NEW ORLEANS -- It's easy to rip on Pitt football in so many ways. The program hasn't lost fewer than three games in any season since 1981. That's a lot of mediocrity. But it's flat wrong to criticize Pitt for its handling of Joe Flacco. Those who do are practicing revisionist history.
Flacco is on top of the sports world this week, getting ready to lead the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVII. But at fall camp before the 2004 season, he was a disgruntled third-string quarterback at Pitt behind Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy. He was gone before the 2005 season, off to Delaware where he paid his way and sat out that season before becoming a star in 2006 and 2007. He has become an even bigger star with the Ravens, who made him their No. 1 choice in the 2008 NFL draft.
Flacco made the right call -- did the right thing for himself -- by leaving Pitt.
"He got back on people's radar at Delaware," Flacco's father, Steve, told me in a 2009 interview. "If he had stayed at Pitt, he might be out of football by now and off working somewhere."
Good for Joe Flacco.
But that doesn't mean Pitt was wrong.
"I have no reservations about how it played out," Matt Cavanaugh said in 2009. He was Pitt's offensive coordinator under coach Dave Wannstedt from 2005-08. "It would be pure speculation to say that we would have been better with Joe."
Flacco picked Pitt over Rutgers and Virginia Tech because he wanted to play for coach Walt Harris, a noted quarterbacks guru. After redshirting during the 2003 season, Flacco told his father he should be Pitt's starter in 2004. But Harris put Palko and Getsy ahead of him. After Harris finally decided on Palko as the starter right before the season, Getsy quit the team and transferred to Akron, leaving Flacco as the No. 2 quarterback.
Flacco played briefly against Nebraska early in the 2004 season, then again in a mop-up role against South Florida in Pitt's final regular-season game. He completed one pass for 11 yards to tight end Steve Buches against South Florida. It turned out to be his only completion at Pitt.
Palko, a redshirt sophomore in 2004, had a strong season. It's not as if he were some bum. He became the first visiting quarterback to throw five touchdown passes in Notre Dame Stadium, leading Pitt to a 41-38 win. He also threw five touchdown passes in that final game against South Florida, a 43-14 win, giving Pitt the Big East Conference's BCS slot and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Pitt has not been to a BCS game since.
Harris was pushed out by Pitt after the 2004 season and replaced by Wannstedt, a popular hometown guy from Baldwin and a former Pitt star. Flacco thought he would get a shot at the starting job in 2005, but Wannstedt stuck with Palko. I don't remember anyone arguing with him at the time. I don't remember anyone saying he was making a mistake.
Did I mention revisionist history?
Pitt's critics will tell you that Harris and Wannstedt went with Palko because Palko's father, Bob, is a prominent WPIAL coach at West Allegheny. That is pure nonsense. The coaches went with Palko because they believed he was their best man. They believed he gave Pitt its best chance of winning.
Not that Flacco saw it that way, of course.
"He called home and said, 'Dad, they're stealing from me here,' " Steve Flacco said. "We felt misled [by Wannstedt]. Looking back on it now, there was no way they were going to change quarterbacks."
Steve Flacco did that 2009 interview right before his son, then a rookie quarterback in the NFL, led the Ravens into Pittsburgh to play the Steelers in the AFC championship game after the 2008 season. Joe Flacco immediately put the old man off limits to the media. He wasn't interested in rehashing his Pitt days.
Flacco didn't want to sit behind Palko for two seasons and then have just the 2007 season to be the starter. He left for Delaware against the wishes of Wannstedt, who refused to release him from his Pitt scholarship. That's why Flacco had to pay his way to Delaware and sit out the 2005 season.
Pitt went 5-6 in 2005 and 6-6 in 2006 with Palko at quarterback. The players around him weren't very good. Pitt went 5-7 in 2007 with Pat Bostick taking most of the snaps at quarterback; although it did upset national championship contender West Virginia on the road in its final game.
By that point, Flacco had impressed Ravens scouts, who would make him the No. 18 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. He won the starting job in camp as a rookie and hasn't missed a start since. He didn't just become the only quarterback in NFL history to lead a team to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons; he won at least one postseason game each year. He's 8-4 as a postseason starter with an NFL-record six road wins.
During these playoffs, he has outplayed Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Denver's Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady, throwing for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the three games.
Palko is out of football. He played in two games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010 and six more with the Chiefs in 2011, including four as a starter.
Would Pitt have been better with Flacco instead of Palko?
Cavanaugh was dead right.
To say yes, definitively, would be pure speculation.
I refuse to go there.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.