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- American football player and coach
PITTSBURGH – Something had changed in the AFC North, something beyond the Baltimore Ravens passing the Pittsburgh Steelers. And as Sunday night turned into Monday morning, John Harbaugh stood in an empty coach's locker room and sensed it, too.
"He IS at a higher level," he said.
This was about Joe Flacco(notes), the Baltimore quarterback whose development has been both too rapid and painfully slow, tempting with promise and damning with failure. But then came a drive like none of the other drives of his football life – a plodding march across the threadbare Heinz Field turf finished with a perfect heave to a rookie receiver, Torrey Smith(notes), who had deceived him with a dropped touchdown only moments before.
And the stadium once filled with a great roar was silent. Suddenly it was clear Flacco had climbed toward a peak reserved for the likes of Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes): a man who can deliver those late, impossible victories.
"He's won games before but not like this though," running back Ray Rice(notes) said, his head shaking to emphasize his words. "I know he's been through his ups and downs but since the second half [of last week's] Arizona game and [Sunday night] he's become like a top-five quarterback, he's playing like he's at an elite level. I think he took that next step [Sunday night]."
The Ravens have been waiting for that next step. The players have always believed in their quarterback but something forever held him back. Blame has gone to the team's defense, dominated for years by Ray Lewis(notes). Blame too has gone to a conservative game plan built on the run, propelled most recently by Rice. Flacco was always expected to protect the ball, not losing the game for the defense. Any attempts the Ravens made to expand the offense always seemed to blow up.
The next step, that moment when he could quiet a stadium and win big games with his arm, had not come often enough. And in wondering why the Ravens continually come short of the Super Bowl, why big hopes and defensive dominance have come to die in too many Januarys, the answer comes with an offense that rarely won the games itself.
Harbaugh has always loved his quarterback. Even if Flacco comes off flat and disinterested in public, shrugging away platitudes and complaints with a Jersey-born "eh," Harbaugh has appreciated the time he spends alone with his quarterback, discussing the playbook, chatting about the team. Flacco has an analytical mind the coach has come to learn, one that can absorb many concepts and set them all in order. This is an important thing for a coach to know. He has to believe his quarterback grasps everything and understands why plays are run and roster moves made. He needs to know not only the goals but the map to winning. Little of it is reactionary. Almost all of it is planned.
"Inside he's on fire," Harbaugh said his eyes widening. "Once you sit down and start talking to him you find out he's really, really smart."
Lately they've been talking more and for longer times with the coach coming to understand more how his quarterback thinks and processes and believes the team can move. At times this year he has seemed frustrated knowing how much potential Flacco has locked inside as the offense has been slow to take off. The no-huddle offense the Ravens have used in parts of the last couple seasons had to be scaled down this fall as the team worked in new offensive linemen and receivers. Harbaugh thinks Flacco is better in the no-huddle. He believes his quarterback likes the pace and the offense, which is so hard to start, moves a little more free.
But last week against the Arizona Cardinals, the Ravens fell apart. They trailed by 21 points in the second quarter and had to scrap caution. Back in went the no-huddle in an attempt to pick up the pace. Young receivers had to play. Offensive linemen had to block. And Flacco would have to bring them back. And he did.
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Then on Sunday night he brought the Ravens back again. This time seemed impossible with Baltimore starting on its own 8-yard line with 2:24 left. The television announcers were already penciling in the Steelers at 7-2 on top of the AFC North. On the field, the crowd was deafening. Speaking difficult. Listening impossible. And yet slowly Flacco led them down the field.
So many times this could have come undone. Anquan Boldin(notes) dropped a throw over the middle and Smith missed a sure touchdown with 42 seconds to go. Yet there came that last pass to Smith and the delayed call of touchdown and the silence in the stands. The Ravens, who have trudged from here defeated too many times, leaped around the field. Some waved towels at the fans no longer twirling Terrible Towels shouting "where are your towels?" Rice danced the sideline screaming "Celebrate!"
Later Flacco, coming off a second-straight 300-yard game, would keep shrugging when asked about the last drive. "Take a couple shots and see where it goes from there," he said blandly.
Except now the Ravens understand that really isn't him, that deep inside he's burning as much as them.
And in a late night chill, as the stadium quietly emptied, the realization came clearer: The Ravens are better than the Steelers now. And much of it has to do with the man throwing the ball.
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