- Ashley Fox
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco has heard the noise. He knows people on the outside might think he will let up now that he has a lucrative new contract and is one of the highest-paid players in the National Football League.
It is natural to think the money and security will change him, Flacco said, but it is totally untrue.
"People don't realize: It's about the money, but it's really not," Flacco said.
No, it is about the hardware. It is about the rings. It is about being the best player, the best quarterback, the best leader and the best team. It is about competing and winning and establishing a legacy. It is about doing what the Baltimore Ravens did a season ago, when they came together at the end of an arduous regular season and strung together four impressive victories to win the franchise's second Super Bowl.
That was the goal last season, when Flacco was playing for a new contract. That is the goal this season, even though Flacco has that six-year, $120.6 million deal in hand.
There is an edginess to the Ravens that is unusual for a team coming off a Super Bowl victory. Maybe it's because they've had to hear all offseason about the departures from the Super Bowl team. Ray Lewis is gone. Ed Reed is gone. Matt Birk is gone. Anquan Boldin is gone. In all, there are nine players with starting experience in 2012 that are not part of the 2013 Ravens, including seven players on defense.
Maybe it is because they lost tight end Dennis Pitta indefinitely to a freak hip injury early in training camp, a huge blow to the offense and to Flacco personally. Maybe it is because there are legitimate questions about who can replace the sure-handed Boldin. Maybe it is because they had to get younger on defense, and with youth comes inevitable uncertainty.
But there is also a noticeable confidence. Coach John Harbaugh likes this team. While younger, the defense will be markedly faster. The secondary has depth. Rookie safety Matt Elam likely will not start right away -- veteran James Ihedigbo will -- but Elam is a star in the making. Linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith are talented veterans who are hungry for what most of their new teammates have.
Harbaugh isn't worried about the offense. He sees plenty of options at receiver. Torrey Smith is a true No. 1. Jacoby Jones is a burner who could be dangerous if he develops better hands. Deonte Thompson will get playing time. Brandon Stokley is reliable like Boldin, and while he can't outmuscle defenders the way Boldin can, Stokley can gain yards after the catch. Tight end Dallas Clark is a proven veteran. Ray Rice is Ray Rice.
If the Ravens can be strong up front on both sides of the football -- their offensive line has the potential to be one of the best in the league -- then Harbaugh thinks Baltimore should be plenty competitive, particularly in a division with an aging Pittsburgh Steelers team and a defensive-minded Cincinnati Bengals squad that still has questions about its quarterback.
The basis of the Ravens' general optimism ultimately comes back to Flacco. Baltimore has its quarterback. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell recently told Harbaugh that he thinks in the next two to three years, Flacco is going to be "lights out." Flacco has five years under his belt. He has played in 80 regular-season games and 13 playoff games and has nine postseason victories.
Flacco doesn't have a 4,000-yard season yet, but that is next. This is his offense. As Harbaugh told me, Flacco is in charge. He has more of the offense in his grasp.
Which is all Flacco wants. He wants to succeed. He wants to be great. To think that money will change him is preposterous.
"It's about going out and winning it again," Flacco said.
The money was important, though. It is why Flacco took the gutsy approach to last season. The Ravens offered him a contract extension prior to the season. Flacco thought he deserved more, turned it down and then proved he was right.
"I tried to tell these guys before, if you have a quarterback, if you think he's your guy, there's really a number you have to pay for him these days," Flacco said. "They've created it with what they've paid QBs, and we've kind of created it with how good of a product we have on the field. This is what guys get paid, and you can see around the league if you want to keep a quarterback these days, you have to pay them a pretty good penny.
"That was how I felt about it all along. I wasn't really worried about it. Then it worked out perfectly. We went out and played well and you can't draw it up any better than what happened. I don't know if it would ever happen again that way, but it did because we went out there and played well."
The journey has begun anew for the Ravens. They are not complacent because they won the Super Bowl. As Dumervil, the former Denver Bronco, said, "There's no hangover with me because I don't know how it feels, and the good thing about it is the team hasn't felt that way here. It feels like we haven't done nothing."
The 2012 Ravens did something. The 2013 Ravens have done nothing. The most important person on the team understands that and wants more, which is something money and security won't change.