- Ashley Fox
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It had been seven weeks since his first child was born, and Joe Flacco was still giddy.
"I got pictures of him, if you want to see him," Flacco told me last week, before disappearing into the Ravens' locker room to retrieve his iPhone. On it was picture after picture of baby Stephen, 8 pounds and 21¼ inches the night he was born.
"I don't know how much it's changed me, but it's definitely been a cool experience," Flacco said. "It's unbelievable. It's crazy how fast it goes."
And it is only beginning.
This is a huge season for the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback -- a contract year, with his rookie deal set to expire after the season -- and yet there is a calm and ease to Flacco that hasn't always been there. He is funny. He laughs easily. And he speaks with a confidence and thoughtfulness that has resonated around the practice facility.
Don't fear losing, Flacco has said. Have a will to win. There is a big, big difference.
Maybe it is the natural evolution for a quarterback entering his fifth season, with 44 regular-season victories to his name, the most ever by a starting quarterback in his first four years in the NFL. Maybe it is the maturity that comes with being 27 years old, married and a father for the first time.
Maybe it is just that Flacco knows where the Ravens are now. They've been building toward this moment, when they finally have an offense with multiple weapons and, just as important, speed. They shouldn't have to rely so heavily on a defense that has been consistently dominant. They should be able to make big plays and take risks and put up points and maybe, just maybe, win a second AFC North title and a conference championship.
The Ravens have been to the AFC title game twice under Flacco and lost both times, at Pittsburgh in 2008 when Flacco was just a rookie, and last season at New England by the slimmest of margins. They are right there, on the cusp. They will go where their quarterback takes them, and in a gritty city that last won the Super Bowl 11 years ago behind one of the nastiest defenses ever, it is a sea change. Sure, the Ravens' defense still should be good, even with sack leader Terrell Suggs sidelined indefinitely with a torn Achilles tendon. But the team expects the offense to fully carry its weight.
That reality, coach John Harbaugh said, has brought something out of Flacco.
"He's not a different guy, but it's almost like, 'Is this the real Joe Flacco now?' " Harbaugh said. "He's funny, and he's engaged more. I think he's coming out. He's different. I don't know what it is. He's blossoming, I guess. His personality is starting to pop. Maybe it comes with confidence. Maybe he feels, OK, it's starting to fall in place for him. It's starting to click maybe somehow."
It certainly seems like it is.
In four short seasons since the Ravens selected him with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Flacco has become their all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and attempts. Although much maligned for his inconsistent accuracy, Flacco also is second in Ravens history with a 60.8 completion percentage, and he has led Baltimore to the playoffs in each of his four seasons, winning five games.
Matt Ryan, winless in three postseason appearances since Atlanta selected him first overall in 2008, would take that.
And yet Flacco is consistently criticized, particularly in Baltimore, for his failure to win the biggest game. Flacco is aware of the criticism, but not consumed by it. He knows what he has, and has not, accomplished.
Like the rest of the Ravens, Flacco was crushed that Lee Evans was unable to haul in a perfect pass in the end zone late in the AFC Championship Game in January. Had Evans grabbed the ball, it would have made moot Billy Cundiff's missed 32-yard field goal attempt to tie the game two plays later.
Flacco said he saw the play a couple of times in the days after the loss. He admitted he might have peeked at a couple of other plays, but tried, as he usually does, to avoid watching highlights of the game on television. There was no point. He had done everything he could.
Harbaugh pins none of the blame on Flacco. If anything, he takes responsibility for surrounding Flacco with what he needs. Last season, the Ravens had a gaping hole at left tackle, but Harbaugh is encouraged by what he called the "good young offensive linemen coming up the pike." They added speed by signing former Texans wide receiver Jacoby Jones. Fellow receiver Torrey Smith, a burner, is entering his second year. And last month at the deadline, the Ravens re-signed running back Ray Rice to a long-term extension.
They also hired Jim Caldwell as their first quarterbacks coach since Jim Zorn in 2010, relieving offensive coordinator Cam Cameron of that responsibility. Caldwell has provided a buffer between Flacco and Cameron and a calming influence.
Harbaugh said he envisions the offense playing up-tempo, frequently utilizing the no-huddle, with the ball coming out of Flacco's hands quickly. They will look to strike downfield but also rely on Rice to run the ball. Harbaugh said he expects Flacco's completion percentage to climb to nearly 70 percent.
"We're putting in the offense that we've envisioned having," Harbaugh said.
And Flacco has been hammering home a specific message.
"You can't be afraid to go out there and fail," he said. "We can't be afraid as an offense to go out there and not score points. If it happens it happens, but you still have to be able to go out there and be willing to do what you think is right, even if you might lose a couple games."
"I don't think being competitive is hating to lose. I think being competitive is your will to win. Part of playing and part of doing what we do is losing and losing in very tough situations and losing very tough games. Being competitive is saying, 'Hey, I've got to get back up, and we've got to do it all over again, and it's going to take a lot of work, but we should be able to do it.' "
With great risk often comes great reward, and great heartache.
The day after the New England loss -- perhaps the toughest of his career -- Flacco saw the 20-week ultrasound images of his son for the first time. In June, he left a minicamp early to be with his wife, Dana, at a hospital in New Jersey near their new home in Haddonfield. By nightfall, without the assistance of drugs, Dana gave birth to Stephen, with Joe, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, there to announce his arrival.
"I was proud that my wife was, shoot, my wife was killing it in there," Flacco said. "It was pretty cool. I was definitely proud of her, and seeing him come out was unbelievable. I was doubled over. 'It's a boy.' I didn't really care what we had, but it was nice to have a boy. It was unbelievable. Pretty crazy."
Flacco is in a good place, personally and professionally. He's playing for a new contract and is convinced he will play well and get everything he wants. His coach thinks so, too.
"You should get on the Flacco bandwagon," Harbaugh said. "He's going to be really good. Really, really good."