Bittersweet homecoming for the Ravens' quarterback


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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It's funny, they call the kid "Joe Cool" at Baltimore Ravens headquarters. At Pitt, back in the day, Joe Flacco was anything but. Joe Hot? Absolutely. Joe Frustrated. Joe Ticked Off ...

"He called home and said, 'Dad, they're stealing from me here,'" Steve Flacco recalled this week from the family's Audubon, N.J., home.

It was spring 2005. Dave Wannstedt had just replaced Walt Harris as Pitt's coach. Redshirt junior Tyler Palko, who led the Panthers to the Fiesta Bowl the season before and threw a record five touchdown passes in a victory at Notre Dame, was the incumbent quarterback at spring practice. Joe Flacco, then a redshirt sophomore, was left to run the second team.

"We felt misled," Steve Flacco said. "We had been told Joe would be given the opportunity to compete for the job."

Back to that father-son phone conversation.

"I see the other teams that we play and I know I'm better than those guys. I'm better than the guys they have here. It's eating me up. I've got to go play somewhere."

So began the divorce proceedings, which, really, weren't anyone's fault, but left the Pitt program damaged and reeling and left Joe Flacco bitter and disillusioned. "I never really got a shot there," he said. "I still carry that with me. I still carry it with me that I'm a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues in college football and prove who I was."

So began Joe Flacco's strange odyssey, which took him from spare part at Pitt to two-year starter at Delaware to Ravens first-round pick in the '08 NFL draft to Heinz Field, of all places, where he will start Sunday against the Steelers in the AFC championship game. It seems like everybody in Maryland is "Wacco For Flacco" these days. At least that's what the purple T-shirts that are everywhere say.

"Everybody knew Joe had a ton of talent and could throw the ball through a brick wall," Palko said. "But who could have predicted this?"

The Flaccos -- father and son -- actually.

This is exactly what the family had in mind when they sent young Joe to play for Harris, picking Pitt over Rutgers and Virginia Tech. "If Walt hadn't been there, we wouldn't have gone there," Steve Flacco said. Both father and son loved Harris' reputation for developing quarterbacks and his pro-style offense.

"Joe learned a lot there about what it takes to play quarterback even though he didn't actually play," Steve Flacco said. "A lot of good things happened for him at Pitt, though not for our nervous system and our stomachs."

Harris liked Flacco's 6-foot-6 size, which prompted Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to say earlier this season, "We always emphasize getting our hands up and knock some balls down, but I don't think our arms are long enough [against Flacco]."

Harris liked Flacco's athleticism, his toughness, his competitiveness and his big arm. "I remember a drill where the quarterbacks were throwing out patterns," he said this week. "I stood over 12 yards and caught the passes. Joe threw a low one. Instead of reaching down with my hands, I kicked at the ball to stop it. My toe, at different times, still hurts."

And, yes, Harris liked Flacco's calm demeanor. Turns out the kid did have a little Joe Cool in him at Pitt. "He was quiet, but he was very comfortable with himself, very confident in himself," Harris said.

Added Palko: "Joe is the type of kid who would come into our quarterback meetings and someone would say, 'Joe, your house is on fire.' He'd be like, 'Well, all right, man, I guess someone had better call the fire department.' It was like nothing rattled him."

Well, almost nothing.

"It's eating me up ..."

Flacco thought he was good enough to start as a redshirt freshman in the '04 season, but Harris had him third-team behind Palko and Luke Getsy. After Palko was picked as the starter over Getsy late in fall camp -- "My toughest decision at Pitt because those guys were so close," Harris said -- Getsy became Luke Ticked Off and quit the team before transferring to Akron, leaving Flacco as No. 2. Flacco played briefly in an early game against Nebraska when Harris benched Palko, then was the mop-up man in the final regular-season game at South Florida after Palko had thrown five touchdown passes. Flacco completed one pass for 11 yards.

Tight end Steve Buches is your trivia answer.

He was on the receiving end of Flacco's only completion at Pitt.

"We knew the new coaching staff was going to go to a run-oriented offense," Steve Flacco said. "But we thought the coaching change might give Joe a better chance to win the spot. There was no way Walt was going to make a change. But, looking back on it now, there was no way they were going to change quarterbacks, regardless."

Flacco didn't want to sit behind Palko for two more seasons, then have just one year to start. "Tyler did everything he had to do to keep the job that spring," Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said the other day. Pitt went 5-6 in '05 and 6-6 in '06, but Cavanaugh said: "That first year was my fault as much as Tyler's because I didn't do a very good job with him, and the second year, Tyler played really well. We just didn't have much of a supporting cast around him ... I have no reservations about how it played out. It would be pure speculation to say that we would have been better with Joe."

The regrets came in '07, after Palko left for the NFL. He signed as a free agent with the New Orleans Saints and dressed for five games last season as their No. 3 quarterback before being waived injured after the final preseason game this summer because of a torn ligament in his right thumb. After surgery and rehab, he signed a free agent contract earlier this month with the Arizona Cardinals for next season.

Pitt went a disappointing 6-6 in '07 with Bill Stull (briefly) and Pat Bostick at quarterback. That should have been Flacco's team.

"We didn't want Joe to leave," Cavanaugh said. "If we didn't think he could play, we would have let him go in a heartbeat. But we knew he had talent and he was next in line ...

"We tried to play on his commitment to Pitt. I told him, 'If something happens to Tyler, you're the guy.' Or, 'If I'm wrong and Tyler doesn't play well, you're the guy.' He and his dad didn't want to hear that. They had their minds made up."

Flacco asked Wannstedt for his scholarship release so he could transfer. Wannstedt said no. "There was definitely some tension there," Cavanaugh said. Flacco left anyway. Because he didn't have his release from Pitt, he had to sit out the '05 season at Delaware and paid his own way to school. It wasn't until the '06 season that he got to start his first game since he was a high school senior in '02.

"He got back on people's radar at Delaware, which is what we were worried about," Steve Flacco said. "If he had stayed at Pitt, he might be out of football by now and off working somewhere ...

"When the Ravens picked him in the first round, we were so happy. Now, he was going to get a shot. A real shot."

It came much sooner than anyone imagined. The Ravens lost veteran quarterbacks Kyle Boller (shoulder injury) and Troy Smith (viral illness) in the exhibition season. Flacco started the opening game and has been the man ever since. "He's had a lot of success because he has no ego and all he's concerned about is winning," said Harris, who regularly exchanges text messages with Flacco. "He knows if he plays the position the way he's been coached to play it, good things will happen for the team."

The Ravens improved to 11-5 after going 5-11 in '07. Flacco became the first rookie quarterback to win a road playoff game when they beat the Miami Dolphins Jan. 4 and the first rookie to win two postseason games when they beat the Tennessee Titans. He wasn't sacked and didn't throw an interception in either game.

"You look at him and you're thinking, 'Does anything faze this guy?'" Ravens tight end Todd Heap said after the win in Nashville.

Joe Cool.

Joe Winner.

"You know what's a real shame about it?" Palko asked.

"He could have been a Pitt man."


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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