Baltimore management's faith in QB Joe Flacco pays off with biggest prize of all

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

NEW ORLEANS –  Standing at a cocktail party at the annual NFL owners meeting in New York in 2011, Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti contemplated one burning question about his Ravens.

"I know I have a good quarterback, but do I have a great one?" Bisciotti said, referring to Joe Flacco.

On Sunday, Bisciotti sat in a steamy Ravens locker room next to his wife Renee, fully content as he smoked a victory cigar and took it all in – his team was Super Bowl champ after surviving for a 34-31 win over San Francisco at the Superdome.

"I got our answer," Bisciotti said. "He must have gone to the Eli Manning school of sneaking up on you."

Bisciotti laughed lightly at his bit of musing. But the truth is that the 6-foot-6 Flacco doesn't sneak up on many people. Sure, he and the Ravens pulled a trick out of their arsenal for a critical touchdown. But the play in question – a 56-yard toss to wide receiver Jacoby Jones – was straight out of the Book of Flacco, even if it wasn't part of the playbook until this week.

It was a big throw by a big man with a big arm.

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And pretty soon, he'll be getting a big(ger) check. Flacco took home the Most Valuable Player award after completing 22 of 33 for 287 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He finished the game with a 124.2 rating and finished the playoffs with 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and four straight games with a rating of 100.0 or better.

For his own personal financial security, Flacco's timing couldn't be better. The polarizing quarterback is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason. The Ravens will likely at least put the franchise tag on him if they can't work out a long-term deal.

Delaying that process became nearly impossible when Flacco, who is expected to ask for something in the range of $19 or $20 million per year, joined the likes of Joe Montana, Drew Brees, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Phil Simms as the only men to go on a Super Bowl run without throwing an interception and having at least eight touchdown passes.

In other words, Flacco is going to get paid. The Ravens will have to shell out significant cash and, based on the praise of Bisciotti and General Manager Ozzie Newsome, that won't be a problem.

"All them guys that got fired this year didn't have a quarterback," Newsome said with a smile as he referred to the seven GMs who got the pink slip this offseason.

Translation: If you want to stay employed, you keep the quarterback.

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To Flacco's credit, he didn't wave a finger at his critics after the win. His postgame smile replaced his usual deadpan look. 

"I've never cared," Flacco said of the criticism. "I don't ever want to feel like I'm in a position to defend myself, it's just not right. I don't have to do that. We'll have this thing forever."

Still, even earlier this season, there were questions about Flacco. There were glimpses of his talent, but not the game-in, game-out plays you need to see. That started to flip after coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with quarterback coach Jim Caldwell. Between Caldwell and wide receivers coach Jim Hostler, there was a revived emphasis on using the running game to set up Flacco for the deep stuff he does best.

Against San Francisco, Flacco didn't just come up with the deep throw to Jones toward the end of the first half – a play that helped stretch the lead to 21-3 – he also made three other critical throws at different points of the game.

But start with the throw to Jones.

Facing a third-and-10 situation with 1:58 remaining in the first half, Caldwell and Hostler found the Ravens in the perfect position to run a pump-and-go play. The funny thing is that Baltimore hadn't run this play all season.

"Not once," Hostler said. "We talked about it a few times the past couple of weeks, but never called it. [Caldwell] picked the perfect time to call. Absolutely perfect."

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Adding to the moment is that Baltimore couldn't even practice the play early in the week. The practice field they worked on at Tulane University early in the week wasn't big enough to adequately run the play. So the team waited until it practiced later in the week at the Saints indoor facility to run through it a few times.

"We hadn't hit it in practice the few times we worked on it a couple of weeks ago [at home], so we put a special emphasis on it this week," Caldwell said. "It was something we knew would work on their defense if we got in the right situation."

The Ravens picked the perfect situation to run it, too. Jones was being covered in a soft zone by cornerback Chris Culliver, who sat 10 yards off the ball thinking that Jones would run a short route just to pick up the first down. In addition, Culliver thought he had safety help behind him.

That's where the lack of game-time repetition came in handy. Fellow Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin ran a pattern underneath to the right and Flacco pumped to him, getting safety Dashon Goldson to chase Boldin. Meanwhile, safety Donte Whitner was preoccupied on the other side of the field.

The result was an ocean for Jones to run through as he gave a quick fake and sprinted past Culliver. Flacco lofted the ball up and Jones ran under it, even falling down after catching the ball before getting up and outrunning Culliver and Whitner to the end zone. The play was strangely reminiscent of Jones' 70-yard touchdown against Denver in the second round of the playoffs in that he and Flacco made the defense look foolish.

That's what a big arm can do.

"It was a perfect time to run that little pump that we ran," Flacco said. "I kind of said to (Boldin), 'You think we should pump it here?' Right as I was saying that, our (coaches) were saying, 'We're going to pump this.' It was just that perfect depth … I had to step up and throw the ball on the run and Jacoby had great concentration. I didn't want to overthrow him there."

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The rest of Flacco's night was more sublime. His 13-yard touchdown pass to Boldin in the first quarter was a pretty piece of play-calling and execution. Again, Caldwell and Hostler found a way to get Boldin in a good matchup (this time against San Francisco linebacker Navorro Bowman) with Whitner too far away to help as Flacco laced the throw down the middle of the end zone.

In the second half, Flacco wasn't able to lead any touchdown drives, but he stemmed the tide of a San Francisco comeback with a couple of critical field goal drives. The first came after San Francisco closed to within 28-23.

Facing a third-and-3, Flacco hit Boldin for a 30-yard gain off a short pass to the right flat. Baltimore eventually stalled after getting to the 49ers 1-yard line, but that drive helped give the defense a much-needed break.

After the 49ers scored another touchdown to make it 31-29, the pressure was again on Flacco to get some kind of score. Facing third-and-1 from his own 45, Flacco came to the line with a decision to make. Depending upon how the 49ers lined up, Flacco could call for a run by Ray Rice to the middle, a quarterback sneak, an option play to the right with Rice or back-shoulder throw to Boldin along the sideline.

The 49ers came out in the perfect defense to take away all the run reads. That put it on Flacco to make the critical throw to Boldin.

Flacco didn't flinch.

"That was probably the best part about it," Hostler said. "He came to the line and knew right away what he had to do and called it immediately."

The pass gained 15 yards and helped put the Ravens in position for a final field goal for a 34-29 lead. The Ravens defense came up with one final stand and Baltimore was on its way to a title.

And the answer that Bisciotti wanted.

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