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Flacco is making a name for himself in Baltimore

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Adam Terry was just having a little fun with his rookie teammate who didn't exactly enter the NFL with a household name or big-time college credentials.

"When he first came in, I started calling him Shane Falco, from The Replacements," the Baltimore Ravens' veteran offensive guard said with a mischievous grin.

Joe Flacco, Shane Falco? For all anyone on or around the Ravens knew, the kid would answer to either one, so many of the other players went with Falco. He wasn't supposed to see much, if any, of the field this year anyway, so whether he was identified by his real name or that of a fictional movie character didn't seem all that relevant back then. Flacco, Falco? Hey, at least they're both quarterbacks.

Rising rookies

Baltimore's Joe Flacco is one of two rookie quarterbacks who have grabbed headlines through the first half of the season. The other is third overall pick Matt Ryan.

Their stories are strikingly similar in that Ryan's team, the Atlanta Falcons, also are 6-3 and also have a productive offense with a strong ground attack (Atlanta and Baltimore are second and third, respectively, in rushing offense). In addition, both teams have rookie coaches, John Harbaugh with the Ravens and Mike Smith with the Falcons.

But the fact Ryan played at Boston College figured to give him a presumptive edge over Flacco, who went to Delaware, and his statistics reflect as much. Here's how the two stack up statistically:

Joe Flacco
Passer rating: 79.7

Comp. percentage: 62.1

Passing yards: 1,649

TDs/INTs: 7/7

Matt Ryan
Passer rating: 89.9

Comp. percentage: 59.6

Passing yards: 1,909

TDs/INTs: 11/5

But as the man who has led the Ravens to victory in their last four games, Flacco has become pretty hard to overlook.

"Everybody knows his name now," Terry said.

And it isn't merely because of the winning streak, which improved the Ravens to 6-3 and gave them a piece of first place in the AFC North. It's also because the team is averaging 23.5 points per game.

For the longest time, the Ravens were all about a dominant defense and an offense whose primary function was to control the clock on the ground and avoid turnovers. Now, they have an offense that moves the ball in the air, as well as on the ground, and scores … and scores … and scores.

"They've been waiting for this for a long time," eighth-year Ravens tight end Todd Heap said of his defensive teammates. "They've been handling their end of the bargain since I've been here. And I've been around long enough to know that they appreciate when we take a four-minute drive at the end of the game, and don't even put them out on the field."

Make no mistake. The Ravens are still defined by their dominant defense. They rank second in the NFL in total yards allowed, first against the run, and ninth against the pass. But now the defense has the sort of offensive complement it rarely enjoyed, even when the Ravens won their only Super Bowl following the 2000 season. After years of struggling to reach the end zone, they've steadily increased their scoring with 27, 29, 37, and 41 points in victories the past four weeks over Miami, Oakland, Cleveland, and Houston. It marks the first time in the Ravens' 13-year history that they've generated at least 27 points in four consecutive games. During that span, they've also soared from 28th to 12th in NFL point total.

Baltimore's defenders know the difference. He's the gangly, 6-foot-6, 230-pounder with the long neck and short hair -- the one who looks younger than his 23 years but plays much older when he takes the snap.

"It's just great to have a young quarterback who's so mature and doesn't act like he's a rookie," nose tackle Haloti Ngata said. "To have him make those plays that we definitely need, converting those third downs and keeping us on the sidelines, it's great. He's letting us get some rest. He knows that we have confidence in him."

Before the season, that wasn't exactly the sort of thing Ngata or pretty much anyone else in the Ravens' locker room would have expected to say about Flacco at this point. The Ravens' brass raised more than a few eyebrows when they used the 18th overall pick of the draft on the former standout from Division 1 FCS (formerly known as 1-AA) Delaware. Any number of critics questioned his ability to make the dramatic competitive jump to the NFL, especially as a rookie.

After Troy Smith, a 2007 fifth-round pick from Ohio State, was named the Ravens' starting quarterback in the preseason, Flacco's fate appeared sealed as a reserve who would spend most -- if not all -- of his first year watching and learning. But after Smith developed a case of tonsillitis late in the preseason, the door opened for Flacco to move into the No. 1 spot. Once he got it, he refused to let go.

"I always said the best way for me to learn probably is to go out there and play," Flacco said. "I want to be the best quarterback there is. I've always wanted to be that and I've always felt like I had the ability to do that. It's just about going out there and working hard and proving it to everybody. And, believe me, there have been people who have either told me or shown me through their actions that they don't think I can do that. Any time you go out on that football field that's in the back of your mind, and you're going out there and you're trying to play the best football you can play."

What about the speed of the game being too fast for a quarterback who spent his collegiate career surrounded by players deemed far too slow to have a prayer of reaching the NFL? What about reading defenses that are far more complicated than any he faced at Delaware?

"If you can play football, you can play football," Flacco said. "It doesn't matter what level you came from. Nobody really follows 1-AA football that much, but you're seeing the same things. Obviously, the talent level is probably a little bit less, but you're seeing the same thing from defenses. You still have to go out there and make decisions.

"Even guys from top 1-A programs are making a big jump in order to go to the NFL. It's all about how you handle it."

Flacco has shown considerable improvement since the beginning of the season. In the last four games, he has connected on a dozen passes of 20 yards or more, including touchdowns of 70, 47, 43 and 28 yards. Even more impressive is that, despite the fact the Ravens have become increasingly aggressive with their passing game, he has not thrown an interception in any of those four outings.

It can't be ignored that Flacco's success has come against some of the league's worst defenses. All of that changes Sunday when the Ravens travel to the Meadowlands to face the 8-1 Giants.

Flacco has impressed his coaches and teammates in a number of ways. Based on what they have seen and heard of him over the past nine games, they're confident that his performance isn't a fluke.

"The guy has a Rolodex in his mind," Baltimore quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson said of Flacco's ability to retain information. "He can decipher through things quickly, he's very decisive, and he doesn't get too high or get too low. Most things don't bother him; it's water off a duck's back and let's move onto the next play."

Jackson's first face-to-face encounter with Flacco took place last February at the NFL Combine. The coach was ready with a set of questions he believed would give him a true feel for Flacco's personality and capacity for meeting the enormous challenges he would face in the NFL. Jackson prides himself on being able to crank up the heat on young prospects during those sessions. He was immediately impressed with how Flacco "gave it right back" to him.

For Jackson, the most important question was why Flacco chose to transfer to Delaware from a major college, Pittsburgh, after a redshirt freshman year during which he appeared in three games as a backup. Why, Jackson wanted to know, didn't he simply stick it out and fight for the top spot with the Panthers?

"His thing was that he wanted to play," Jackson said. "He just didn't feel like there was going to be an opportunity for him to play and (transferring was) what he felt he needed to do. It wasn't a talent issue, it wasn't a competing issue. It was about having an opportunity to play, and that made a lot of sense to me. Some young men would tell you it was for some other reason. But it wasn't about a coach, it wasn't about players, it wasn't about the school. It wasn't about anything else other than, 'I needed to go compete in order to have the opportunity to be the best quarterback I can be.'"

Flacco is on a perpetual hunt for any information that might help improve his game. He's constantly chatting up teammates, while also drinking in every drop of knowledge from Jackson and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Flacco promptly figured out the importance of keeping in the good graces of his offensive linemen, which is why, since the beginning of the season, he has treated them to lunch or dinner every Thursday. It has proved to be an excellent bonding experience.

The linemen discovered something about Flacco that most outsiders don't get from his monotone voice and serious expression he often wears on his face: He has a funny side. He's constantly joking about teammates and coaches. To the amazement of his older teammates, some of Flacco's least serious moments actually have come in the huddle.

"Third-and-15, on the road, he's smiling, he's laughing, cracking a joke," veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "And that rubs off on the guy in the huddle that may be a little bit nervous. When you see your starting quarterback is calm, everything's cool. Then, boom! He completes a third-and-15 pass."

Anderson admits that when he signed with the Ravens during the offseason, he had his doubts about the potential that a rookie from a small college would be the team's starting quarterback.

"But then once I got here and saw him, you take all those doubts back," Anderson said. "Because you see how hard he works, you see his ability, you see how well he throws the ball, you see how well he can run and how he can move around and protect himself. That was a big thing for me."

A turning point for Flacco came after the Ravens suffered a 31-3 loss to Indianapolis, giving them their third straight defeat. On the same day that Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes, Flacco threw three interceptions.

As the Ravens prepared for their next game, against Miami, Cameron took Flacco aside and told him, "You're not a rookie anymore. It's time for you to take this offense by the hand and lead it. And guys are looking for you to do that. We wouldn't have put you in there if we didn't think you could lead it."

Flacco proceeded to guide the Ravens to a 27-13 triumph over the Dolphins. He threw for 272 yards and a touchdown, without throwing an interception, in Baltimore's first of four straight wins.

"Going up against him, I thought he was really poised," Dolphins free safety Renaldo Hill said. "He didn't get rattled and managed the game pretty well. He did a good job of checking the safeties to see what we were doing back there. We were trying to give him different looks every time, and he handled that pretty well."

Two weeks later, Flacco threw for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead the Ravens to a 37-27 win at Cleveland. Veteran Browns safety Mike Adams, also a Delaware product, noticed tremendous growth from Flacco's first game against the Browns six weeks earlier. The Ravens won that game, 28-10, but Flacco threw for only 129 yards, had no touchdowns, and was intercepted twice -- once by Adams.

"I'm like, 'Damn, he's grown,'" Adams said. "He just started chucking it downfield. He felt comfortable. He wasn't making mistakes. When he got in trouble, he threw the ball away or he checked it down. You could just see him taking control. You could tell he has grasped the game very quickly."

Former Steelers coach and current CBS NFL studio analyst Bill Cowher sees plenty of similarities between Flacco and a rookie quarterback he unexpectedly promoted to starter in Pittsburgh in 2004 -- Ben Roethlisberger. Like Flacco, Roethlisberger was a first-round pick from a smaller college, mid-major Miami of Ohio. Like Flacco, he had the help of a strong defense and powerful running game. Like Flacco, he enjoyed a tremendous amount of early success.

"I don't think it does (matter) where he comes from if the guy's got all of the qualities," Cowher said. "Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are big guys with strong arms. You may have questioned the level of competition, but you can help offset that if you can allow them to have success early by trying to simplify their initial experience with the National Football League. How do you simplify the game? You keep it based on play action. You keep it based on bootlegs. You keep it based on doing some things where he's not having to read the complexity of the defense. And then, as they become more comfortable, they'll start to see the game."

Defenses eventually catch up with young quarterbacks. As their body of work grows, so does the book that every opposing defensive coordinator compiles with their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. It is incumbent upon young quarterbacks, with the help of their coaches, to adjust accordingly to the different strategy they will begin to encounter as the season progresses.

"It will be more difficult," Cowher said. "But (a larger factor) than what the defenses do is just the length of the season. It's so hard to sustain it. One thing I felt with Ben, by the end of that rookie year, he was exhausted."

The chore will be especially difficult for Flacco because in the next six games, he will face five defenses ranked in the top 11 of the NFL. After the Giants, the Ravens face the Eagles (third), Redskins (fourth), Steelers (first), and Cowboys (11th).

The Giants' game should say plenty about how ready the Ravens -- and especially Flacco -- are for the entire stretch.

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