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Flacco on verge of 'great QB' status

 
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NEW ORLEANS

For now, Joe Flacco can still get away with this: In the middle of a Super Bowl week during which he is a vital Baltimore Ravens protagonist, the quarterback strolled out of his team hotel at dusk alone, clad in jeans and a T-shirt as he cut through a parking lot toward downtown New Orleans. He went almost completely unnoticed. Flacco’s hands were stuffed in his pockets on the brisk evening as he nodded to an onlooker who recognized him.

“He just goes out like this every evening,” a Hilton Riverside hotel security guard said. “The man says he just wants to get outside, walk around and get away from all of this. Can’t blame him.”

Nothing much seems to bother Flacco these days. He’s unflappable in the face of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII challenge against polar opposite Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ dynamic second-year, read-option-run quarterback luminary.

Flacco is really not concerned that the Ravens have yet to deliver a new contract to replace his rookie deal, which expires at the end of this season. What is a Joe Flacco worth? His agent, Joe Linta, has argued his client — the only QB to win a playoff game in each of his first five NFL seasons — deserves to be considered among the top-five players at his position in this regard.

Imagine if Flacco, madly inconsistent in the regular season but nails in the postseason, wins on Sunday. We could see a contract demand in the lofty neighborhood of Drew Brees (five years, $100 million, $40 million guaranteed).

Then again, the Ravens could just slap a $14.6 million franchise tag on Flacco and be done with it for next season.

“It’s real simple. We didn’t agree on a number, and I didn’t really care to discuss it any further once it got to that point,” Flacco said Thursday during his final media session before kickoff. “Bottom line is I’m not the guy going up into their offices and negotiating with them every day anyways.

“It was really never a concern of mine and never really thought about it. Even in the off-season, when you think about it a little bit, they are really all good thoughts. It’s a good problem to have and to be talking about.”

So while Flacco enjoys his relative anonymity in New Orleans, he is eager for the rest of the NFL to respect him among the elites. So far in these playoffs, he has outlasted Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, knocking off the last two QBs in successive road victories.

Should he walk away with a Lombardi Trophy on Super Bowl Sunday, Flacco would join Brady as the only NFL quarterbacks to win nine games in their first five playoff runs.

If there is debate elsewhere over Flacco’s relative worth as a top NFL quarterback, you won’t find anything but gushing admiration for the man from his coaches and teammates.

Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, the Cam Cameron replacement and head coach to Manning in Indianapolis, Flacco’s former slow-footed, scan-and-read delivery has received a jolt, and the Ravens offense has become more up-tempo.

Caldwell sees Flacco as a brilliant on-field leader who can’t be shaken under pressure.

“He doesn’t get rattled. He has a real good grasp of what’s going on around him,” Caldwell said of Flacco, who is 8-4 in his career during the playoffs. In the three postseason wins this season, Flacco averaged 284.3 yards per game and tossed eight touchdowns with zero interceptions to compile a passer rating of 114.7.

“He’s highly observant, and it doesn’t change from situation to situation,” Caldwell said. “What does change is that he performs well in big games, and I think it’s because of the fact that he doesn’t get so hyped up that it affects his play.”

It’s the same quality that Vic Fangio, the 49ers innovative defensive coordinator, remembers from his time as a Ravens assistant coach during Flacco’s first two seasons.

“I remember his first (off-season training) sessions as a rookie, I said to (coach) John Harbaugh, 'You have your horse to ride for 10 years, at least,'” Fangio said. “I felt he could be a great quarterback in the league, and I still feel that way.

"He's got a big arm. He throws the ball effortlessly. The game isn't too big for him. He's calm. He's confident and he's capable of making all the throws."

Ravens defensive icon Ray Lewis, playing in his final game on Sunday, knows there are Flacco doubters. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unabashed cheerleader for this guy as Lewis.

“I am a little biased when it comes to Joe,” Lewis said. “This guy has been proven since Day One. It’s never been one man that has won or lost the game. It’s always been a team that wins or loses a game.

“So, anytime you want me to talk about Joe Flacco, I am telling you that I am talking about a kid with every skill, every tool physically. This year, he took the next step in maturing as a man and really understanding what a leader has to do.

“That’s why our offense is clicking the way it’s clicking, and that’s why Joe is playing the way Joe is playing.”

And that contract situation? Flacco has a good reason not to sweat that.

“We’ll be able to get that thing done,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said this week. “But one thing we do know — he’ll be playing football for us next year.”

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