OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- There was a period of time this offseason when Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, was the highest paid player in the history of the National Football League. His average of $20.1 million per season would soon be eclipsed by Aaron Rodgers, and then later Matt Ryan, but I can tell you, unequivocally, that the money has not changed him one bit.
Heck, he's barely even spent any of it.
Joe Flacco remains in every way -- save for his ability to throw a football and operate an NFL offense -- the most Average Joe in the league. This will never change. After five years of renting in the Baltimore area -- first an apartment he shared with his brother and then the past two years a house with his wife -- Flacco purchased a home in this area this offseason. And, well, that's it.
No cars. No boats. No bling. (Not for him, of course, because jewelry would never be an option with this down-to-earth dude; but not even for his wife).
If anything, Flacco, 28, seems to have managed to lower his profile following his shining performance in leading the Ravens to a 34-31 victory over the 49ers before a global audience of some 160 million people (that's roughly 320 million eyeballs) watching in over 230 countries. Other quarterbacks have eclipsed his record contract, and other quarterbacks want, need or fall prey to the attention that comes with their craft in terms of sponsorships and endorsements, leaving Flacco comfortably returned to relative obscurity while the NFL gossip pages churn about Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez, and networks flock to chronicle Robert Griffin III (still injured), Colin Kaepernick or even EJ Manuel at training camps.
This disappearing act may be Flacco's greatest accomplishment of all, for he has no interest in being famous and while his bank account would certainly speak to a rarified generational wealth, nothing about Flacco's lifestyle has changed. And all of this is tremendous news for Ravens fans, as their quarterback remains solely focused on football, his family and his blue-collar Jersey roots -- the very things that led him from battling for a starting job at Pittsburgh to transferring to Delaware to eventual NFL stardom.
"What do I really need?" Flacco said, laughing at his lack of splurges as much as I was. “Everything I need I already had, and everything I want, if I really want it, I can go get it. But there's nothing I really want. I don't need a $110,000 car or anything like that.
"I mean, I like that four-door Porsche. I like to say I'm going to go buy that. But do I really need it? A year ago I said, 'If I ever sign a big deal I'm going to get that Porsche.' ... but I didn't. That kind of stuff happens -- I think about buying that stuff sometimes. But in the end, what am I going to do with that?”
Indeed, as someone who was photographed pulling up at a McDonald's drive-thru along 1-95 in his truck when heading back to his native New Jersey after signing his record contract in March, Flacco wouldn't feel right in Porsche (his hometown, Audubon, N.J., is just a few hours from Baltimore). Works better in theory than execution.
He'd rather be at a family game night eating pizza (as he was when his contract was finalized), than at the VIP table of some club or fancy restaurant. He spent this summer in the same spots along the Jersey Shore he's always visited. No elaborate vacations. (He's considering buying a place down the shore, but he's in no rush -- "I want to make sure I get a good deal," the ever-pragmatic passer said).
This is a man, by the way, who managed to slide without purchasing something bedazzled for the misses even after the birth of their first child, Stephen, in June, because, well, he did already come up with something nice for their first anniversary earlier that offseason. (Dana Flacco is expecting their second child next month).
"Yeah, last year for the first anniversary she kind of made me step up to the plate on that one,” said Flacco, who wants to have "a lot" of kids. "But I told her when we're all done having kids I'll get her something really big. I have to be honest with her, so like every kid I'm not getting something ridiculous."
Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, meantime, had a cell phone that wouldn't stop ringing and an email inbox overloaded with pitches and inquiries for his suddenly hot client, post Super Bowl. Flacco, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it. He did commit a few days in May to shoot a commercial for Fox that aired during baseball's All-Star Game, and that was pretty much it. The glitz and the cameras and all of that just do nothing for him.
Even locally here in Baltimore, guys like Haloti Ngata, a defensive tackle for goodness sakes, have a much larger endorsement presence than the only quality quarterback in Baltimore Ravens' history (and, honestly, the greatest quarterback this city has seen since Johnny U was in his prime, with the possible exception of Bert Jones' MVP season way back in 1977).
"I get those calls and emails all the time, all the time,” Linta said. “And at this point I don't even call Joe about most of it. I pretty much know the answer by now. Money isn't an issue for him, and his privacy and time are what he values. It's just not worth it to him.”
It's pretty simple for Flacco: In the few weeks between the end of OTAs and the start of camp, would he rather be flying to LA to shoot a national commercial, or at the shore with his wife and baby and parents and the buddies who have shared every high and low of his journey since grade school?
"It's funny, you think you have all the time to do all this stuff,” Flacco said, “and then all of a sudden the offseason is over and we're back here playing football and what were you going to do with all of that stuff, anyway?”
So the Super Bowl MVP didn't go to his head, and, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed no longer his teammates, he won't be trying to mimic an outsized brand of leadership or do anything before, during, or after games that will get noticed by the cameras. He will, however, remain a vital locker room resource decidedly away from the media and he will continue to make a point to work with young receivers (the Ravens have no shortage of those, with Jacoby Jones the only true “veteran” in the bunch), and he certainly seems to have a greater voice in this offense now with Jim Caldwell the offensive coordinator than he did when Cam Cameron had the position, and friction was common. (More good news for Ravens' fans.)
Flacco, the 18th overall pick in 2008, won't ever be Brett Favre in the huddle. He won't conform to fit an outside notion of how a quarterback should act or what a quarterback should say. If it doesn't feel natural to him, it won't fly.
"I may never be looked at as a guy that I'm what some people want their leader to be,” Flacco said, coolly, never getting worked up, “but that's not me. I'm really a guy that I believe a lot of the best leaders that we have are really guys that don't want that spotlight, but they are the best at what they do ...
"I don't like all the bullshit part of it, and what people think it is. So I don't do that stuff. So I'm always going to be the guy I am, and lead the way I think is necessary, and just be real, and be honest and make sure everybody knows that when I say something they can believe it, and trust it, and do it.
"And if there's a problem in the locker room, they can come to me and I'm not going to be afraid to take it to somebody. If there's an issue, I'll speak up, and hey, right or wrong, I will take it to somebody. I'm that guy. You can come to me, and I'll get your point across to somebody whether it's right or wrong.”
Coach John Harbaugh said he's seen that side of Flacco manifest itself more in recent years, as a natural process through the quarterback's growth and the realities of the ever-changing NFL locker room.
"Probably moreso now because we've had so many guys here who have done that before,” Harbaugh said. "I mean Ray [Lewis] and Ed [Reed] and Anquan [Boldin] and [Derrick] Mason at one time. So we've had that, and Joe has always been willing to do that and he's always done it, but now it's to another level because he is that senior guy now.”
Flacco's presence and input will be even more necessary now, with tight end Dennis Pitta lost for the season early in camp to a freak hip injury. Pitta, one of Flacco's closest friends was in line to be the focal point of the passing game in a two-tight end set (with Boldin dealt away for a late-round pick), which could have been quite lucrative for Pitta in this the final year of his rookie contract.
“He was going to have a big year,” Flacco said.
Watching him go down hurt Flacco more personally than professionally (Pitta was a strong sounding board and supporter of Flacco a year ago when he was going through protracted contractual machinations with the Ravens). Flacco spent time with his buddy shortly after surgery, hanging out at his house, finding solace in the fact that Pitta was staying fairly upbeat and handling the situation better than could be expected.
"We lost a really good player, but we can't focus on that too long,” Flacco said. “You say, 'Shoot, man that's one of our good guys,' but you move on and you have to find somebody to step up and keep going. This kind of stuff happens, and we've dealt with it before in one way or the other. And yeah, it'll hurt. He's one of the best guys we have to put out there.”
Flacco figures now Caldwell will rely on more three-receiver sets than the two-tight end offense they focused on so much during OTAs (Ed Dickson, who has been more of a blocker but can get downfield, is nursing a hamstring tear).
“It's rare to get two tight ends who can run routes the way those two can,” Flacco said. “If we can get someone who can do it, we'll be happy, but I doubt we can get somebody who can do it quite as good as Dennis can.”
Flacco is also intrigued by the idea of elusive running back Ray Rice in the slot, and I got the feeling that's an option he might politic Caldwell for as the season approaches.
“He's just so receptive,” Flacco said of Caldwell. "The communication is great, and it's because he listens to me and I listen to him, and it's cool to work that way.”
Even without Boldin and Pitta, Flacco is brimming with confidence about the young skill players on this roster, and the ability of this offense to fulfill its promise on a consistent basis. No contract will curtail his drive to improve, or suppress his will to speak his mind. Some scoffed when he answered a question, honestly, a few years back that he believed he could be the best quarterback in the league, and he isn't shy about what he thinks the 2013 Baltimore Ravens could accomplish.
"I feel so good about where we're going,” Flacco said. “I think our defense has the chance to be dominant -- if you look at our defense on paper, I don't know how you don't think they're better -- and our offense is just becoming more and more dominant, and we're still young. So it's exciting to see where we can go.”
As for Flacco, he'll be pretty much in the same spots he's always been. But he might want to sneak in an extra trip or two to the jewelry store along the way.