Ravens No Longer Have to Rely on Defense to Win

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2008

OWINGS MILLS, Md. - He's Joe Cool until you mention the brown-nose scoring system.

That's when Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco — the rookie whose laid-back personality makes Eli Manning seem eccentric — begins laughing outside the locker room at Ravens headquarters. His face having turned a tad red, a grinning Flacco wonders aloud how a team secret was revealed.

He can blame Lorenzo Neal for spilling the beans Friday. The Ravens fullback says Baltimore's quarterbacks are keeping tabs on teammates and even assistant coaches who are trying to curry a little too much favor with those higher up the ladder.

It's believed whoever finishes with the most points at season's end will pay a penalty like buying dinner. Flacco says the competition is too close to call right now but mentioned Neal as a leading contender.

"If you're buddying up to your coaches or trying to brownnose them a little bit, we look at the guy and say, 'Hey, we caught that,'" Flacco said. "It's something we do to pass time and have fun in the meetings."

As if Flacco isn't having enough of a blast already.

No AFC rookie quarterback has won as many games as Flacco (nine) since Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. As fate would have it, Flacco and Roethlisberger meet Sunday in a pivotal AFC North match-up. The visiting Steelers (10-3) will secure the division title with a victory; A Ravens win could clinch a playoff spot if a few other post-season contenders lose.

Six months ago, nobody could have envisioned the Ravens (9-4) soaring so high with Flacco under center. He entered training camp as a third-stringer despite being chosen with the 18th overall pick in last April's draft. Flacco was expected to need additional time adjusting to the NFL after playing collegiately at a non-FBS program (Delaware). The biggest reason Flacco opened the regular season as a starter wasn't preseason performance but fellow Ravens quarterbacks Kyle Boller (shoulder) and Troy Smith (severe tonsillitis) being sidelined.

And now? Flacco has made it a three-man race with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and Tennessee running back Chris Johnson for NFL Rookie of the Year. Ryan has the NFL's highest quarterback rating over the past eight weeks (99.5), but Flacco isn't far behind at 95.6 even with a supporting cast that may not have a single offensive player reach the Pro Bowl. Baltimore also leads the NFL in scoring (29.8-point average) and receiving touchdowns (14) in that span while posting a 7-1 record.

"A little bit of what Joe is doing is being taken away because of Matt coming in and doing a good job as well," Ravens center Jason Brown said. "But for a quarterback to start from game one and lead the team as well as Joe, that's unheard of."

Ravens players knew early that the strong-armed Flacco had mad physical skills, including surprising mobility for a 6-foot-6 quarterback. Flacco worked so diligently studying film and digesting offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's offense that he could adroitly run a no-huddle attack in a season-opening win against Cincinnati.

"We haven't scaled anything back because he's a rookie," Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson said. "I laugh when I hear people say, 'Now they're starting to open up the playbook.' It's never been closed — not with this guy."

But it's the "Joe Cool" persona that truly separates the 23-year-old Flacco from other youngsters at the position. He ranks among the top four NFL quarterbacks in third-down and fourth-quarter passing. Flacco didn't go in the tank during a rough early-season stretch when he threw five interceptions and took nine sacks in three losses, including a 23-20 overtime defeat against Pittsburgh in Week 3. When a mistake is made, Jackson says Flacco almost always knows what he did wrong by the time he leaves the field.

Basically, he's un-Flaccable.

"He'll throw an interception and come right back out and start slinging," Neal said. "When you have a guy like that, you can have success. He isn't only a smart guy. Flacco has poise and presence.

"He will be the MVP of this league some day."

Such praise will assuredly score Neal brown-nosing points. But all kidding aside, Neal believes that locker-room tomfoolery has helped Flacco come out of his shell with teammates.

The importance of that can't be understated, especially considering Baltimore's lack of strong leadership at quarterback for much of this decade.

"It's hard to get him to smile, but he's opening up more each week," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He's a lot better now than the first week of the season. He was quiet and just trying to feel everybody out. Now, you catch him laughing and joking a little.

"That's good because now he's loose. He has the confidence of everybody in this locker room. He feels he can go out there and be himself."

Said Flacco: "Guys are starting to say to me, 'Oh, the true Joe is coming out now.'"

That's very cool for a franchise that no longer has to rely so heavily on its vaunted defense to win.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

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