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Flacco's play warrants long-term investment by Ravens

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Listen closely to what Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday's AFC Championship Game, and it's apparent the Ravens believe they have a quarterback who can take them to the Super Bowl. More than that, it's apparent they will do what they can to make sure it happens.

Which means they will do what they can to sign Joe Flacco to a long-term contract.

I know, that's not exactly a revelation, but there were people in and around Baltimore who questioned what happens when Flacco's contract expires after next season, and I'll tell you what: The Ravens keep him. Period. End of conversation. Flacco will enter the last year of a five-year deal in 2012, and there's about as much chance of Baltimore letting him go as there is the Orioles reaching the World Series.

Yet there were critics this season who contended that maybe, just maybe, the club couldn't go the distance with him, with some of them lining up behind safety Ed Reed last week when he said what he said. Then the Ravens went to New England, and Flacco made enough big plays in critical situations to put Baltimore in a Super Bowl. Better yet, he outperformed Tom Brady, one of the best ever to play the position.

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"I am proud of our quarterback," Harbaugh said afterward. "Proud of the way he played, the way he stepped up in this kind of a setting and the plays he made down the stretch. I think it says a lot about him and his future. I just like our football team, and I like where we are going."

You don't have to be an Einstein to figure out what Harbaugh meant there, and what he meant is that Flacco should be and will be a critical component of that future he likes so much. And why not? For too many years the Ravens struggled to find someone to lock down the position, with the club spending millions on free-agent Elvis Grbac after winning a Super Bowl in 2000 only to watch him walk away a year later.

In the six seasons that followed, Baltimore auditioned six quarterbacks as starters, some more successful than others. Then it spent a first-round draft pick in 2008 on Flacco, and -- presto! -- look what happened: The position was solidified, with nobody but Flacco starting the past four seasons. Moreover, the Ravens went to the playoffs every year --winning at least one postseason game each season and making it to the conference championship game twice.

So why shouldn't the Ravens want to keep Flacco around for a long time? They should. And they will. That much was apparent Sunday on the field, in the post-game news conference and in the Ravens' locker room afterward. Not only does the head coach believe in his quarterback; his teammates do, too, and I can tell you why.

The guy wins. He's 49-24 as a starter, including 5-4 in the playoffs.

"He is an elite quarterback," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

Flacco has made it known he'd like a new deal before his current contract expires, but the Ravens have more immediate concerns -- with the retention of free agents like running back Ray Rice, guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Jarret Johnson at or near the top of the list.

Of course, there's about as much chance of Rice leaving as there is Flacco. The two are cornerstones of an offense that was good enough to carry Baltimore to a division title, an unblemished record in the AFC North and a 7-1 record against playoff teams.

Keeping Rice is a no-brainer. But so is keeping Flacco.

"I would appreciate it if some of the people that criticized him would lay off him now," Rice said after Sunday's loss. "That's my quarterback. We are going to be here for a long while."

That sounds pretty definite, and it should. The Ravens won't let Rice or Flacco get away for one very good reason: They need them to win. As I said, that's not exactly news, but it is a reminder to those who thought Baltimore should look for another quarterback to find another soap box.

This Joe won't go.

"I've said it many times," Harbaugh said. "I think his best football is in front of him. He only gets better. He's our kind of guy. He's a tough guy. He's a competitive guy. He's a leader. And I just can't wait to see where this thing goes with him. We are proud to have him as our quarterback."

That should settle things once and for all.


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