OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Quarterback Joe Flacco should have either been completing his college course load or working out with his fellow Baltimore Ravens this week. Instead, the first-round pick did neither, sitting at home in Cherry Hill, N.J., because of an agreement between the NFL and the NCAA.
Flacco, three courses short of getting his accounting degree from the University of Delaware, missed the Ravens' OTA (organized team activity) Wednesday because he was allowed to work out only once until his school completed classes since he had not graduated. Flacco, who left school to prepare for the NFL draft, attended Baltimore's mandatory mini-camp May 9-11 and is not permitted to rejoin the team until after Friday, Delaware's final day of classes.
In the interim, the Ravens have faxed Flacco copies of the plays they are installing in practice and have had assistant coach Hue Jackson talk to him an hour or so on the phone.
"It helps you learn a little bit, I guess. But nothing takes the place of getting live reps or watching other guys take reps," said Flacco, who was the No.18 overall pick. "It's all about learning the speed of the game.
"Right now, becoming an NFL quarterback is more important and I want to put everything into that … I'm going to get my degree and I didn't want to go to school to get some cop-out degree. I wanted something real that meant something. But right now is when I want to pursue a career in football."
Flacco's grasp of the offense is so important that the Ravens rescheduled their rookie camp from May to June 16-18. That, however, is not enough to please new head coach John Harbaugh.
"It's an out-dated rule that we really need to evaluate," Harbaugh said. "Look, I want every guy to get his college degree. But my father coached at the college level for a long time and he always said, 'If a guy wants to get his degree, he's going to do it.'"
Though Harbaugh's frustration is understandable, the issue is not so cut and dry.
Philosophically, the desire to pursue a career in the NFL – regardless of how difficult that is – has caused many players to leave school early before getting their degree. As that became more prevalent, college coaches became upset with the appearance that their programs were merely feeder programs for the NFL and that the league didn't care if players got degrees.
"I can see what the colleges are saying, but it's a difficult situation if you're a player trying to make it because there's so much work you have to do before the draft," Baltimore tight end and former first-round pick Todd Heap said. "I got away from everything – school, my family, everybody – and just trained to make sure I was drafted as high as possible. I was working out twice a day, traveling, it was hectic.
"Now, after you've done all that work to get ready, for the colleges to say you shouldn't be around the team for a few weeks when you should be trying to give yourself the best chance to make it, it just doesn't make a lot of sense."
Yet, the overall concept of choosing football over school runs counter to the advice most people would give a young person.
"You want me to tell a young man to drop out of school to pursue a football career when there's a about a 10 percent chance of really making it?" Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said, rhetorically. For Newsome, whose office is decorated with memorabilia from his days at the University of Alabama playing under coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, getting his degree was a crucial moment in his life. It was so important that he asked former Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano for permission to miss an offseason camp to walkthrough at graduation.
That may explain some of the emotion you can sense in Newsome's voice when he says, "I'm not going to do that and I'm not going to ask the colleges to change their rules just to adjust to our offseason camps."
"They both have done fine for us," Newsome said. But Newsome also didn't argue that there's a significant difference between what a quarterback needs to learn compared to every other position in football.
Still, what Newsome and other NFL executives don't want to repeat is the time during the 1980s when college coaches barred NFL scouts and coaches from attending practices and games and from receiving videotape of players. The ban came after college coaches felt the NFL was telling players to leave school once football season was over, prompting the one-workout agreement for non-graduating seniors that was implemented in 1993.
"We need to have access to the colleges," Newsome said. "There's vital information we need to get from those campuses. We want to have a good relationship with the college coaches … you already see how much it costs us when we make mistakes on players in the draft. How much more do you think it's going to cost us if we can't get that information?"
The consequence for the colleges, in addition to losing players early to the NFL, is the possible reduction of scholarships because of low graduation rates and ineligible players departing the program.
This year, Washington State lost eight scholarships because of its low ranking in what is know as Academic Progression Rates (APR).
"APR is not the reason we formed the agreement between the NFL and the college coaches, but it is an important factor now," said Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a former head coach at Baylor. "You're now talking about a situation where coaches are really getting hurt if they don't keep their kids in school as much as possible."
Still, in the case of someone like Flacco, the rule seems impractical. In particular, because Flacco is a quarterback, there is so much to learn. While three weeks of missed practice may not seem like much, learning the hundreds of plays that NFL teams run and then learning the defensive schemes run against those plays is a difficult task.
Heck, just learning special teams plays can be hard.
"I'm as big an advocate of education and guys getting their degrees as you will find, but it's not practical and it's not fair," Baltimore linebacker and Pro Bowl special teams player Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "But the fact that I was from UCLA, a school that ended late, really hurt me my first year. I didn't make it (with the Atlanta Falcons in 1999) because by the time I got back, they didn't have time to go over everything they had talked about in the offseason camps.
"They don't go backwards in the NFL. It's always moving forward. If you don't know it and you can't catch up, they don't care. They'll leave you behind. I know it's probably going to be a little different with (Flacco) because he's a first-round pick and all, but there's still a lot of stuff they're not going to have time to teach him."
- Joe Flacco