OWINGS MILLS — Joe Flacco has burned enough midnight oil that the Baltimore Ravens’ rookie quarterback has all the classic symptoms derived from spending several hours in a darkened film room studying the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense.
Other than developing dark circles under his eyes and missing out on some sleep, the first-round draft pick is showing no ill effects from his preparation and definitely no signs of nerves as he prepares for his NFL starting debut today at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Have you all seen Joe?" wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I mean the dude is cool, man. What more can you ask of him?
"He’s up for the challenge. You’re going to see a very good quarterback out there this weekend. I believe he’s taken the necessary steps to make himself a very good quarterback in this league, so it’s going to be fun playing with Joe."
Anointed as the Ravens’ quarterback of the future this spring by general manager Ozzie Newsome, the towering former
Now, the 23-year-old Flacco has been crowned the starter by default and also has displayed the merit of being the only quarterback to throw a touchdown pass this preseason and to not throw an interception.
If Flacco is feeling any differently, it’s unnoticeable. He’s still exhibiting the same unflappable personality even while hearing the traditional horror stories of past rookie quarterbacks thrust immediately into the starting lineup, including Boller melting down against the Pittsburgh Steelers five years ago.
"I’m definitely excited, I’m ready to go, ready to get out there," Flacco said. "Everybody adds a little bit of what they think it’s going to be like for me. It’s going to be my experience. It’s going to be up to me to go out there and play football the way I want to."
Teammates have remarked that Flacco has a low-key command in the huddle, and a dry sense of humor in the locker room. He’s not prone to drawing attention to himself, and just quietly goes about his work at the Ravens’ training complex.
"You can tell he’s not fazed by anything," tight end Todd Heap said. "He’s just kind of level-headed. Obviously, there are going to be some things that he might not have seen. Hopefully, he’ll be prepared. I’m sure he’ll put the work in."
The conventional wisdom warns against starting a rookie quarterback.
Traditionally, they tend to stare down their reads. They throw interceptions. They fumble the football. They get confused by exotic defensive schemes, heavy blitz packages and umbrella coverage gambits.
Take it from Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who had the good fortune to watch from the sidelines as a rookie while Jon Kitna plied his trade.
"You can do it during the preseason and during practice, but when you get on the field and see a fire zone coming at you or you see man-to-man coverage on one side of the field, you have to know where to go," Palmer said. "The confidence you have in knowing where to go in those situations is the toughest thing and you really don’t have it or gain it until you do it. So, that has to be the toughest thing for a young guy."
Flacco hopes to be the exception to the rule about rookie passers, a history that includes the initial struggles of Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman.
Dan Marino excelled right away with the Miami Dolphins, and Ben Roethlisberger went 13-0 in the regular season in his first year with the Steelers after Tommy Maddox hurt his elbow against the Ravens.
"If you look at his situation, it reminds you of a Ben Roethlisberger," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You don’t have to go win the game. All you’ve got to do is be Flacco."
Basically ruled out of the quarterback competition after the first two preseason games, Flacco held up well in two starts by completing 26 of 50 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown.
Regardless of the ugly past for rookie quarterbacks, Flacco is determined to learn and impress on the fly.
"I think defenses are trying to confuse everybody," Flacco said. "That’s what they’re trying to do. I’m sure a big part of their game plan is to try to get to the quarterback and make him feel as uncomfortable as possible.
"I’m sure they’ll do that, but we’re going to be ready for them. We’re trying to prepare for all their stuff and go out there the best we can and execute."
New Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has an aggressive reputation stemming from his days with the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. However, the Bengals aren’t exactly loaded on defense and are coming off a 7-9 debacle last season.
Their best playmakers are swift young cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, defensive end Robert Geathers and rookie linebacker Keith Rivers.
"If the quarterback’s young, obviously you want to make things a little bit harder on him," Hall said. "He’s not going to have the vision like a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning would have. So, we’re going to try to use his inexperience to our advantage.
"At the same time, you still have to go out there and execute. You can’t just leave a guy wide open. Any quarterback can throw that ball."
Flacco has the requisite powerful arm, and grew more accurate and confident with each preseason snap. He has progressed significantly since his first preseason game when he went 0 for 3 and lost a fumble against the New England Patriots.
"I’m a lot more prepared now than I was then," Flacco said. ‘I’ve had a lot more experience and worked with the guys a lot more, so it should be a lot of fun."
The harder variables to gauge, though, is whether unproven offensive tackles Jared Gaither, who succeeds retire All-Pro Jonathan Ogden on the left side, and Adam Terry are up to the task of keeping Flacco standing long enough to throw.
Plus, running back Willis McGahee missed the entire preseason with a knee injury and could b e limited if he plays today. Former
The Ravens will tailor the game plan to Flacco’s strengths. That could mean lots of play-action passes, slants and outs to wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton and perhaps a few deep balls to tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Demetrius Williams. He’s expected to hand off a lot, too.
"We’ll call the plays in this game that he has absorbed," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I’m going to continually challenge his mind, try to expand his mind. His mind has developed because of all the reps he’s getting.
"He went 10 days and took every rep the whole day. You could just see him grow. Now, he’s going to continue to grow. But the game plan will come from what he does know."
Putting Flacco into position to succeed is fine in theory. In practice, though, it’s a different challenge altogether. There is no magic formula to determine how fast it will take for the game to slow down for Flacco or any quarterback. So far, he’s proven to be a quick study.
"Getting a quarterback comfortable is hard," Cameron said. "Every snap is going to be a growing experience, especially with a new coordinator who obviously wants to energize that defense. I think we just take this thing one play at a time and see where Joe’s at and where it takes us."
The Ravens have had such a long-running quarterback carousel over the past several years that they are naturally excited about the prospects of establishing a starter for the present as well as the long-term future.
"It’s been different just because so many different guys have been thrown in the mix, and we haven’t known who was going to be the guy," Heap said. "There hasn’t been one guy that we’ve known from the beginning or at any point in time until this week. We didn’t know who it was going to be. We know who’s starting now, and we’re all behind him."
Aaron Wilson covers the