CLEVELAND – Before Joe Flacco threw his first pass in a Browns jersey, coach TC McCartney tried to warn them.
No one knew what to expect from a 38-year-old quarterback who seemed to have seen his best days in football 10 years and three teams ago, but McCartney still believed. He spent the 2019 season as Flacco’s quarterbacks coach in Denver and knew the old man could still do it.
Then Flacco came into training camp to run the scout team and quickly scored a touchdown against the Browns’ league-leading defense. Then he did it again. It is again. It is again.
Depending on who you ask, Flacco tore up the defense for five or six touchdowns while leading the scout team. Or maybe it was seven or eight. Flacco’s brief time leading the scout team is already legendary, just like the rest of his six weeks here. He immediately attracted the attention of everyone in the building.
The Cleveland Browns will return to the playoffs because they beat the Jets 37-20 on Thursday night and because Joe Flacco is the best story in the NFL this year. He is the comeback player of the year. He’s Cleveland’s man of the year. He could run and have a stadium built here too, if he stayed there long enough.
The Browns gain access to the playoffs while Flacco dominates the Jets
Flacco was wonderful Thursday against his old team, cooking the Jets for 296 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He stands in the pocket and throws darts like the all-time quarterback in a high school game.
The Browns were without leading receiver Amari Cooper. They lost the No. 1 threat. 2 Elijah Moore due to a possible concussion. Flacco continues to spin it. He has turned David Njoku into an elite tight end over the last month.
He has played five games in a Browns uniform and already ranks 33rd on the team’s career passing list. They’ve had 37 quarterbacks since they returned to the league in 1999. By the way, he ranks 18th among these guys and is 59 yards away from passing Browns legend Johnny Manziel.
He’s been here for six weeks.
is this real life?
«Rome makes them look stupid out there pic.twitter.com/OAlQSNv2t4
—Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 29, 2023
He topped 300 yards in four consecutive games, the first time in his career. After the game I walked around the locker room in a daze looking for an offensive player to explain all this to me as if I were a third grader. How does this kid, at this age, get off the couch after not playing well for years and putting up these kinds of numbers?
I got a lot of blank stars and shrugs. Nobody knows how to describe it properly because there is no logical explanation. Aaron Rodgers won the league’s MVP award at 38, but he’s been among the elite for more than a decade. Tom Brady threw for 4,700 yards in his age 38 season, but he is the greatest of all time and played at an elite level until he was 45.
Flacco’s last great season was 2014. His last good year was 2017. He was unremarkable and, at times, terrible during his three seasons in New York. Now this.
His 13 touchdown passes already equal or exceed the total of five NFL teams this season: Jets, Steelers, Titans, Panthers and Giants. His 13 touchdown passes tied the Steelers’ Kenny Pickett’s career total. He ranks Flacco 22nd on the Browns’ career list, one behind Deshaun Watson, in fact.
Flacco is doing things that shouldn’t be done by 38 year olds sitting on the couch six weeks ago. So I had to ask him.
When Cincinnati quarterback Jake Browning came off the bench to unexpectedly throw for 300 yards after Joe Burrow went down, he posted on Instagram that the league tagged him for a drug test. It’s all supposed to be random, but it’s also become something of a punchline across the league: do something out of the ordinary for long enough and random somehow seems to find you.
So, as Flacco sat at his locker and began taking off his uniform late Thursday night, I asked him if the league had drug tested him yet. I collapsed.
Typically, PED and drug testing is done on all players during training camp, but since he wasn’t in training camp with any team and didn’t sign anywhere until November, Flacco said he was Get tested for PED and other drugs as soon as possible. while he signed with the Browns. Since then he has no longer been reported by the league.
“I’m sure it will come,” he laughed.
Flacco’s best season in Baltimore came with Gary Kubiak as his offensive coordinator, and Kubiak spent one season with Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota. But Flacco and Stefanski never had a real relationship until six weeks ago.
When Watson went down with a broken shoulder, the Browns needed another quarterback. They thought Flacco was the best of the veterans left, so they brought him in for a workout and paired him with some receivers he had never thrown to before. Immediately, Browns coaches and officials were in awe of his arm strength. McCartney was right. The old man still knew how to spin it. They didn’t bother training anyone else. They had their own boy.
Unfortunately, Manziel’s place in Browns history may be secure.
The Browns still have a chance to win their division if Baltimore loses and some other factor interrupts Cleveland’s path. But if the Ravens win at Miami on Sunday, they will clinch the division and the Browns will have nothing left to play for in Week 18 in Cincinnati. It makes a lot of sense to rest Flacco and several other veterans like Cooper and Joel Bitonio, who could use the time off.
If this is it for Flacco’s regular season, it’s the kind of tear that may never be duplicated. He gave life to a franchise and a city that seemed dejected at the end of Watson’s season. How could the Browns compete with a rookie quarterback like Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a washed-up veteran no one else in the league wanted?
This is how. The sold-out crowd serenaded their new quarterback by chanting “FLAAAAACCO, FLAAAAACCO” all night long. This city, always a Browns city, has been captivated by a team that never gives up and the quarterback they didn’t know they needed.
After the match Flacco took to the field with his children, all dressed in his jersey, by his side. He smiled and chatted with fans, many of whom have been waiting for this their whole lives. The stadium was nearly empty when the Browns went to the playoffs in 2020. Before that, their last playoff season was 2002.
Baltimore will always have Joe Flacco’s heart, but Cleveland is proving to everyone that they can find love again. The feeling is mutual.
(Top photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)