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THE QUARTERBACK charged with reviving the Ravens' offense spent his first days as a rookie sleeping on an air mattress. Joe Flacco still doesn't have his own ride—he's driving a loaner BMW. And what about the morning of Flacco's regular-season debut, when he bummed a lift to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium from his parents? "I can just hear the conversation," says K.C. Keeler, Flacco's college coach at Delaware. "'Joe, give your mom a kiss before you go to work.'"
If much about the 23-year-old Flacco is a little green, his game on the field is all grown up, and the Ravens may finally have a franchise quarterback to go with their all-world defense. In Baltimore's 27--9 throttling of Miami at Dolphins Stadium on Sunday—a game highlighted by the defense's five takeaways, including safety Ed Reed's two interceptions—Flacco coolly directed the offense, playing mistake-free football and scoring the final touchdown on a five-yard quarterback draw. By the end of wild-card weekend he and the Ravens were pointing confidently toward Nashville for an AFC divisional playoff against the top-seeded Titans. And Flacco was one up on fellow first-year quarterback Matt Ryan of Atlanta, the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I told [ Ravens coach] John Harbaugh and [coordinator] Cam Cameron, if Joe was at USC, you'd be arguing with me why he's not the first overall pick," Keeler says. "Ice water in his veins. Nothing bothers him. To him, he was just wearing a blue uniform last year and he's wearing a purple uniform this year."
Little else seems to have changed for Flacco, the 18th pick of the 2008 draft, since he made the leap from Delaware to NFL starter in the preseason. He says he hasn't been nervous since his first football game in the seventh grade, and that isn't just a young player whistling in the dark. Even through early mistakes this year—he threw one TD pass and seven interceptions during the Ravens' 2--3 start—Flacco maintained a resolve that impressed his teammates. "I'm surprised about the poise he's kept through the wins and losses," says wideout Derrick Mason, who caught a perfectly thrown 31-yard sideline pass from Flacco late in the second quarter to set up a Matt Stover field goal. "But I'm not surprised at how he's playing because he's shown it the whole season. To watch Joe view the whole field, and get to his third checkdown after he's looked at everybody else, it's amazing. He understands the whole concept of the offense now."
Adds linebacker Ray Lewis, "If you watch the kid, he has a calm, humble spirit about him. When he steps on the field, good or bad, Joe is always Joe."
If anything could have shaken Flacco's confidence, a road playoff game seemed a good bet. Instead, he stood tall in the pocket, same as always. The task will grow more difficult against the Titans, whose mammoth front four rarely lets quarterbacks breathe. Tennessee beat the Ravens 13--10 on Oct. 5, but Flacco is a better player now. "In the huddle [against Miami] I didn't see one different expression on his face than I did during the season," said veteran tight end Todd Heap.
Said Flacco, "Besides the great environment, it was just another football game."
When it was over, Flacco remained in uniform for several minutes. At 6'6", he towered over most of his teammates, veterans who'd seen so many quarterbacks—Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake—pass through the locker room as if through a turnstile. Baltimore's defense has been such a dominant force over the years, both on the field and in the organization, that few Ravens QBs have had the moxie to match it.
Flacco does. Through a rookie season and a playoff win, he has proved that background doesn't necessarily matter in the league's toughest job if you've got confidence to go along with the physical tools. "These guys aren't a group that's just going to give [respect] to you," Flacco says of his teammates. "You have to earn it."
That he's doing, with every baby step and every big-armed throw.