OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The easiest thing would have been to take the money. Sign the contract, start counting the millions. Pop open some champagne.
But Joe Flacco had a number in mind and the Ravens knew exactly what it was. If it wasn't met, well, there really wasn't much else to say. And while the sides came awfully close to finalizing a deal before the season, the Ravens refused to budge up a few million and Flacco refused to waver. So, instead of the Ravens announcing a fat, new long-term contract with the franchise quarterback back in August, the sides effectively broke off discussions until the offseason.
It was a gamble for Flacco, without a doubt. In a sport where careers can be shattered in an instant and where injuries are inevitable, many players will grab whatever is on the table before the real games begin and the risks intensify. But then again, Flacco has never lacked confidence. He's a natural born gunslinger who would put the ball in the air 70 times a game if you let him -- and, well, once his agent left the negotiating table, Flacco, who just turned 28, never looked back.
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Ultimately, gambling on himself, on his own ability, turned out to be the smartest business decision Flacco could have made, with the Ravens one win from a Super Bowl title and Flacco perhaps on the cusp of becoming one of the highest paid players in the history of the game.
"Joe is a very confident guy, and he had a certain idea about the contract and his value," said Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, who refused to discuss the specifics of any negotiations with the Ravens, "and he was very willing to gamble on himself if that wasn't the way things worked out. And it was a decision that I fully supported at the time and now. Joe believes he is one of the best players in the game, and I happen to think so as well. And if you do the work and watch the film, you can see it. It's all there."
The only question now is just how high does Flacco's number go now? Especially if he wins a Super Bowl in only his fifth NFL season -- having won at least one postseason game every year in the NFL; having been to three AFC Championship Games; already among the all-time leaders in road playoff victories -- does Joe Flacco become a $20-million-a-year man? Wouldn't surprise me if he did, or came damn close.
Some players get hung up on the number of years on a contract. Some are all about the guaranteed money. Others have a certain feeling about what they annual average compensation should be. With Flacco, you get the sense that APY is what moves his needle, where he derives a sense of fiscal worth, and the financial scale on which superstar quarterbacks are measured. Peyton Manning, aging, coming off all kinds of neck surgeries, with a history of playoff failures, is making $20 million a year (a hair more than Tom Brady and less than the deal Drew Brees signed with the Saints before the 2012 season).
You can make the case that Flacco, in the regular season, is not in their domain. But when you factor in an overall lack of elite weapons through most of his career, the difficulty of the defenses in his division, his youth, his durability (he's never missed a snap because of injury), and his playoff successes, a case could be made. Maybe he doesn't get the $60 million guaranteed that Brees reeled in, but while some would have said Flacco might be a $14-million-a-year guy last February, one cannot deny that his play the last five weeks, with Baltimore's season on the line, has only enhanced his considerable leverage in this situation. Win or lose this Sunday against the 49ers, the Ravens' first matter of business will be slapping the franchise tag on Flacco, the 18th overall pick in 2008, when that period begins in mid-February. That buys them until the summer to hammer out a long-term deal. However, getting something done before the league year begins (March 13) would be most beneficial to the cap-constrained Ravens, because carrying Flacco at $14.6 million against the cap (the quarterback franchise number) is cumbersome.
Bottom line: Flacco isn't going anywhere. The Ravens would franchise him again in 2014 if need be, club sources said, although it's something they'd love to avoid. Owner Steve Biscotti -- having lived through the Elvis Grbac and Tony Banks and Kyle Boller experiments, to name a few -- isn't letting a mobile, 6-foot-6 passer entering his prime with a bazooka for an arm walk away soon.
That doesn't mean the contract will come easy. Grizzled general manager Ozzie Newsome, who can be curt in the media about such topics, was downright bristling at the inevitable Flacco contract question that came midway through his press conference at the Ravens' team facility on Friday. His eyes shot daggers at the masses when he muttered this terse response: "I'm not discussing that. I'm not discussing that. I'm not discussing that. You know what? I've gone on record -- Joe and I have a very good understanding about his contract and where we are. End of story."
Linta said, "Joe truly could not care less about the contract. It's not anything we've talked about for more than a minute here or there. It hasn't been a focus for us at all, and it's a non-story until after the Super Bowl. Then we'll see where it goes."
It's not a topic Flacco is eager to discuss, though his bold decision in the preseason generated no shortage of locker-room chatter, not that it surprised anyone. Flacco has never been shy about honestly expressing where he believes he ranks in the pantheon of current quarterbacks, never letting the fact he came from tiny Delaware inhibit his professional aspirations.
"Joe is a very confident player," said tight end Dennis Pitta, probably Flacco's closest friend on the team. "And he was pretty certain that he was going to have a great year and that all of that would get taken care of eventually. He knew he would play well."
Flacco never flinched. I spent time around him just after the contract talks broke down in the preseason, and he gave off the air of someone nonplussed by it all.
"It'll all work out," he said at the time. "That's what I have an agent for. I know this team can pick up where we left off [losing a heartbreaker at New England in the AFC Championship Game], and if we're winning football games that's all you can do."
It certainly was a steady ascent this season. After a torrid start, the Ravens lost their balance on offense, the pass protection was brutal, the offensive vision was questioned and eventually coordinator Cam Cameron was fired. Flacco's relationship with Cameron never was cozy and turned for the worse once quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn was let go in 2011, giving Cameron full control over the quarterbacks and the offense.
Cameron didn't cede control to Flacco easily, team sources have said, and it always was a struggle as to how much reign Flacco would have on the field. Coincidence or not, Flacco has played his best football ever, on the biggest stage possible since Jim Caldwell was promoted to replace Cameron prior to the Week 15 game against Denver.
It was a tough week, injuries marred Baltimore's lineup and Caldwell was calling plays for the first time that game. Flacco's horrible pick six, with his team on the verge of a key touchdown late in the first half, cemented the Ravens' doom that day ... but Flacco has not thrown an interception since.
The pass protection has been top notch since Bryant McKinnie was put back at left tackle and the offense line was reshuffled. Caldwell has given Flacco more freedom, they are taking more deep shots in non-conventional down and distance, they are using more roll-outs and a moving pocket, and Flacco is playing fearless, keeping his eyes on his receivers all the way downfield.
"Nothing really changed," Flacco said bluntly in reply to why he has been so good since the loss to Denver. "And I wouldn't say it was because of Jim either."
Flacco, who tied his career low with 10 interceptions this season, has a sparkling 115 QB rating in the playoffs, with eight touchdowns and no picks, and has vastly outplayed Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. He has eight passes of 25 yards or more -- including a timeless heave to Jacoby Jones in desperation time to send the divisional playoff game at Denver into overtime, and he is averaging a gaudy 17 yards per completion.
"To string it together, back-to-back-to-back-to-back in the most critical time of the year is the great thing about it," said John Harbaugh, who arrived in Baltimore a few months before Flacco. "I really believe that we saw that coming as a football staff and as an organization and as players. That's just the way he's been practicing. He's come a long way, but he's come the way that you would expect any quarterback to develop." Receiver Torrey Smith said: "This just shows everybody out there what he can do. It's not a surprise to us. It was up to us to protect him and make plays for him."
It's sweet vindication for Flacco, who has endured large amounts of criticism from the media and fans around the country despite all he has accomplished. He's had his share of moments, made his share of mistakes, done the things young quarterbacks do. His self-confidence may rub some the wrong way, but keep in mind he doesn't go around making boasts, he just answers questions honestly.
He doesn't look the part to some. Isn't fiery enough for others. Not enough of a vocal leader, some opine. But if nothing else, he is certainly a winner.
"Joe's been a great quarterback for a long time," Pitta said, "and for whatever reason there been a lot of unfair criticism. But this [Super Bowl run] has allowed everyone to see what he is capable of, and he's been truly able to showcase the kind quarterback he really is. ... We wouldn't want any other guy leading our football team in this game."
Flacco, true to form, isn't exerting much mental energy ascertaining why some love to hate him, or whether his January will finally silence his detractors. Just like his approach to his contract, he's plenty comfortable with how he will continue to perform and how good he can ultimately be, and he's going to be an incredibly wealthy young man soon enough. That gamble already has paid. "I really don't care," Flacco said in response to his critics. "There are guys out there who have to make a living hating on somebody, and if that's going to be us, if that's going to be me, then I plan on being here for a while. And if you want to continue to do it, I'll be here."