What is the price of desperation heaved into the frigid air of a Denver evening? What's the worth of a mistimed leap?
On Friday, the Baltimore Ravens bestowed upon their quarterback, Joe Flacco, what appears to be the most lucrative contract in NFL history, handing him a reported $120 million over six years. It is most likely a contrived title, the padding of extra non-guaranteed money to make the overall deal look bigger than it is.
But regardless of the contract's standing in history, $120 million is an absurdly large sum for a quarterback who has never been to the Pro Bowl or even seen as among the very best at his position.
Yet as good as Flacco was in Super Bowl XLVII, winning the MVP with 287 passing yards and three touchdowns, the money was probably already his. The fact he brought the Ravens to New Orleans at the same time his previous contract was about to expire forced Baltimore's management to give Flacco his $120 million. Even if the 49ers had come back to win the game and there was no parade through the city's streets, Flacco was likely going to get the same deal. By simply getting the Ravens there he had proved his point.
No, the real difference in money – the separation between a great payday and a phenomenal one – came because of luck. It came weeks before in the AFC divisional round against the Broncos with less than a minute remaining and the Ravens all but done. That's when receiver Jacoby Jones got behind Denver's secondary and Flacco heaved that futile 70-yard pass to tie the score and save the season.
If Broncos safety Rahim Moore, who had been beaten on the play but was still in position to defend the pass, had properly timed his leap at the ball, he'd have at least knocked down Flacco's pass. Maybe he would have intercepted it with a better approach. Either way, the Ravens would have been walking slump-shouldered off the field and the talk in February would be about the inconsistency Flacco showed during the year and the uncertainty of how much the team should pay to keep him around.
Perhaps he would have gotten something closer to the $16 million a season the Giants are paying Eli Manning or the $17 million a season Matt Schaub makes in Houston. Maybe he'd have signed for three or four years, but not six years and $120 million.
Flacco has always been hard to figure out. He's never been nearly as bad as his many detractors make him out to be. He's played too well in big games over his career, been to too many playoff games, thrown too many touchdown passes to be as mediocre as many see him. It has become an obsession around football to rank all the top quarterbacks and determine which should carry the title of "elite," whatever that means. In none of these conversations is Flacco ever considered "elite." What he has been is something less interesting but still valuable: a solid leader on a team that is transitioning from one built around defense to structured more for offense.
He confounded by looking great in a big game one week and missing open receivers and throwing interceptions the following Sunday. He has always had a great arm and even as the Ravens added faster receivers like Jones and Torrey Smith to take advantage of that arm strength, he'd still mix too many good weekends with bad ones.
When he heaved the ball toward Jones in the Denver cold, he was only four weeks removed from one of the worst stretches in his career. But because Moore misjudged the ball and the Ravens came back to win, perceptions changed. Suddenly the 331 yards he had against the Broncos and the 282 the week before against Indianapolis in the wild-card round shined in a way they never would before. And when he finished off the Patriots in the AFC championship game with 240 yards and three touchdowns, he was a completely different Flacco.
Strange how the smallest mistakes can change everything. If Rahim Moore jumped right and knocked away Flacco's pass as probably he should have, we wouldn't be talking about a quarterback with 11 touchdowns against no interceptions in the playoffs. We wouldn't be talking about a Super Bowl champion and we wouldn't be talking about anything close to $120 million.
With Ray Lewis now retired, the Ravens figured to be Joe Flacco's team. It probably was regardless of whether Rahim Moore correctly timed that pass. But with a Super Bowl title and now $120 million the statement is clearer: Baltimore truly belongs to Flacco.
Sometimes a little luck can change a lot.
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