CLEVELAND — Before Joe Flacco ever threw his first pass in a Browns jersey, tight ends coach T.C. McCartney tried warning them.
Nobody knew what to expect from a 38-year-old quarterback who looked like his best days in football were 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 spin it.
Then Flacco walked onto the practice field to run the scout team and quickly scored a touchdown against the Browns’ league-leading defense. Then he did it again. And again. And again.
Depending on who you ask, Flacco tore up the defense for five or six touchdowns running the scout team. Or maybe it was seven or eight. Flacco’s brief time running the scout team is already legendary, just like the rest of his six weeks here. It immediately got the attention of everyone in the building.
The Cleveland Browns are going back to the playoffs because they beat the Jets 37-20 Thursday night and because Joe Flacco is the best story in the NFL this year. He’s the Comeback Player of the Year. He’s Cleveland’s Man of the Year. He could run for office and get a dome stadium built here, too, if he stuck around long enough.
Browns clinch playoff berth as Flacco dominates Jets
Flacco was marvelous Thursday against his old team, cooking the Jets for 296 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He stands in the pocket and rips darts like the all-time quarterback in a schoolyard pickup game.
The Browns were without leading receiver Amari Cooper. They lost No. 2 threat Elijah Moore to a possible concussion. Flacco just keeps spinning it. He’s turned David Njoku into an elite tight end over the past month.
He has played five games now in a Browns uniform and he already ranks 33rd on the team’s career passing list. They’ve had 37 quarterbacks since returning to the league in 1999. He ranks 18th out of those guys, by the way, and he’s within 59 yards of passing Browns legend Johnny Manziel.
He’s been here six weeks.
is this real life?
‘Rome making them look silly out there pic.twitter.com/OAlQSNv2t4
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 29, 2023
He has surpassed 300 yards now in four consecutive games, the first time in his career that’s ever happened. I walked around the locker room in a daze after the game trying to find an offensive player to explain all of this to me like I’m a third-grader. How is this guy, at this age, coming off his couch after not playing well for years and putting up these kinds of numbers?
I got back a lot of blank stares and shoulder shrugs. No one knows how to properly describe this because there is no logical explanation. Aaron Rodgers won the league’s MVP award at 38 but he had been elite for more than a decade. Tom Brady threw for 4,700 yards in his age-38 season but he’s the greatest of all time and played at an elite level into his mid-40s.
Flacco’s last great season was 2014. His last good year was 2017. He was irrelevant and at times dreadful during his three seasons in New York. Now this.
His 13 touchdown passes already equal or exceed the total for five NFL teams this season — the Jets, Steelers, Titans, Panthers and Giants. His 13 touchdown passes equal the Steelers’ Kenny Pickett’s career total. It ranks Flacco 22nd on the Browns’ career list — one behind Deshaun Watson, actually.
Flacco is doing things that aren’t supposed to be done by 38-year-olds who were 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 a bit of a punchline around the league: Do something out of the ordinary for long enough and the random somehow seems to find you.
So as Flacco sat at his locker and began to strip off his uniform late Thursday night, I asked him if the league had drug-tested him yet. He cracked up.
Usually, those tests for PEDs and street drugs are done to all players during training camp, but since he wasn’t in camp with any team and didn’t sign anywhere until November, Flacco said he was tested for PEDs and other drugs as soon as he signed with the Browns. He hasn’t gotten flagged by the league since.
“I’m sure it’ll be coming,” he laughed.
Flacco’s best season in Baltimore came with Gary Kubiak as his offensive coordinator, and Kubiak spent a season with Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota. But Flacco and Stefanski never really had a relationship before 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 remaining so they brought him in for a workout and paired him with some receivers he’d never thrown to before. Immediately, the Browns’ coaches and execs were mesmerized by his arm strength. McCartney was right. The old man could still spin it. They didn’t bother working out anyone else. They had their guy.
Sadly, Manziel’s spot in Browns history might be safe.
The Browns still have a chance to win their division if Baltimore loses out and a few more things break Cleveland’s way. But if the Ravens win at Miami on Sunday, they’ll clinch the division and the Browns will have nothing left to play for Week 18 at Cincinnati. It makes a lot of sense to rest Flacco and several other veterans such as Cooper and Joel Bitonio, who could use the time off.
If this is it for Flacco’s regular season, it’s the type of tear that may never be duplicated. He breathed life into a franchise and city that looked despondent when Watson’s season ended. How could the Browns compete with a rookie quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a washed-up veteran who nobody else in the league wanted?
This is how. The sold-out crowd serenaded their new quarterback to chants of “FLAAAAACCO, FLAAAAACCO” throughout the night. This city, forever a Browns town, has been captivated by a team that never quits and the quarterback they never knew they needed.
After the game, Flacco lingered on the field with his children, all dressed in his jersey, standing by his side. He smiled and chatted with fans, many of whom have waited their whole lives for this. The stadium was mostly vacant when the Browns went to the playoffs in 2020. Prior to that, their last playoff season was 2002.
Baltimore will always have Joe Flacco’s heart, but Cleveland is proving to everyone he can find love again. The feeling is mutual.
(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)