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Flacco in line for payday, but he won't reach elite status

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Joe Flacco is playing the best football of his pro career. His Ravens beat Andrew Luck and the Colts two weeks ago, then went to Denver and upset Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Now, for the second consecutive year, he's one victory away from the Super Bowl, and that raises the obvious question: With Flacco's contract expiring in March, how much money did he just make? And how much more does he stand to make with a defeat of New England?

"Zero," said one AFC team's cap specialist, "and I'll tell you why: We're getting to the point where the Ravens are only going to 'franchise' him. All this does is ensure that they're going to put the franchise tag on him, which translates to no more money and doesn't change the equation of the deal."

Now there's an answer I didn't expect.

But the guy has a point. There's a feeling out there that Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, wants a multiyear deal in the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady-Drew Brees neighborhood -- mostly because Linta calls his client "a top-five elite quarterback."

If he truly believes that -- and Linta told me Tuesday that "he's absolutely there" -- it would put Flacco at roughly $19 million to $20 million a year. sorry, that's not likely to happen no matter what occurs this weekend or in Super Bowl XLVII.

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The reason: Unlike Brady, Manning and Brees, Flacco is not the foundation of the Ravens franchise. Their defense is. Yeah, I know, that's changing, and Flacco's role increased as Baltimore's defense aged and declined. Nevertheless, Flacco is not perceived as the face of the Ravens; Ray Lewis or Ed Reed is. Maybe even Ray Rice.

Flacco is a significant part of one of the league's most successful franchises, but he's not to Baltimore what Brady is to New England or Manning is to Denver ... or was to Indianapolis.

"Manning helped create the culture in Indianapolis when there wasn't one," said an agent for one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. "Brady saved (Bill) Belichick's job when it looked as if he would be fired, and he helped create the culture there. And Drew Brees and Sean Payton helped create a culture in New Orleans when the Saints had nothing. So, now, what you must ask yourself is this: Did Joe Flacco walk into a good culture, or did he create it?"

I think we know the answer. The Ravens for years were known as a team that won in spite of their quarterbacks, and the reason was defense. They had one of the best in the business. They had Ray Lewis. They had Ed Reed. They had Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. In short, they had a physical, attacking and relentless unit that was the hallmark of the franchise.

But they also had instability at quarterback that changed when Flacco arrived in 2008. With Flacco, the Ravens are 54-26 in regular-season play, reached the playoffs every season, won at least one playoff game every year and have gone to the conference championship game three times -- including the past two seasons.

"The guy is the model of consistency," said Linta. "If Bill Belichick were a quarterback, he'd be Joe Flacco."

There's no question that Joe Flacco is valuable ... maybe invaluable ... to the Ravens. But how does that translate to a new contract?

"There are several things going on here," said one agent. "Joe Flacco's only 27 (he turns 28 Wednesday), so he's entering the prime of his career. He's also won a lot of games for Baltimore. And the 2014 salary cap is going to go up significantly, with teams required to spend a certain minimum. So all those things are in his favor.

"But the flip side is: Is he worth $19 (million) or $20 million a year? Let's say he's looking for a five-year deal. Do you want to pay him $90 million or more, with a guarantee of $50 (million) to $60 million? We all know he's a good quarterback. But is he in the Manning-Brees-Brady conversation?"

The Ravens would have to answer that, and I suggest they'd probably say, "No." In fact, I'd say most persons would, too, and understand where they're coming from. They're not knocking the guy; they're simply trying to gauge his monetary value, and instead of Manning, Brees and Brady, they're saying Flacco's next contract should be measured against guys like, say, Matt Schaub or Philip Rivers.

Rivers in 2009 signed a seven-year deal worth $97.25 million, with $38.5 million in guarantees. Schaub this year signed a five-year contract worth $66.1 million, with $29.15 million in guaranteed money, and Flacco can use that as a ground floor. Flacco is younger than Schaub. He's more reliable than Schaub, has a better winning percentage and is a slam-dunk choice in the playoffs where he's 7-4, including 5-4 on the road.

So you start from there and go ... where?

"If I were doing the deal," said a high-profile agent, "I'd be looking at a five-year contract in the neighborhood of $75 million, with $40 to $45 million in guarantees."

"And I'd consider that exactly right," countered an NFL general manager when I ran that figure by him. "To me, that's where this deal is. For all the leverage that's talked about, he's looking at a market that doesn't exist. He's not going to see the open market, and that might not be what Joe Linta wants to hear, but that's the reality he's facing.

"If you don't believe ($75 million) is fair, then you play under the franchise tag for the next two years and make $30 (million) to $32 million. Then, at that point, you have an opportunity to make, say, $23 (million) to $24 million a season.

"There's no harm in being franchised. In fact, that might be the road I'd take since guys like (Aaron) Rodgers and (Matt) Ryan and, you would imagine, (Matt) Stafford are in line for new deals. If you don't like what the Ravens are offering, just wait. What's your risk? You still make $14 (million) to $15 million a year."

The 2013 non-exclusive franchise tag for quarterbacks is expected to be approximately $14.6 million, a substantial increase over Flacco's base salary of $6.76 million this year. But if Linta is talking "top-five quarterback" -- and he mentioned it again this week -- he's looking for something more in line with Manning, Brees and Brady.

And good luck there.

"If I were Joe Linta," said one agent, "the first thing I would approach is my client's happiness because happiness is the goal here. Money is one component of happiness, so you're not going to do a deal until you determine what the dollar variable is. If it's 100 percent, if you don't care about the city of Baltimore ... or the quality of ownership ... or the culture around you ... then fine. It's go all out to get what you can.

"But if you like what's around you, and you like to be there long-term ... you think there's good management and there's a good culture ... then there are other consequences if you go all out to get what you can."

The most likely one? That Baltimore doesn't wind up doing a multiyear deal with Flacco until after it first protects him as its franchise player for 2013.

Look, the Ravens aren't stupid. They're not going to lose a quarterback who not only stabilized the most important position on the field but has a remarkable record of achievement, including the playoffs where he's the first quarterback ever to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons.

But they're not going to break the bank for him, either -- especially when he's not the foundation of the franchise. Before this season the Ravens made Flacco a multiyear offer they considered reasonable -- with people close to the organization telling me it was in line with that five-year, $75 million idea.

But there was no settlement, and Flacco played the season without a new deal. Now, his position looks better than it did then. He outplayed Tom Brady in last year's AFC championship game. He outplayed Luck two weeks ago. He outplayed Manning last weekend.

"Look," said one GM, "there's no need to negotiate this in the media. The guy's a good player, and a lot of clubs would love to have him. Does that make him elite? No. But it does complicate what they want. You're trying to find a market you can predict at a certain point when there isn't one. That's hard for the team, and it's hard for the player."


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