Joe Flacco ready to prove his worth

Now comes the hard part. Joe Flacco has his money. He has his team's respect. He has a Super Bowl victory and an MVP trophy and a new contract that makes him the highest-paid player in the history of the National Football League.

He's even going to have a new Corvette very soon.

Flacco has everything he wanted. He wanted his team to acknowledge his worth. He wanted the Baltimore Ravens to believe what he believes, that he is the best person to lead the team into the future. With his play in 2012 and a magnificent four-game playoff run in which he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, Flacco earned the money.

With the money, however, comes a very large target on his back. With it comes enormous pressure. Flacco must prove that magnificent stretch when he led the Ravens to wins over Indianapolis, Denver, New England and San Francisco wasn't a mirage. And he must do it with every team gunning for him. Flacco is the highest-paid player in NFL history -- a phrase he will hear repeatedly until another quarterback usurps him -- and that means defenses will come after him with just a little more aggression. Everyone wants to dethrone the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

Everything is different now. He isn't Matt Ryan, a talented quarterback still trying to translate potential into postseason success. He isn't Colin Kaepernick, a dynamic young player who must build on 10 impressive starts.

Flacco is in the upper echelon with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. He is in the club led by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. With that comes a pressure Flacco has never felt before. He's one of the big boys.

He should be well-equipped to handle it.

I never thought Flacco got enough credit last season for walking away from the Ravens' generous offer that would have put him among the five highest-paid players in the league. He could have taken the money and the security. No one would have blamed him.

But Flacco believed he deserved more, and he wasn't afraid to prove it. He believed enough in himself to risk suffering an injury or having a down season. When he walked away from the extension, Flacco could have cost himself a ton of money, but he didn't care. To him, it would have been worse to take a deal he didn't think was fair.

Instead, Flacco earned a six-year, $120.6 million extension that included $52 million guaranteed. He wanted to make more than Brees, who until Monday was the highest-paid player in the league. With the new deal, Flacco will average $20.1 million per season, or $100,000 a year more than Brees.

Flacco's move took guts. It didn't faze him in the slightest. If he worried at all about his contract situation during the season, he didn't let it show. I asked him repeatedly about it, and every time he gave the same answer. It wasn't a big deal. It would get worked out. He was supremely confident in that.

And it did.

On Monday, Flacco said the contract wouldn't change him as a person or as a player. He said he didn't have extravagant plans to spend the money. He is a simple guy who loves his large extended family. Last Friday, before leaving for a boys' weekend in Las Vegas with Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta and former Ravens tight end Todd Heap, Flacco was at an uncle's house for the family's weekly pizza night. That's when the news of his contract extension broke.

"I was just kind of sitting there smiling," Flacco said. "And my uncle kind of looked at me and said … 'What's it feel like? Can you believe it?' And like I said, you look around, and that was never one of my goals, honestly. It's pretty sweet that that's what the fact is, but it's just better to be where we are as a team right now, and hopefully get the guys back and get them ready to go and make another run. It's all about winning in this league, and [the contract is] the stuff that just comes along with it."

That's what it will be about moving forward. Winning. It will be incumbent upon Flacco to keep his teammates focused on the future and not living in the past. He will set the tone. With the new contract comes new responsibilities. More than ever, Flacco's teammates will look to see how he is preparing, how he is working. Is he still the first one to the practice facility and the last to leave? Is he taking the offseason preparation seriously? Is he studying and working out on his own -- starting if not now, then soon?

He will. Flacco said he has already spoken with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell about tweaking things for 2013. He has thought about how easy it is for the reigning Super Bowl champs to falter. He understands how that happens, given the increased demands on the winners' time. Everyone wants a piece of him.

Flacco doesn't care about endorsements or speaking engagements. Money is no longer an issue. It was hard before to coax him off his couch for anything other than football in the offseason. It will be virtually impossible now, and that's a good thing.

The highest-paid player in NFL history has everything he ever wanted. Respect. A ring. A big contract. But Flacco wants more, and given how he delivered last season, there's no reason to think he won't attack this new challenge the same way.