On Jan. 18, 2009 – a windy, 26-degree night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh – teammates, coaches and millions of fans across the country wondered what pressure would do to Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. His team down 16-14 with just under seven minutes left in the AFC championship game, Flacco needed to drive Baltimore into field-goal range to beat the rival Steelers and send the Ravens to the Super Bowl. But Troy Polamalu had other plans. The Steelers' ballhawk picked off an errant pass by the rookie quarterback and took it 40 yards to the house, effectively sealing the game. The Steelers got the best of Flacco this time, but his response proved to the Ravens' brass that their first-round pick wouldn't flinch in the face of adversity.
It was situations like the one in Pittsburgh that Ravens Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta envisioned when the personnel staff set out to find their franchise quarterback in the 2008 NFL Draft. Sure, they coveted someone with great arm strength, accuracy and pocket awareness, but more importantly, they wanted somebody with the right mentality to win Super Bowls.
"Quarterback is a high-profile position, and I think personality is important," DeCosta explained. "We spent a lot of time that year looking at the personalities of all the quarterbacks and getting a sense of their character, their leadership, their intangibles, their work ethic, demeanor – all those kinds of things."
And what DeCosta and Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome saw from a young Joe Flacco convinced the Ravens to use their first-round pick to bring him to Baltimore.
"[Flacco was] very bright, even-keeled, had a little dry sense of humor, command of the offense, confident in his ability – which we feel to be a very good quality – and he was unflappable," DeCosta recalled. "We were sold initially, and what we saw back then is who Joe is, and that's one of the reasons why he's such a successful quarterback."
Surely, Flacco's confidence and steadiness under pressure were tested early in that playoff game against Pittsburgh, but as he notes, having the right mentality involves dealing with both triumph and defeat.
"I think you naturally have confidence growing up, and you seem to be OK at things, but I also think it's something that you have to train yourself to be in certain situations – through failure or success," Flacco offered. "Both can give you confidence in different ways."
In November 2011, Flacco's mental toughness was once again put to the test at Heinz Field. With the Ravens trailing 20-16 with two minutes left in regulation, No. 5 was faced with the challenge of navigating his team 92 yards in search of the game-winning touchdown. Completion after completion, Flacco calmly drove the Ravens into enemy territory. On second down at the Pittsburgh 37-yard line, he threw the ball deep left to a wide-open Torrey Smith, who let the potential game-winner slip through his fingers. But Flacco didn't panic or lose faith in his rookie wide receiver. Four plays later, Flacco went to Smith again, and this time, the speedster hauled in the 26-yard pass in the end zone with only eight seconds left on the clock, sending the Ravens home with an impressive "W."
To Smith, that play exemplified the qualities that make his teammate one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
"Obviously, everybody's going to talk about his arm strength and his ability to make every throw from anywhere on the field, but I think it's just the way he carries himself," Smith contended. "He's just so calm, and he never panics. Being on a team that's led by a guy like that, you go into every situation feeling like there's nothing that can stop you because he's locked in, and he doesn't flinch."
Rather than dwell on his past experience in Pittsburgh, Flacco found a way to grow from it, and his confidence in the face of failure is what sets him apart. On that day, the strong-armed quarterback's resiliency was the Ravens' biggest weapon.
"The thing about Joe that is great is that he doesn't get flustered," DeCosta noted. "He may have a bad quarter, he may have a bad half, he may have a bad game, but he's going to come back and play better every single time. [If] you have a bad first half, he comes out and has a great second half. It's happened repeatedly. His personality lends itself to tough situations, critical situations. Players respond, and those are the things about Joe that make him special and unique."
Considering Flacco's affinity for big games and big moments, his performance in the 2012 AFC divisional game in Denver should have come as no surprise. He made several brilliant throws, amassing 331 yards and three touchdowns, but none were as paramount as the 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones, which sent the game into overtime when the Ravens eventually won on a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal.
While most fans and analysts noted Flacco's impressive arm strength on the play, DeCosta once again singles out his quarterback's mental fortitude.
"A lot of quarterbacks in that situation would have been so flustered that they probably would not have been looking downfield like that in the face of pressure," DeCosta said. "Joe just continually rises to the occasion and makes it happen."
After earning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors last February, Flacco seemingly faces even more pressure this season, as expectations have been significantly raised. Fortunately for Ravens fans, Flacco is well-versed in pressure situations, and he knows he has the right mentality to be successful.
"I think [mentality] is everything, even at all of the other positions, but especially at quarterback," Flacco explained. "You have to deal with a little bit more sometimes. There are plenty of guys who have talent, but if you're not mentally tough enough to deal with things, then you'll never get to show that. In the end, it's the top thing. If you have that confidence to go with the talent, that's what's going to propel you to the next level. That's what's going to make people believe in you, and therefore, make you have a good team." In 2013, Joe Flacco is under more scrutiny than ever. Many will again be wondering if the strong-armed quarterback will wilt beneath the pressure that's been placed upon his shoulders. But Ravens fans need not worry. Since that cold January night in 2009, No. 5 has consistently delivered in critical games. After all, Joe Flacco doesn't just handle pressure – he welcomes it.