Trent Dilfer gets it. He knows there's only one quarterback in this week's conference title games who's being subjected to the on-the-couch treatment from every NFL analyst on the planet, and he's well aware of how his own reputation and playing experience factors into the "can-he-do-it?'' debate that rages around Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
"I think Joe in his heart of hearts probably wants to be anything but me,'' Dilfer, the former Super Bowl-winning Ravens quarterback turned ESPN analyst, said Wednesday, in a typical burst of candor. I had asked Dilfer if he had ever reached out to Flacco to express any "I feel your pain'' type of sentiment, given how uniquely qualified he is to put himself in Flacco's shoes as Sunday's AFC Championship Game against New England looms?
After all, who could relate to Flacco's struggles and frustrations in trying to get a defensively-led Baltimore team to the Super Bowl better than the only Super Bowl quarterback in Ravens history? To some degree, Dilfer has been there and done that, and lived what Flacco is facing as he approaches what could be the opportunity to register a career-altering and perception-changing victory.
If Trent Dilfer could be Joe Flacco this week, knowing what Dilfer already knows about a career defined by the dreaded "game-manager quarterback'' label, what battles would he be fighting, and where would his focus be?
"You can't change people's perceptions,'' Dilfer said. "It's impossible. Not by talking, and even sometimes not by playing. It can take years to change it. I understand his frustrations. It's much harder to be a quarterback in a ball-control offense, because you have less opportunities, so any failure is magnified. If you're throwing the ball 45 times a game, and you dirt a couple, throw a pick, and miss a couple reads, but you still have 32-33 other really good plays, that's okay. But if you have 24 attempts, and you have four or five mistakes, that's all anybody remembers. It's just the nature of ball-control versus a pass-first offense.
"At the end of the day, really all Joe can do is his job. He can't control how many first-down down passing opportunities he gets. He can't control what plays [offensive coordinator] Cam [Cameron] calls. He has to play within the structure of the offense, and execute whatever play is called to the best of his ability. Right now, he's just not winning the mental battle based on the comments he made to the media last week and how he played against Houston.''
Last week, of course, Flacco came out and bristled at the lack of credit he has received regarding Baltimore's success, with the Ravens being No. 2-seeded in the AFC and playing in an NFL-best fourth consecutive postseason. But it struck many, me included, as an ill-timed plea for recognition, and Flacco did little to burnish his credentials with his modest performance in last Sunday's 20-13 divisional-round home win over Houston. Yes, he threw for two first-quarter touchdowns and had no turnovers against the Texans, but he was just 14 of 27 (51.9 percent) for 176 yards, and Baltimore generated just 11 first downs, and scored only three points in the game's final 46 minutes.
That so-so showing prompted even veteran Ravens safety Ed Reed to question his quarterback's understanding of the offense in an early-week radio interview, saying Flacco "didn't look like he had a hold on the offense,'' with Reed unhelpfully adding that Flacco appeared "kind of rattled a little bit'' against Houston. While fellow conference-final quarterbacks Tom Brady, Alex Smith and Eli Manning are being lionized this week for their strong playoff performances of last weekend, Flacco is again taking flak. Ironically enough, the situation has again left him on the defensive.
"I too was a little taken aback that he tried to defend himself last week, because I would think by now he'd know it's a lose-lose proposition,'' Dilfer said. "But it makes sense that he gets so frustrated and says something like 'You don't understand what I'm going through.' I don't think it's the right thing to do, but I understand what the genesis of the frustration is.
"Then he goes out the other day against Houston, and it did appear they were running some very vanilla stuff. Give the Texans a ton of credit now, because on half those plays Joe could do nothing about it. But it wasn't like it was a pass-driven offense. It was 'We're going to make sure we run the ball and get Ray Rice his carries, and then throw some token throws in there.' It was a game plan that said 20 points wins this game, and hey, they were right.''
Baltimore was right, and the Ravens moved on to their first AFC title game since Flacco's rookie year of 2008. But 20 points isn't likely to win this week's game against a Patriots team that averaged 32.8 points per game in the regular season and just hung up 45 against an overwhelmed Denver defense in the divisional round. And Dilfer sees potential danger for both Flacco and the Ravens this week.
"You've got to be able to do enough, and the question out there is can they do enough if their defense gives up more points than they're accustomed to giving up?'' Dilfer said of Baltimore. "From a talent standpoint, I would say absolutely I think Joe is capable of doing enough. But I'm worried about the Ravens, that they'll try to be more than they are. As a quarterback, if you try to do too much, and play outside of your comfort zone, that's when mistakes happen. The danger is you cross that bridge between doing enough and too much, and that's when you become Kerry Collins throwing five picks in the Super Bowl.''
Flacco's career in Baltimore does represent an enigma of sorts. He's the only quarterback in league history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first four seasons, and he takes a 5-3 postseason record into Gillette Stadium this weekend. His 44-20 regular-season record as a starter also represents the most wins by any NFL starter in his first four seasons in the league (keep in mind Brady sat the bench as a rookie in 2000).
But Flacco seemingly regressed this season, posting a career-low 57.6 completion rate, with fewer touchdowns (20) and more interceptions (12) compared to 2010 (25 and 10), and his playoff career totals are less than dazzling: six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 153.3 yards passing on average, and a 53-percent completion rate.
Flacco can rightfully offset some of those statistics this season by pointing out he's 7-0 against teams that made the playoffs this year, with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, a 61.5 completion rate and a sterling 97.3 passer rating. He owns two wins over Pittsburgh, two wins over Houston, two wins over Cincinnati and a defeat of San Francisco in those games. But what he does Sunday against New England is still very likely to impact how much urgency the Ravens show in trying to extend his contract in 2012, as he enters the final season of his rookie deal.
Dilfer thought Flacco had at last cleared a significant hurdle with his Week 9, last-second 23-20 comeback win at Pittsburgh, the victory that in reality wound up earning Baltimore its first AFC North title since 2006 and putting the Ravens on track for the No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and a long-awaited home playoff game in the divisional round. But Flacco and the Ravens did not follow up strongly on the heels of that season-defining success.
"I came out after his Steelers game and said this is his signature moment,'' Dilfer said. "And it was his signature moment because Joe played outside the box. Especially in the midst of that comeback, Joe played outside the box and he just kind of threw it where he instinctively thought he should throw it. Some push-the-envelope throws that weren't in the primary structure of their offense.
"So I thought it was his signature moment, and okay, for a lack of better terms, he dropped his nuts and said 'I'm taking this thing over.' And I was really expecting to see an ascension from the Ravens offense after that game. I don't know what happened behind closed doors that stopped him, but in fact I thought they were worse after that. It was almost as if they said, 'Whoa, you got away with it one time, but you better not do that again.' That's how it appeared. And I lived that kind of nightmare in Tampa Bay, where you go play a game against Minnesota and do everything right, and the first thing you hear is, 'Great job, but you got away with one there because you took some chances. But don't do it again.' ''
In training camp visits for SI.com this season, I spent some time talking with Flacco about how he as a quarterback and the Ravens as a team had to get over the hump of beating Pittsburgh head to head. Flacco spoke candidly of the need to take more chances in the passing game this season, especially in the biggest games of the year. The clear understanding was that this had to be the season when the Ravens took the training wheels completely off their fourth-year quarterback and trusted him to take more downfield shots, thereby adding a more explosive element to Baltimore's offense.
But I don't think that has happened to the degree Flacco would like, and if it has, Flacco hasn't responded well enough and often enough to any increased responsibility and trust. Behind the scenes, there's still said to be plenty of tension between Flacco and Cameron in terms of the conservative approach of the play-calling, and how many chances Baltimore's quarterback is allowed to take in a given game.
The Ravens simply haven't maximized their improved personnel on offense this season. This isn't the same dominant defense that helped lead Baltimore to a Super Bowl victory in 2000, but it's a very, very good one. And the Ravens offense has superior personnel today compared to the one Dilfer quarterbacked to a title. But the same defense-first, ball-control approach prevails, and Sunday will provide a test of Flacco's ability to play within the Ravens' system and max out its offensive potential against the powerful and pass-happy Patriots.
Would a win in this game change everything for Flacco and his perception throughout the league? Dilfer is dubious.
"Unfortunately, and I do not agree with this, but it's the reality of it in today's football, if you don't put up monster numbers, you will not be considered one of the better quarterbacks,'' he said. "Whether you are or aren't one. Troy Aikman right now would not be considered one of the better quarterbacks, and I think he's one of the top six of all-time. I think Troy is by far the most underrated quarterback of all-time. But when you're in a ball-control offense, I don't care how good you are, you will not be considered perceptually one of the better quarterbacks because the audience is too simple-minded beyond the box score.
"I don't get it, and I think our perception of what quarterbacking is has been skewed by this pass-happy league and the rules that are in place that allow guys to throw for these kind of sick numbers. It's a fantasy football mentality, and it's not changing. If I'm an owner or a head coach, I'm putting in a pass-driven offense, because you can just get away with more. You don't have to fight the battles that Baltimore has to fight, because you can lose a game 35-31 and people will forgive you more than losing 17-12. For whatever reason, it helps their fantasy football team, it gives them more hope, a 35-31 loss can be forgiven. But they can't forgive a low-scoring offense. Ultimately, all people really resort back to is the box score.''
Strangely enough, when it comes to Flacco, the bottom line isn't always the final word. Maybe this Sunday in Foxboro, he wins and wins impressively, flipping the script. If so, the can-he-do-it debate will finally die down -- for at least a week or so.