Joe Flacco almost got benched.
It was 2006. Flacco was in his first season as the starting quarterback for the University of Delaware. He had spent two seasons as a backup at Pittsburgh, but in 2005, he transferred to Delaware, which had recruited him out of high school. Flacco had to sit out a year, even though he was dropping from a Division I-A to I-AA school, because Pitt's coach at the time, Dave Wannstedt, would not release Flacco from his commitment.
So Flacco had to pay his own way to Delaware -- in the neighborhood of $30,000 -- and run the scout team for a year.
In his second career start, against Albany, Flacco had a terrible first half. The Blue Hens' drive chart looked like this: punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, interception, punt, and the drive that ended in the field goal started at Albany's 8-yard line. Delaware trailed 17-3 at halftime after gaining only 127 yards. Flacco completed five passes, threw one interception and was sacked twice, and the home crowd booed the team off the field as the players went into the locker room.
After addressing the team, then-head coach K.C. Keeler pulled aside his offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca.
"Do we pull him?" Keeler asked.
"If we pull him now," Ciarrocca said, "we might never get him back."
If they had pulled him, maybe Flacco would have left Delaware. Maybe he would have played baseball, his other sporting love, instead. It's possible he never would have become the 18th overall pick in the NFL draft or the winningest quarterback in his first five seasons in league history. If Flacco hadn't been so mentally tough, so supremely confident, so unafraid to fail, we might not be talking about 62 regular-season wins, five straight seasons with at least one postseason victory, eight playoff wins total, two AFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance for the Baltimore Ravens since 2008.
Keeler loved Flacco. He was 6-foot-6, ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash and had a cannon for an arm. Keeler and Ciarrocca knew Flacco was smart. He was a sponge. He worked hard. He watched film. He learned from his mistakes. He was, as Keeler and Ciarrocca both said this week, special.
So Keeler trusted his assistant and stuck with Flacco. He let Flacco play through the struggles. He let Flacco find his way. Flacco lost that game and five others that season, but the next season, he led the Blue Hens to the NCAA's FCS championship game against Appalachian State.
A couple of months later, the Ravens sent a delegation to Delaware -- including seven or eight coaches and a couple of receivers -- to work out Flacco. It lasted 2 1/2 hours, and midway through, one assistant said to Keeler, "Coach, they're all buzzing." The workout ended with Flacco throwing a ball 80 yards in the air.
"They loved everything about him," Keeler said. "They loved his demeanor, the way he went to work. If he threw a bad ball, he didn't say anything about it. If a receiver ran the wrong route, he didn't say anything. I had a strong feeling they were going to do whatever it took to get him."
Here we sit, nearly five years later, and Flacco has become everything Keeler and Ciarrocca envisioned. He is on the precipice of joining the elite fraternity of quarterbacks with a Super Bowl ring.
To hear Keeler and Ciarrocca tell it, Flacco always has possessed elite abilities.
They didn't talk with Flacco about whether he would reach the NFL until after his senior season. Scouts flocked to watch, but Flacco tuned it out. All Flacco cared about, Ciarrocca said, was "trying to get better every day, every week." That was Flacco's approach to practice, to meetings, to working out.
"He was trying to be the best he could be. That's why it was so fun to be around him," Ciarrocca said. "He never talked about the NFL or the scouts at practice almost every day. He never said, 'Hey, let me do this.' Whatever we had on the practice plan, we had. He never concerned himself with any of it."
Flacco had confidence in himself that everything would work out.
"He made it really clear he doesn't want to be good; he wants to be great," Ciarrocca said. "That was clear when he was in college. He thought he had that."
Two games after Flacco's awful start against Albany as a junior, the Blue Hens played the No. 1 team in the nation, New Hampshire. They lost 52-49, but Flacco played "an incredible game," Ciarrocca said. He was 28-of-45 for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
"He just kept getting better," Ciarrocca said. "He was handling the knowledge you were giving him. He could handle all the information, so I just kept going, and he kept grasping it and moving on. Now it went from me speaking to him to us having a conversation together as we're watching the film."
Keeler said he believed since "day one" that Flacco would end up becoming a Pro Bowl quarterback, an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl champion. A couple of days after Baltimore drafted Flacco, Keeler told Flacco that one day he would be asked what made Flacco so special.
Keeler asked Flacco what he should say.
"I'm not afraid to fail," Flacco replied.
"I thought that was a very unique answer," Keeler said. "It is true to who he is. When you watch him play and see how calm he is on fourth-and-1, he's not afraid to fail. If he doesn't get it done, it's not like he lacks preparation."
That's why Ciarrocca smiled when he heard the news last summer that Flacco had walked away from a generous contract extension the Ravens had put on the table. Flacco thought he deserved more, and he wasn't afraid to prove it this season.
"He has a ton of confidence in himself," Ciarrocca said. "As soon as [the news] broke that they weren't going to get a deal done, I laughed and thought, 'Boy, that just cost them a lot of money not getting it done.' I knew how he would think about that. He'd say, 'I'm not going to worry about this at all. I'll be better than last year, and it will take care of itself in the end.'"
And it did. Flacco made it so.
Keeler said he's unaware whether Flacco knows he was close to getting benched that day against Albany, but he knows how Flacco would have reacted. It's why he expects big things from Flacco against San Francisco on Feb. 3.
"He doesn't let things bother him," Keeler said. "He wouldn't have liked it, but he would have bounced back. I'm sure of that."
I don't want others to define me. I am my own man.
That is basically what Colin Kaepernick said after he led San Francisco to a comeback win over Atlanta last Sunday. He doesn't want to be known as a running quarterback or just a pocket passer. He is more complex. Simple terms don't apply.
This is a unique experience. Kaepernick has nine career starts on his NFL résumé, including two in the postseason. Only Jeff Hostetler (six) and Vince Ferragamo (seven) had fewer starts when they played in the Super Bowl. Hostetler helped the New York Giants beat Buffalo 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV, and Ferragamo's Los Angeles Rams lost to Pittsburgh 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV.
Kaepernick is on the cusp of something special, and yet he doesn't seem fazed by any of it -- the magazine covers, the book deals, the endorsements. All he wants to do is play football, and win. In another week, Kaepernick will become the sixth-youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl. If the 49ers win, he will become the third-youngest quarterback to win one.
Then there will be one definition Kaepernick won't want to avoid: Super Bowl champion.
• • •
That, of course, leads us to Alex Smith. I heard a debate earlier in the week on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" about whether anyone should feel sorry for Smith. I do.
After San Francisco beat Atlanta, and many of the Niners rushed the field, Smith walked dejectedly toward the locker room. He looked like his soul had been ripped from his body. Sure, Smith is still getting paid, but this is about more than money. This was his team a few months ago, and now he has a front-row seat to watch his teammates rally around Kaepernick. For a guy who had completed 70 percent of his passes and compiled a 6-2-1 record before suffering a concussion, it has to be brutal.
Smith should bounce back and will probably be playing -- and starting -- elsewhere next season. Whether a Super Bowl ring would mean anything to him remains to be seen.
• • •
Roger Goodell threw the New Orleans Saints and their fans a small bone when he reinstated Sean Payton as head coach less than a calendar year after suspending him for the season. It was a wise move, given that the commissioner is about to spend a week in a city where he will not be welcome, but it won't do anything to change the way people there feel about him.
The people of New Orleans are fiercely loyal to the Saints and protective of them, and they blame Goodell for ruining their 2012 season. It is understandable. But Goodell has done many things for the Saints and the city, including working to keep the franchise in New Orleans when owner Tom Benson considered moving it to San Antonio. Goodell supported rebuilding the Superdome so that the Saints would have a stadium to return to after Hurricane Katrina. He also helped keep Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans despite a scheduling conflict that arose because the league postponed games after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The hope here is that the people of New Orleans will treat Goodell politely. But he might want someone else to order his food.
• • •
For the players selected, the Pro Bowl is much more than just a football game. It's a chance to bond with other top players in a relaxed, beautiful setting. The pool at the resort is a Who's Who of the NFL's elite, and the adjacent bar is packed at night. Players and, in many cases, their wives hang out until the early morning hours.
So it is no surprise that Peyton Manning is fighting to save the game. NFL.com's Jeff Darlington, who is in Hawaii this week, reported that Manning addressed his peers on Tuesday night, demanding that they play hard in the exhibition game on Sunday. "The past two years, the play in this game has been unacceptable," Manning said. "If it was a walkthrough, your coach would say it was a bad walkthrough. And that's why [the league] could try to cancel this game."
If the league cancels the game, so be it. I don't think most fans would miss it. But the players certainly would.
After watching the film, Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," sees a couple of things about the Super Bowl matchups. No. 1, San Francisco will go after Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who has been solid defending the run between the tackles, in pass coverage. No. 2, the Ravens will probably play a lot of sets with three wide receivers and go after Niners cornerbacks Chris Culliver on the left side and Tarell Brown on the right side.
"Boldin is the type of receiver that doesn't separate," Cosell said. "He makes contested catches. He's a big, physical guy with really strong and good hands. Rarely does he catch the ball when he's open, because he doesn't separate versus man coverage. But he's very good making contested catches."
Boldin versus Rogers will be a key matchup to watch.
STATS & INFO
The Ravens' postseason success is remarkable given that they shuffled their offensive line heading into the playoffs.
For the postseason, they moved Michael Oher, who started 16 games at left tackle, to right tackle. They moved Kelechi Osemele, who started 16 games at right tackle, to left guard. And they plugged in Bryant McKinnie, a reserve all season, at left tackle.
Baltimore has used the combination of McKinnie, Osemele, center Matt Birk, right guard Marshal Yanda and Oher on every snap of the postseason after not using that particular alignment on a single snap in the regular season. And it has been effective. Flacco has been sacked only four times on 99 dropbacks (24.8 dropbacks per sack) in the postseason after he was sacked once every 16.3 dropbacks in the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"If you had Super Bowl 37 as the biggest story during the bye week before Super Bowl 47.. Congratulations.. you win"
-- Trey Wingo (@wingoz) January 22, 2013
Seriously. I find it difficult to believe that former Oakland coach Bill Callahan tried to sabotage the Raiders' chance of winning against Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, as former Oakland wide receiver Tim Brown suggested earlier this week. It was curious that Callahan altered the game plan two days before the Super Bowl and that he didn't change the terminology or verbiage from when Gruden had been the coach. But sabotage a shot to win a Super Bowl so a friend could win instead? I don't buy it.
"Played a lot of games since my brothers death and I never received as many rude tweets after a win than Sunday...yet NE fans cry about class"
-- Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) January 22, 2013
Twitter provides people with an anonymous platform, and that often isn't a good thing, as Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith found out.
"Who's coming to the Super Bowl?"
-- Donte Whitner (@DonteWhitner) January 23, 2013
To answer San Francisco safety Donte Whitner's question: Massive amounts of people. New Orleans is ready and can handle it.
"Not made up as much as it sounds like it: NFL fined 49ers RB Frank Gore $10,500 for wearing his socks too low during NFC Championship Game."
-- Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 23, 2013
This is ridiculous, but the fines are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement the players signed in 2011.