THE QUARTERBACKcharged with reviving the Ravens' offense spent his first days as a rookiesleeping on an air mattress. Joe Flacco still doesn't have his own ride—he'sdriving a loaner BMW. And what about the morning of Flacco's regular-seasondebut, when he bummed a lift to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium from hisparents? "I can just hear the conversation," says K.C. Keeler, Flacco'scollege coach at Delaware. "'Joe, give your mom a kiss before you go towork.'"
If much about the23-year-old Flacco is a little green, his game on the field is all grown up,and the Ravens may finally have a franchise quarterback to go with theirall-world defense. In Baltimore's 27--9 throttling of Miami at Dolphins Stadiumon Sunday—a game highlighted by the defense's five takeaways, including safetyEd Reed's two interceptions—Flacco coolly directed the offense, playingmistake-free football and scoring the final touchdown on a five-yardquarterback draw. By the end of wild-card weekend he and the Ravens werepointing confidently toward Nashville for an AFC divisional playoff against thetop-seeded Titans. And Flacco was one up on fellow first-year quarterback MattRyan of Atlanta, the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I told[Ravens coach] John Harbaugh and [coordinator] Cam Cameron, if Joe was at USC,you'd be arguing with me why he's not the first overall pick," Keeler says."Ice water in his veins. Nothing bothers him. To him, he was just wearing ablue uniform last year and he's wearing a purple uniform this year."
Little else seemsto have changed for Flacco, the 18th pick of the 2008 draft, since he made theleap from Delaware to NFL starter in the preseason. He says he hasn't beennervous since his first football game in the seventh grade, and that isn't justa young player whistling in the dark. Even through early mistakes this year—hethrew one TD pass and seven interceptions during the Ravens' 2--3 start—Flaccomaintained a resolve that impressed his teammates. "I'm surprised about thepoise he's kept through the wins and losses," says wideout Derrick Mason,who caught a perfectly thrown 31-yard sideline pass from Flacco late in thesecond quarter to set up a Matt Stover field goal. "But I'm not surprisedat how he's playing because he's shown it the whole season. To watch Joe viewthe whole field, and get to his third checkdown after he's looked at everybodyelse, it's amazing. He understands the whole concept of the offensenow."
Adds linebackerRay Lewis, "If you watch the kid, he has a calm, humble spirit about him.When he steps on the field, good or bad, Joe is always Joe."
If anything couldhave shaken Flacco's confidence, a road playoff game seemed a good bet.Instead, he stood tall in the pocket, same as always. The task will grow moredifficult against the Titans, whose mammoth front four rarely lets quarterbacksbreathe. Tennessee beat the Ravens 13--10 on Oct. 5, but Flacco is a betterplayer now. "In the huddle [against Miami] I didn't see one differentexpression on his face than I did during the season," said veteran tightend Todd Heap.
Said Flacco,"Besides the great environment, it was just another football game."
When it was over,Flacco remained in uniform for several minutes. At 6'6", he towered overmost of his teammates, veterans who'd seen so many quarterbacks—Tony Banks,Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake—pass through the locker room as ifthrough a turnstile. Baltimore's defense has been such a dominant force overthe years, both on the field and in the organization, that few Ravens QBs havehad the moxie to match it.
Flacco does.Through a rookie season and a playoff win, he has proved that backgrounddoesn't necessarily matter in the league's toughest job if you've gotconfidence to go along with the physical tools. "These guys aren't a groupthat's just going to give [respect] to you," Flacco says of his teammates."You have to earn it."
That he's doing,with every baby step and every big-armed throw.
BOB ROSATO (LEWIS)
UNFLAPPABLE In his first playoff game Flacco (above) played error-free, earning further respect from vets like Lewis (left).
SIMON BRUTY (FLACCO)
[See caption above]