About three weeks ago, Joe Flacco was not a part of an NFL roster. He was tuned into the league, watching games from home and keeping his throwing arm in shape by throwing to his children and his brother.
And then that all changed.
Three weeks later, Flacco will have the chance to lead an NFL team through its last stretch of the regular season and in the push for the playoffs. HC Kevin Stefanski announced following the Browns' 31-27 win over the Jaguars that Flacco will be their starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.
"There are so many different things that are running through my head," Flacco said. "It's unbelievable to be out there. It's really a unique experience. I can't say it enough to have children that are of the age where they understand what's going on and I'm going to remember these things forever. Like I said earlier, I'm just trying to stay in the moment and be as grateful as possible and keep getting better."
After not signing with a team during the offseason, Flacco waited through the early weeks of the season for a team to call him. But as weeks passed and he didn't receive a call, Flacco started to think that it wouldn't happen this season for him. Then, he heard from the Browns, asking him to come to Cleveland and work out.
Flacco officially signed with the Browns to the practice squad on Nov. 20, and began this part of his NFL journey in a Browns jersey.
"I think it's a little scary to not sign somewhere in the offseason and not be at training camp somewhere," Flacco said. "But I was trying to keep a positive light on it and look, spin it in a positive way and see all the benefits of possibly getting a call from a team at some point that needs somebody to help them win. […] Life puts you in certain situations and you don't know why you just got to make the most of it."
Flacco is making the most of his current situation, as his veteran presence has played an important factor for the Browns. This season, they have now had four starting quarterbacks, becoming the eighth team since 1961 that has used at least four starting quarterbacks in a season. In the last two weeks, Flacco's veteran experience of 16 NFL seasons, as well as knowledge of offensive systems, has proved beneficial for the Browns.
It played a role in the decision to name Flacco the starter for the remaining four games of the regular season.
"I think a player that's been around and has had the career that he's had, he can really lean on his experiences," Stefanski said. "Lean on his games that he's played, the different systems he's been in. And he just told that to the football team, just some of the things that he's been through and now we as a team have been through. It is good for you in the end."
Flacco completed 26 of 45 passes for 311 yards with three touchdowns in his second start for the Browns. He became the first Brown to throw three touchdown passes of at least 30 yards in the same game since Brian Sipe on Dec. 21, 1980. Flacco is the first Brown to throw for over 300 passing yards in a game since Jacoby Brissett totaled 324 at Buffalo on Nov. 20, 2022.
Flacco was awarded a game ball following the game from Stefanski and the locker room erupted in cheers, shouting for him to give a speech. Flacco then stepped into the center of his teammates and shared a message.
"Coach is right, man," Flacco said. "It was not pretty today, and I was not my best. But these are what make teams – these tough games. You guys earned the right all year to be play December football, and that's what we're doing right now. And that's what it looks like sometimes. And in January and February, that's what it's going to be. To have the mental toughness to come through in those types of games, that's what winners are made of. Hey, bring these games on and it's just going to make us better in the long run."
"I appreciate you guys having me, man," Flacco continued. "I feel like a 10-year-old kid out there."
His teammates shouted around him as DE Za'Darius Smith approached and gave Flacco a hug, celebrating their quarterback.
When Flacco first joined the Browns as a member of their practice squad, his main goal was to acclimate to the locker room. He wanted to prove that he could still be a part of an NFL locker room and contribute to a team.
In his three short weeks with the Browns, he's done just that. Several players in the Browns locker room watched Flacco play in the league when they were growing up, and it became a talking point in his early days with the Browns. It allowed them to grow comfortable with Flacco. WR David Bell – who Flacco connected with on a 41-yard touchdown pass on Sunday for Bell's first career touchdown – watched Flacco since he was 11 years old; now, he's playing with him and catching passes from Flacco.
When the Browns spent the week in Los Angeles before their Week 13 matchup against the Rams, the quarterbacks and offensive linemen went to dinner on Monday night of that week. It was a chance for the players to spend time with Flacco, and vice versa.
"He kinda opened up a little bit for us," G Joel Bitonio said. "And I was like, all right this is a normal guy, you know what I mean, like this is just a guy that loves playing ball. So, we go to know him a lot better out there and obviously it's been good."
He also gained the respect from his teammates by getting to know them and having conversations about the details of the game plan, learning what his receiving corps and pass catchers liked, as well as reviewing routes so they were on the same page. He demonstrated throughout practices how he could throw the ball. He spent time in the meeting room with OC Alex Van Pelt and the other quarterbacks, learning the nuances of their offense.
On the field, Bitonio said that Flacco brings the veteran presence because he's been in many different situations. He's calm under center. And he spreads the ball around to several targets.
In Flacco's first few days with the Browns, he had the chance to meet DE Myles Garrett in Stefanski's office. Garrett said that he wanted to get to know Flacco. Now, three weeks later and two games under his belt as a part of the Browns offense, Garrett has been impressed by what Flacco has done on the field in a short amount of time.
"I mean, you see all that gray hair you might too," Garrett jokingly said of Flacco. "But other than thinking he's Stefanski's lost brother, the guy looks good. He came in with a positive attitude and aura around him, of just wanting to listen and learn and be around the guys. […] At this point as well, he's still feels like he's an outsider looking in, but he's one of us. And as long as he continues what he's doing, he's going to stay one of us."
He also quickly earned the trust of his head coach to be at the helm of the offense, as Stefanski is playing to the strengths of Flacco. In the last two games, the Browns have spread the ball around to several pass catchers, connecting with eight different players on Sunday against the Jaguars after connecting with nine players in Week 13 against the Rams.
With the win on Sunday Flacco also hit a milestone in his 16th season, as he reached his 100th win. Flacco was aware of that milestone. He didn't dwell on the possibility during the game but said that he can be proud of that accomplishment when he looks back at this game.
"Obviously it feels good when it looks like people have confidence in you," Flacco said. "I know I've been in a bunch of locker rooms, but whenever you walk into a locker room you still want to gain the respect of everybody, and you don't know if you quite have that until you can go out there and get a win and continue to do it day in and day out. You try to carry yourself the right way and you try to do all the right things, but that doesn't guarantee anything in terms of going out on the field on Sunday. So, it feels awesome to go out there and get the win."