FORGIVE JOE FLACCO IF HE CAME OFF A LITTLE CRAZY ON A RADIO BROADCAST LAST APRIL. HE WAS MERELY TRYING TO OFFER AN OPINION ON a subject he figured wouldn't get him into any trouble—himself. The Ravens' 6' 6", 245-pound strong-armed quarterback was asked on Baltimore's WNST whether he considered himself "one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL," and before you could say hut, he snapped back, "I don't think I'm top five. I think I'm the best. I don't think I'd be very successful at my job if I didn't feel that way. I mean, come on! That's not really too tough a question."
The response around the NFL and the sporting press was predictably incredulous: Who was he to talk? This, after all, was the same Joe Flacco who starred at Division I-AA Delaware only because he couldn't win the starting job at Pitt; who had come up short in each of four postseason opportunities to lead Baltimore to the Super Bowl; and who had thrown eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine career playoff games. Nowhere was the collective skepticism better reflected than on Twitter. The Faux John Madden (@FauxJohnMadden), in reference to a failed 32-yard field goal attempt with 15 seconds left in last year's 23--20 AFC title game loss to the Patriots, called the then-27-year-old Flacco's boast "the biggest miss by a Raven since Billy Cundiff."
It was a funny line, but it actually bolstered Flacco's case for himself. Remember, it was he who had coolly led the Ravens down the field, completing 5 of 9 passes for 65 yards in the last 1:44 to put Cundiff in position for the ill-fated attempt. And it was Flacco who had outclassed the Patriots' Tom Brady on his home field in that game, throwing two touchdowns and an interception to the New England quarterback's zero passing TDs and two picks. Proving that his performance in that game was no fluke, this year Flacco went throw for throw against maybe the toughest quarterback gantlet in playoff history—a murderer's row that featured the 2012 No. 1 draft pick (the Colts' Andrew Luck), two future first-ballot Hall of Famers (the Broncos' Peyton Manning and Brady) and the player who embodies Football 3.0 (the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick). Despite playing only one of those games at home, Flacco emerged, true to his word, as the best of five.
Now "Super Bowl champion" precedes Flacco's name just as it does for men like Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning—who himself famously spoke out on a radio show, sending ripples through the league when he called himself an "elite quarterback" six months before backing it up with his second Super Bowl win. What better time to ask a question that wasn't asked during Flacco's brief stint as shock jock: Why can't Joe Flacco be taken seriously?
OF COURSE, FLACCO HAS NEVER TAKEN HIMSELF that seriously. He grew up in Audubon, N.J., the oldest of six kids and became taller "than anyone we know in our family," says his father, Steve, who is seven inches shorter and a former University of Pennsylvania tailback. "We must've had a big milkman or something."
Joe has always moved to his own snap count and taken particular delight in drawing the world offsides. At age seven a hoops-mad Flacco made it known to his Italian-American family that he intended to grow up black and bald like Michael Jordan, whose poster hung alongside Muhammad Ali's on his bedroom wall.
Joe didn't start to take football seriously until he got to Audubon High, and even then he was still earning letters in baseball and basketball on the side. He signed to play at Pitt in 2003 after throwing for 5,137 career yards, but he barely made it onto the gridiron for the Panthers. Flacco took a redshirt as a freshman, and the next season he completed one pass in four attempts during three mop-up-duty appearances.
At season's end Flacco put in for a transfer. He assumed Pittsburgh wouldn't miss him given the team's recent coaching change, from the offensive-minded Walt Harris to defensive guru Dave Wannstedt. But the Panthers were desperate to keep Flacco as an insurance policy for starter Tyler Palko, and so the university did not release him from his scholarship. That required Flacco to sit out a year of college ball and made things awkward for Delaware coach K.C. Keeler when Flacco showed up on his doorstep in the spring of 2005; Flacco practiced and worked out with the Blue Hens but was ineligible to appear in games.
"I didn't let it bother me," says Flacco, who was an accounting major. "I looked at it as time to get used to being in Delaware. I was just looking forward to the next year and being able to play." He didn't disappoint in his debut season, throwing for 2,783 yards and 18 touchdowns. Then in 2007 he threw for 4,263 yards and 23 touchdowns—highlighted by a 434-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 59--52 victory over Navy—and led the Blue Hens to a I-AA title game appearance, putting himself on the NFL's radar. "The thing that makes Joe special is the ice water in his veins," Keeler says. "It doesn't matter if he's playing in front of 50 people or 50,000. He plays the same way."