Joe Flacco earned his history-making deal

Joe Flacco played his best in crunch time -- and now has a trophy and a huge payday to show for it. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Remember when you made fun of Joe Flacco after he said he was the best quarterback in the NFL last April? Like so many times over the past two years, Flacco had the last laugh. Except this time, he's laughing all the way to the bank.

Flacco became the highest-paid player in NFL history when he agreed to a six-year, $120.6 million contract Friday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Did the Ravens overpay him? Certainly. Should Flacco get paid more than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? No way. But those questions are really irrelevant when it comes to contracts in the NFL, which is all about timing. When Flacco hoisted the Lombardi trophy 26 days ago, he essentially had the Ravens in the palm of his hand as well as having the leverage. Flacco put the Ravens in a situation in which they were forced to do everything in their power to sign the Super Bowl MVP, and he made them pay handsomely to do so.

Don't criticize the Ravens for giving a lottery jackpot to a quarterback who has never been to a Pro Bowl. Instead, you should applaud Flacco for earning it by playing his best when it mattered most. He really did put his money where his mouth is. Flacco could have played it safe by signing a deal worth $16 million per year before this season. But he gambled on himself, and the rest is Super Bowl -- and NFL contract -- history.

He put up Joe Montana-like numbers in the playoffs, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. He outplayed Brady and Manning in the postseason. In four playoff games, Flacco was unquestionably the best quarterback in the league. It was time to reward him.

The Ravens were going to pay Flacco at some point, whether it was the exclusive franchise tag ($19 million) or a long-term deal. And if the Ravens weren't going to give it to him, the Browns, Cardinals and Jaguars would have been more than happy to sign that record-setting check. But the Ravens were never going to let go of Flacco. Baltimore knows how hard it is to find a franchise quarterback. The Ravens went through 15 starting quarterbacks in their first 12 years of existence -- from Vinny Testaverde to Troy Smith -- before drafting this big-armed, lanky prospect out of the University of Delaware.

Critics of Flacco, and there are still some even after the Super Bowl, mistakenly focus on what Flacco isn't. He isn't consistent. He isn't a 4,000-yard passer in the NFL like Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. He isn't an on-field general like Manning.

But Flacco is a winner. His nine playoff victories are tied with Brady for the most ever by a quarterback in his first five seasons. His 63 wins since 2008, including the regular season and playoffs, are six more than anyone else during that same span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Flacco is a strong-armed playmaker. His 40 passes of at least 25 yards in the 2012 regular season ranked behind only Brees (47). In the playoffs, he completed 13 of 26 throws of 21 yards or more, including four that went for touchdowns.

And Flacco is tough. He has never missed a start in his five-year NFL career, a streak of 80 consecutive games (currently third-longest in the NFL).

More than anything, Flacco is hitting the prime of his career at age 28. The Ravens are not just paying Flacco for what he did. They are investing in what he will do for this team. Long defined by defense, the Ravens are transitioning to an offensive team, and this deal makes Flacco the centerpiece of that.

The risk, of course, is Flacco failing to live up to the expectations of being the NFL's highest-paid player. Before his torrid playoff run, Flacco finished 19th in completion rate (59.7), 15th in touchdown passes (22), 16th in passing yards per game (239) and 25th in Total QBR (46.8). Last season, he also produced more games of fewer than 200 yards passing (six) than with more than 300 yards (five).

The Ravens, though, are banking on Flacco's history when it comes to challenges. They used to say he couldn't beat Ben Roethlisberger. They doubted whether he could elevate his game in the playoffs. They wondered whether he could ever lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Over the past two seasons, Flacco has beaten Roethlisberger twice, has thrown 15 touchdowns and one interception in the playoffs, and came within a failed catch by Lee Evans of taking Baltimore to the Super Bowl in consecutive years.

And, months after Flacco was ridiculed for saying he was the best quarterback in the NFL, he delivered a postseason for the ages. Flacco doesn't say much, but he obviously relishes having the last word.

Flacco's deal is a benchmark for other NFL quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Matt Ryan. It has more meaning for the Ravens. In a year when the team said goodbye to linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens made an unprecedented commitment to Flacco. This is now Flacco's team, and he certainly earned it.