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BALTIMORE — Joe Flacco arrived in the NFL with a gunslinger reputation because of his towering size and powerful arm strength.
The Baltimore Ravens’ prize rookie quarterback demonstrated a different facet of his game besides his ability to manage the offense in a composed manner after unexpectedly emerging as the opening-game starter due to the poor health of Kyle Boller and Troy Smith.
Flacco showed off some fancy footwork Sunday while safely operating the offense.
It was Flacco’s poise and athleticism that were on display during the Ravens’ 17-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium as he outplayed Carson Palmer, especially when he improvised for a 38-yard touchdown run on third-quarter bootleg.
The first-round draft pick completed just 15 of 29 passes for 129 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 63.7 quarterback rating while running a conservative game plan, but it was his impromptu scramble that raised eyebrows.
"I started running and I was thinking, ‘First down, first down, first down,’ and I got to the first-down point, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t think there’s anybody here,’" Flacco said. "I just started going upfield and thought, ‘I’m going to get in the end zone.’
"It was a lot of fun. I had a lot of help. It was really a great time out there."
Flacco dashed up the right sideline, eluding tacklers as he followed some key downfield blocks from center Jason Brown and wide receiver Mark Clayton to give the Ravens a 17-3 lead.
The run came after Flacco didn’t find any open receivers on a rollout to his right, and it was 13 yards longer than his any of his scrambles at the University of Delaware. Brown and Clayton were shocked to see the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder moving so rapidly.
"My back was to the play and I’m just kind of watching the defensive backs when I saw Joe shoot past them," Clayton said. "I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’"
Flacco had made a last-second adjustment in deciding to keep the football, recognizing that the Bengals were loading up with a blitz that would have halted the original play.
It was the kind of intelligent maneuver that normally is beyond the grasp of a rookie, especially one that’s making the big leap from Division I-AA to the NFL.
"The neatest thing was that I saw him the whole way," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s so tall, the field’s flat and I could see him run all the way around the far sideline because his head was kind of above everybody else’s. It was really more of a mental play than it was a physical one.”
The decision caught his teammates off-guard, but they were definitely pleased with the results. After the score, the television cameras panned to Flacco’s smiling parents.
"I thought he was supposed to hand it off to somebody," Brown said. "The whole time I was thinking, ‘Please if somebody’s about to hit you, just slide.’ But the kid has so much heart. He had his eyes dead set on the end zone. He was going to get in there no matter what."
Flacco had at least four passes dropped, including a near touchdown pass that glanced off tight end Todd Heap’s hands in the end zone. Heap also fumbled a nine-yard completion on Flacco’s first regular-season pass.
Nothing seemed to bother Flacco, though, as he and Matt Ryan became the first rookie first-round quarterbacks to win their starting debuts since Ben Roethlisberger with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. They are the first two rookies to start a season-opener since Boller five years ago, but with vastly better results.
"Joe played like a veteran," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He played poised. Regardless of what happened, Joe stayed in the game. It showed on the play he scored on. He read the defense and kept the ball.
"He scored a touchdown, and that is what veteran quarterbacks do. He is starting to really come into his own right now. We’ll just have to continue to help him and make his job easy."
Flacco also displayed some toughness on Clayton’s 42-yard touchdown on a double-reverse, running interference for him and effectively walling off linebacker Dhani Jones.
"Yeah, I’m supposed to block," Flacco said. "I really think I’m just supposed to not mess anything up and get in the way. So, I don’t really know what I was doing there."
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron streamlined the game plan for Flacco, and the low-key strategy worked for the most part as he wasn’t sacked and delivered a series of play-action passes, slants and safety-valve throws to the backs.
Other than some overthrown passes and having too much zip on short patterns, Flacco turned in a solid performance.
The most impressive things about Flacco’s debut were the lack of turnovers and not getting rattled against schemes intended to confuse him.
"It’s just football," Flacco said. "It’s a lot of fun, though, just like it’s always been. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for the last 20 years of our lives."
According to teammates, Flacco’s demeanor and body language in the huddle overshadowed his 23 years as he resembled an old hand out there.
"I know he is going to do big things with this offense," fullback Le’Ron McClain said. "He is just calm. There is no panicking. That is what you have to have to play in this league."
Flacco had a much better game than Palmer, a former All-Pro who completed just 10 of 25 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 35.2 quarterback rating.
"Joe was unbelievably poised," Clayton said. "I almost don’t consider him a rookie quarterback. He came out here ready and poised to put us in a position to win the game."
Flacco also had the presence of mind to get rid of the ball whenever he was pressured. He was only knocked down a few times.
"This was the beginning for Joe," Harbaugh said. "This is going to be a jumping-off point. Now, we’ve got an idea of where he’s at and what he needs to do to get better.
“He played well, but he needs to take this week into next week and make the most improvement maybe that he will ever make in his career. That should be his goal."
After a lengthy quarterback carousel that makes Flacco the 16th different quarterback to start in the Ravens’ 13 year of existence, including a dozen during the Brian Billick era that ended following last season, the Ravens are hoping to grow with the New Jersey native.
In the stands, fans chanted, "Let’s go, Flacco," and held up purple signs with his name on them.
"I kind of thought I heard it, but I wasn’t really sure," Flacco said. "I thought, ‘Why would they be doing that? Hey, if I can keep them on my side like that, it will be a good time."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.