This time a year ago, Joe Flacco was still viewed as a quarterback who couldn't get his team to the Super Bowl. He was still playing for a big contract after betting on himself by declining the Ravens' initial offers.
He was still waiting for the Ravens to put their full faith in his right arm and open up their offense.
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Today, Flacco enters the 2013 regular season with a Lombardi Trophy on his growing resume, a nine-figure contract and the respect of the football world after taking home the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. Many things have changed in Baltimore during the past 12 months, especially since the Super Bowl, but those close to the 28-year-old quarterback say Flacco isn't one of them.
As an encore, Flacco, who has racked up team accomplishments since his rookie season in 2008, wants to take his individual game to the next level this season. It won't be easy with increased expectations and the loss of two key receivers. But if anyone can shrug off all this pressure, it's Flacco.
"I don't know if there is — in terms of demeanor — anyone better than Joe to handle something like this," said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who like Flacco is a Delaware alumnus. "He's so even-keeled. Things just kind of roll off his shoulders. At the same time, I think he's extremely motivated. I don't think people realize how competitive he is. … This is a guy who is not going to flinch when the criticism comes or the adversity hits, and that's what makes him special."
Staying sane in the spotlight
Flacco isn't exactly thrilled about the attention that came with his new status and the media requests that have been piling up. But in his mind, it beats the alternative.
"When I think about [the past year], I kind of just think, 'Wow. That was awesome. Let's go do it again.' That would be a great way to start each offseason," Flacco said. "But there wasn't a ton of times where I sat back and thought about it, to be honest with you. I did it. I enjoyed it. Then it was just about getting back to what we normally do."
After Flacco coolly threw a record-tying 11 touchdown passes in the postseason and was named Super Bowl MVP when the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, the following days were chaotic.
At his postgame party, Flacco revealed that his wife, Dana, was pregnant with their second child. He then jetted to Florida to cruise around in a convertible with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Later that day, he wore a suit and a five o'clock shadow on the "Late Show with David Letterman." One topic of discussion was his uncertain contract status.
Back home in Audubon, N.J., there was talk about a parade or some other kind of public celebration for Flacco, but the quarterback quickly put the kibosh on that. But when Flacco, as he does every year, showed up at the Audubon High School baseball booster club dinner, the locals packed the restaurant to get a glimpse of their hometown hero.
Four weeks after leading the Ravens to the Lombardi Trophy, Flacco became — at the time — the highest-paid player in NFL history. And after signing a six-year, $120.6million contract that will set him up for life, Flacco stopped for chicken McNuggets at a McDonald's in Aberdeen on his way back to New Jersey. While he did purchase a house from former Ravens center Matt Birk, Flacco's idea of splurging was supersizing his value meal.
"You kind of wind down and you get done with all the crazy things that surround the Super Bowl [and] you're back here before you know it," Flacco said. "The last thing I'm thinking about is what I'm going to go buy. It's funny the way it works. Really, the only thing I thought about since signing the big contract was, 'Man, I want more.' You get a lot of money and you realize it's pretty cool. Let's see if we can go win some more so we can get some more for everybody."
Getting the contract taken care of restored a sense of normalcy for Flacco. Most important, it allowed him to get back into the team's Owings Mills practice facility, where throughout the offseason he lifted weights, threw passes or watched game tape.
"His schedule didn't change in that regard," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "He loves to study film, loves to be around the guys. This is a great environment for him, but I think, oftentimes, people expect these guys to change. The fact of the matter is they don't."
Leading the Ravens his way
One thing that won't change is his leadership style, and the Ravens are quite content with that.
Flacco will give few fiery speeches, but he won't dance out of a tunnel of flames at M&T Bank Stadium before games. He isn't going to channel his inner Ray Lewis now that the legendary linebacker retired. Flacco has been a leader in his own way, though he understands why reporters keep asking him whether he's ready to assume a larger locker room role.
"Ray Lewis was such a big face and such a presence around here for so long. So when there is a void like that, people just naturally want to ask how it is going to change this year without him," Flacco said. "So I just deal with that question and answer it however I feel like that day."