BALTIMORE — The last time we saw Joe Flacco play in a game that counted, he had done everything he possibly could but catch the pass he delivered to the end zone that would have sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl in the final drive in Foxborough last January.
Asked this offseason to respond to comments his agent made regarding Flacco being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, the fifth-year quarterback said — as any confident signal-caller would — he believed himself to be the best in the league, drawing the ire of his critics.
Following a 299-yard, two-touchdown performance in which Flacco posted a 128.4 quarterback rating in a 44-13 dismantling of the Cincinnati Bengals Monday night, his head coach summarized it best best when asked if the quarterback had driven up the price of his contract demands after such a sterling showing.
“Pay him whatever he asks for,” said John Harbaugh as he laughed. “You hear that, Steve [Bisciotti]? Pay the man.”
Playing behind an offensive line that included different players at three of the five positions from last year’s line and hearing the questions all offseason about the offense needing to take a step forward with the defense losing 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs to an Achilles tendon injury, Flacco responded with one of the finest performances of his career. He set the tone for the evening with a 52-yard strike to wide receiver Torrey Smith on the first play from scrimmage, and the offense never looked back as it dismantled the Cincinnati defense to the tune of 430 total yards and 37 points — an interception return for a touchdown by Ed Reed accounted for the other score.
While only one terrific performance upon which he’ll need to build, Flacco’s play screamed an emphatic “yes” to the questions of whether he is ready to become one of the league’s elite quarterbacks in 2012. Delivering the ball to intermediate target Anquan Boldin, throwing darts to tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and finding running back Ray Rice out of the backfield when opportunities didn’t materialize downfield, Flacco threw with the precision of a surgeon for most of the night and appeared at ease with the uptempo pace of working without a huddle.
Unlike the Baltimore offense we’ve come to know over the years that moved at a gradual pace and was often along for the ride with an elite defense leading the way to victories, Flacco attacked from the first play of the game and the offense never took its foot off the gas pedal until backup Tyrod Taylor took over with 8:23 remaining and a 28-point lead over their AFC North foe.
It wasn’t the “winning ugly” formula but rather a work of art from an offense expecting bigger and better things this season.
“I feel like I always go out there, and we go out on the field, and we play pretty damn good every week,” Flacco said. “The stats might not always say 299 yards or 300 yards or 450 yards — whatever it is — but the bottom line is I go out there and I play hard. I play tough, and we win a lot of football games around here.”
Though premature to proclaim his inclusion in a group that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and the Manning brothers after Week 1, Harbaugh said after Monday’s game that Flacco is the best quarterback he’s ever been around.
It’s not a statement to be taken too lightly when remembering Harbaugh had a firsthand view of longtime Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, but just how much was the head coach’s praise worth considering Flacco is the only starting quarterback he’s had during his tenure with the Ravens?
“Probably not much, I haven’t been around a lot of quarterbacks. I am a special teams coach,” said Harbaugh, poking fun at his resume and the long-term role he held with the Philadelphia Eagles before coming to Baltimore. “But, I will say what we’ve always said: He is our quarterback. And, that’s good enough for us.”
We discussed the possibility of a changing of the guard throughout the offseason with the defense losing Suggs to injury and the future Hall of Famers Reed and Ray Lewis not getting any younger. The first half of Monday’s game was not an impressive one for the Baltimore defense as it struggled to pressure Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and to consistently stop the Cincinnati running game.
When the Ravens allowed a touchdown drive of 81 yards at the end of the first half and a 79-yard march that resulted in a field goal to cut the lead to 17-13, the defense appeared tired and vulnerable as a 14-point lead appeared on the verge of evaporating if Flacco and the offense responded with a three-and-out. Instead, the Ravens drove 89 yards in 3:41 that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Pitta.