philosophy of a franchise, especially one that's winning? "Joe's first few years in the league, he wasn't able to showcase everything he had," says Pitta. "A big part of that is because this is the Ravens. We were built on defense. That was the philosophy: Limit mistakes, control the ball, let the defense win the game."
Flacco's extremes were maddening as recently as 2011. He slayed Pittsburgh with three touchdowns, then threw two interceptions in a road loss to a bad Titans team. He carved up Houston with Brady-like precision, then looked lost and confused the next week in an embarrassing loss to Jacksonville. Columnists started to question his intelligence and lack of fire. The Baltimore Sun even suggested, in 2011, that the Ravens hold a quarterback competition and let over-the-hill vet Marc Bulger try to win the starting job—failing to consider how Bulger would handle Lewis' screaming that they should have run the ball every time he threw a pick.
"The whole Why can't you just play safe? philosophy, I don't think those guys would ever outwardly put it that way," Flacco says. "But the overall sense of the program, there was a little bit of that. The defense felt like they had the kind of ability that they did in 2000, and that wasn't necessarily the truth. My point was: That's not going to give you the best odds of winning. You might be able to pull it off now and then, but I don't think they'd won more than one playoff game from the time they won the Super Bowl in 2000 to the time I got there. So we obviously needed to take another step."
HARBAUGH IS NOT annoyed, or even surprised, when some of Flacco's quotes are read to him on the eve of training camp. He's leaning forward in a chair as he listens, elbows pressed to his knees, half smiling. Harbaugh is a football lifer, raised in the game by his father, Jack, another football lifer. His greatest strength as a head coach isn't X's and O's, it's always been how well he understands the complex cauldron of locker room egos and emotions, abilities and ambitions.
It's true, Harbaugh says, there were plenty of times early in his career when Flacco wanted to push the ball downfield, take more chances, make mistakes and not get grounded after every interception. It's also true that the defense, which for years was the home to every alpha dog in the Ravens' locker room, was slow to accept that the NFL is all about offense now. But in Harbaugh's mind, the real story behind Flacco's first five years in the NFL isn't what he could have accomplished had the Ravens opened up their offense sooner; it was Flacco's willingness to adapt his game depending on Baltimore's week-to-week approach.
"To suggest Joe has been on some great teams and we've won in spite of him, or regardless of how he played, is absolutely false," Harbaugh says.
The moments that speak volumes about Flacco's strengths, the coach thinks, aren't any a Ravens diehard would likely volunteer. For starters, he cites a 33-14 playoff win in 2009 over the Patriots in Foxborough, a game frequently cited by Flacco's critics as a perfect example of his irrelevance. The QB was just 4-of-10 for 34 yards that day, as the Ravens rushed for 234 yards and four TDs. What most people don't realize, Harbaugh says, is that Flacco's hip was so badly bruised that half his thigh was the color of an eggplant. Late in the game, however, with New England threatening to creep back into the contest, Flacco dropped back on third and seven, saw no one open, then scrambled for his life, extending the ball over the marker at the last second as a defender closed in on him. First down. "That is one of the greatest examples of why he's a winning quarterback," Harbaugh says. "People point to that game like he should be embarrassed because he only completed four passes. But Joe chases wins. He doesn't force things. He throws balls away to keep us in games."
Doesn't force things? Throws balls away? To Flacco's critics, that just bolsters their argument that his job wasn't to win games, but to not lose them. By 2011, even though the Ravens came within a last-second Lee Evans bobble of reaching the Super Bowl, Flacco had earned the derision of every stats guru and had become the butt of jokes in countless fantasy leagues for his reliably mediocre numbers.
The issue of who or what was holding him back is still a touchy subject for anyone on the Ravens. Privately, Flacco pushed for more control. Publicly, he backed the company line, but the debate over when he would be able to cut loose was getting tense. And Flacco's relationship with Cameron, the man who had fought to draft him, had become visibly strained at times.
"Our relationship was good, he was just a tough person to communicate with," Flacco says now, carefully choosing his words. "When you don't feel like you can communicate at a great level, obviously there are going to be times when you see things differently."
A contract dispute at the beginning of the 2012 season, when Flacco turned down a $90 million deal, didn't help. "I felt, Am I your guy or am I not?" he says. "Because if I'm your guy, you're going to end up paying me anyway. I'm not getting cheaper. You should pay me now or it's going to cost you if I win a Super Bowl."
Seems like a shrewd move now, but it sure didn't seem like it when the Ravens lost two straight games toward the end of the 2012 season. Finally, Harbaugh decided it was time to act. Firing Cameron was the most agonizing moment of his career as a head coach. Cameron had hired Harbaugh as an assistant at Indiana University in 1997. He owed a lot to Cameron. But now he saw the offensive arms race in the NFL and the gray in the hair of Lewis and Reed, and he felt the team needed a new spark. "Something needed to be shaken up," he says. "Cam recognized that." With just three games left in 2012, Cameron was replaced on an interim basis by Jim Caldwell, who, rather than rewrite the Ravens' playbook, simply emphasized the passing plays already in it.
Flacco responded with a shaky performance in a loss against the Broncos, then went on the hottest streak of his career. In his next five games, excluding a meaningless regular-season finale, Flacco completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,449 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions under Caldwell. After Flacco's breakout performance in the playoff win over the Patriots, Harbaugh named Caldwell the permanent offensive coordinator for 2013.
Is it possible that Flacco was capable of this all along? It's hard for him, looking back, not to view it that way. "I wish we'd been more willing to take risks," he says. "We were never willing to fail to get better. We always played safe. And we won, but we didn't really get better. I had no margin for error. I'd love to throw 40 touchdown passes a year. But I didn't even have a chance to do that."
THE NEW SEASON hasn't even officially started, and already questions about Flacco have begun again. That night in New Orleans when Flacco sliced up the 49ers defense with the precision of a chef dicing onions has faded from memory. It's not Flacco's pinpoint accuracy that most people remember from the Super Bowl, or the bombs he threw to Boldin over the middle on third down, or even that he was the MVP. It's Colin Kaepernick and the way he seemed to invent new angles every time he ran, terrifying the Ravens defense with his feet and arm. Flacco won the game, but Kaepernick became the face of the NFL.
And now that Pitta, Flacco's favorite third-down target, is done for the season with a dislocated hip and Boldin was traded to the Niners, the haters have returned too. "He's never made anyone else better," one national columnist recently wrote. The difference this time is that Flacco has his teammates from the other side of the ball to back him up. "He doesn't have to do any talking," says Suggs, who has become the QB's fiercest defender the past two years. "All he has to do is flash his ring."
Flacco too has evolved, albeit in his own way. That lanky, awkward kid the Ravens drafted has become a weight room regular. Shake his hand these days and you could almost mistake him for a Baltimore stevedore or a bouncer at a Federal Hill corner bar. There is a swagger to him this year that wasn't apparent in previous seasons. He's been verbally sparring with Suggs during scrimmages; he's been more at ease with the media's endless questions about his leadership.
"He seems more confident to me," says Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb. "He's jawing a little more. He's making some throws he wouldn't usually try before this year, and he's putting it in there." He even agreed to portray Johnny Unitas in a biopic about the Baltimore Colts quarterback that began filming this summer. "I'm only in the action scenes," Flacco says. "There's no way I would have agreed to do it if they said I had to act."
Make no mistake: It's Flacco's team now. Away from a microphone, he'll even concede this. Something changed during that playoff run, particularly that night in New England. He's not a fan of simple narratives, the notion that one player must lead while others follow. But with Lewis in retirement and Reed wearing a Texans uniform, he knows all eyes will be on him when the seas get rough. The new contract has obviously changed people's expectations. Outside pressure will be enormous. And he likes it that way.
Hours after signing the contract that guaranteed him at least $52 million, he celebrated by pulling into a McDonald's drive-thru in Aberdeen, Md. He ordered a 10-piece Chicken McNugget meal with fries and iced tea. "I can't really complain," Flacco says. "We won last year, I'm going to get a lot of money, and we're going to win football games. That's the way it works around here. We're not going to apologize for acting like a good football team. We don't care if that comes with pressure or not."
For now, Flacco is expecting that the new, wide-open offense will carry into 2013 and that he will get to throw more than he ever has. But that doesn't mean the debate is dead. Should he throw a few picks, it's easy to imagine the game plan calling for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to run the ball 30 times. In which case Flacco would go back to sliding for third downs, sitting on leads, grinding out the clock and throwing the ball away. He wouldn't be thrilled, but the Ravens would trust that he'd do whatever they ask of him to win.
So let the world continue to be dazzled by the read-option, by the next generation of young, dynamic quarterbacks. And good luck with your fantasy draft. Joe Flacco plans to keep collecting victories, both beautiful and flawed, week after week, regardless of who gets the credit, regardless of how it's done.
Even if it's boring.