NEW ORLEANS - He's been offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens for only a matter of weeks, but quarterbacks are what Jim Caldwell knows best.
And he knew before the 2008 NFL Draft that Joe Flacco was going to be a great NFL quarterback. Elite, even.
"We had Peyton Manning, and we knew Joe Flacco would be drafted earlier than we could take him," Caldwell recalled of his initial review of Flacco out of the University of Delaware. "So I didn't watch every snap he took in college. But I didn't have to. A lot stood out about his as (a blue-chip) prospect. I wanted to get to know him, because you just never know - and I'm glad I did. He was tough as nails. He loved the position of quarterback and he loved football. Has a very, very good arm. And a detailed understanding of offense and the game."
The Ravens passed on a chance to move up to No. 1 in that draft, owner Steve Biscotti said Wednesday, because the price was too steep. That pick would've been spent on Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. He was drafted third overall by the Atlanta Falcons when the Miami Dolphins opted for Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long and St. Louis took defensive end Chris Long at No. 2.
General manager Ozzie Newsome told Biscotti he could move back in the draft and get the "second-best quarterback with as much upside" as Ryan. The Ravens stood pat with the No. 18 overall selection, and Flacco has raised his game over the course of five NFL season to be viewed on the same level as many of the NFL's top quarterbacks. Now he wants to be paid like one.
Contract discussions fizzled last offseason, but Flacco hasn't magnified the issue.
"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. "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 offseason, 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."
Winning Sunday won't hurt his chances to land a lucrative multi-year deal. The top quarterback contracts in the NFL average more than $17 million annually. Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady all are in that bracket, and Ryan could be as soon as next month. Eli Manning's five-year deal averages $16.25 million. When conversation centers on "elite" quarterbacks, Flacco's name isn't the first to come up. The challenge for the Ravens is satisfying Flacco without overtaxing their salary cap. Newsome said he's confident a deal can get done and Biscotti on Thursday said Flacco isn't going anywhere.
"Joe's going to be here," Biscotti said. "Trust in Ozzie."
He points to Manning's contract timeline with the Colts. Manning was twice given the franchise tag before he agreed to a five-year, $90 million contract on July 31, 2011. Manning was released eight months later and landed a five-year, $97 million deal with the Denver Broncos. Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal - including a record $60 million guaranteed -- before the start of the 2012 season.
"It really hasn't been a challenge ... that's a credit to Joe," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. "He doesn't worry about that stuff. That's a credit to him. He feels like it's going to work out. You do your talking on the field. ... There were some very generous offers that went back and forth."
Flacco has done his talking in the playoffs. The perfectly placed bomb to Jacoby Jones in the wild win at Denver, the 21 straight points to beat New England. His play doesn't yet overshadow a slew of defensive stars, but it's more of a dead heat than many might've envisioned in years past.
"I'm not taking anything away from our defense, but we've been lighting it up offensively for the last couple of weeks," said running back Ray Rice. "Joe Flacco has really put that on us. Joe's our quarterback. We plan on going out there every week and scoring points, but just the way Joe's been doing it for us and leading us, I don't think it's a surprise we're in the playoffs every year."
It's not a surprise to Caldwell, who said Flacco is an unmatched offensive teacher in meeting rooms that can usually be contentious because of competition and the unspoken propriety rights that starters who put in the work, and get the reps, aren't asked to share the spectrum of their knowledge with their backups. That's not the case with the Ravens, where Flacco and backup Tyrod Taylor push each other to be as sharply focused for the upcoming game as possible.
Flacco has taken to Caldwell's first stint as a primary play-caller because their personalities mesh. Each speaks with actions, showing little outward emotion, but peers speak glowingly of their inner drive.
"It's so important and gets lost -- Joe has a real good understanding of who he is," Caldwell said. "Both of us are pretty direct. He approaches his work like I do and he understands that his opinion matters. I'm open. I'm going to listen. And that benefits not just us, but the offense as a whole."
Flacco has a 114.8 passer rating -- eight touchdowns, zero interceptions -- in three postseason wins this season and an 8-4 career record in the playoffs. Since he became a starter as a rookie, the Ravens haven't missed the postseason.
"There are ups and downs in this game -- but not with Joe," said center Matt Birk. "He never gets too high, or too low. He's a calming influence. Our guys respond to that."
Statistics shouldn't be the basis for any player evaluation, at least not a primary factor, Caldwell believes. In Flacco's case, he is building what might Sunday look like an undisputable argument that he should be one of the highest-paid players in the NFL.
"That guy knows how to win games, he knows how to win," Caldwell said. "That's the important fact that I think a lot of times people miss from time to time. That should be the focal point. He's won more games on the road and in the playoffs than any other (active) quarterback. He's won more games than any one in our business for the first five years (of a career). Anytime you start saying that he's in a top two or three category in this league, he's doing something right."