Friday, June 21, 2024

BEREA, Ohio — Nobody is going to feel sorry for Joe Flacco. He’s won a Super Bowl MVP and made more than $175 million in his career. He’s winning at life.

And yet …

There’s just something about Flacco’s 16 years in the NFL that has been gnawing at me while watching this incredible last-chapter renaissance. He was always good, always consistent in his prime, but never quite elite.

He never received a single MVP vote but Carson Wentz, Derek Carr, and Tony Romo did.

He never even appeared in a Pro Bowl. He was invited once but passed because his wife was due with their third child.

He was beloved — still is — by a large portion of the fan base in Baltimore, yet he was always overshadowed by Hall of Famers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. That Ravens defense still typically gets the bulk of the credit for his Super Bowl ring.

That’s why what’s happening here is so absurd, no script writer in the NFL or Hollywood could have made it sound plausible. A quarterback that hasn’t been good in a decade going on this type of heater? Throwing for more than 300 yards in three consecutive games for the first time in his career, leading the league in passing yards since becoming the Browns’ starter in Week 13 and tying for the league lead in touchdown passes during that time, too?

Drug tests for everyone.

Flacco is getting all of the credit now just weeks shy of his 39th birthday. He has quickly captured the attention and admiration of a city that was once divided by the Deshaun Watson trade.

He is again surrounded by an excellent defense, but no one here outside of Myles Garrett is on a gold jacket track at this point. Here, Flacco is the same as he’s always been. He’s the adult, the professional who just quietly goes about his business. There’s no drama, no cloud of controversy. He just shows up, does his job and meets his obligations every day.

Now in the twilight of his career, in a town that detests all things associated with the Baltimore Ravens, Flacco has stolen the heart of a city desperate for someone to love. This is Rocky being cheered in Russia or Jeter receiving a standing ovation in Boston.

“The city’s been unbelievable. I can’t say enough about how welcoming everybody has been,” Flacco said Tuesday. “Just coming from Baltimore for most of my career … It’s definitely been a little bit surreal in terms of how people have treated me around here.”

If this is his career victory lap, Flacco should take his time getting around the track. Embrace it all. Regardless of how this ends, he has already done enough to always be a Cleveland folk hero. He will be welcomed back and cheered here the way the crowd roars for Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson at Cavs games and for Rajai Davis at Guardians games. Without even playing in a postseason game, he has exceeded expectations in part because there were none when he arrived. His three wins in four games here match the total from his last four years as an NFL starter.

Since leaving Baltimore, Flacco was 3-14 in 17 NFL starts in Denver and New York. He’s 3-1 in Cleveland.

Make it make sense.

With the Jets coming to town Thursday night, and with as well as Flacco has played in Cleveland, obviously, New York executives would probably like a mulligan on how they handled this season after Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles. The Jets and Browns began the year with similar rosters and expectations. Both were playoff contenders in a crowded AFC and both lost their quarterbacks early. The Jets collapsed, and the Browns have thrived.

When they signed Flacco, I thought rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson should remain the starter. Based on his record and numbers since leaving Baltimore, and the fact no team called him for the first 12 weeks of the season, Flacco looked like nothing more than the emergency option for a team that has been on the phone with 911 quite a bit this season.

Then Thompson-Robinson suffered a concussion at Denver and Flacco immediately began exceeding everyone’s expectations to the point now he has done too good of a job. It’s difficult to see how the Browns could bring him back next year. Do they really want to commit three spots on the 53-man roster to quarterbacks? Do they want to give Flacco a few million in salary when every dollar counts on their cap?

This is Watson’s team. His ironclad contract makes it so, and thankfully, after a few bumpy stretches, the last memory we have was him going 14-for-14 in the second half (with a broken shoulder) to beat a Ravens team that looks like the best in the league today. Watson remains the last quarterback to beat Baltimore and he did it on the road.

Thompson-Robinson was drafted to be the long-term backup behind Watson. None of that has changed. Flacco’s presence here next year could only risk dividing a locker room the first time Watson struggles. For a quarterback this close to 40, it just isn’t worth it. The sequel is never better than the original. Whether Flacco wants to play again next year or not is for him to decide, but it can’t be in Cleveland.

So enjoy this for what it is: A remarkable story, the best in the NFL right now. And a highly respected veteran receiving his due.

The Browns have caught a hurricane in a handbasket. Hold on tight and enjoy the ride wherever it blows.

When it’s over, it’s really over.

(Photo: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)

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