CLEVELAND — Joe Flacco struggles to process this refound fame, an unexpected rebirth in a city where he was once despised and is now adored.
It’s all happened so fast for the quarterback who fell from his couch and landed in Cleveland and then the playoffs.
“Crazy,” the soon-to-be 39-year-old Flacco said.
Less than two months ago, he was home in New Jersey just being a dad — albeit the only one in the neighborhood with a 15-year NFL career and Super Bowl MVP on his resume — helping his wife, Dana, corral their five kids on a daily basis.
He scrambled eggs for breakfast, packed school lunches and clumsily tried to braid his daughter’s hair into a ponytail.
“I’m awful at that,” Flacco said. “Ultimately I’m just another one of the children. I do get in the way probably more times than not.”
Fortunately for the Browns, he kept other skills sharp during an extended and, for Flacco, puzzling layoff from football.
And now here he is following a five-game stretch (4-1 as a starter, 1,616 yards, 13 TDs) in which he has outplayed every other quarterback in the league, leading the Browns, a team he tormented while playing for the Ravens, into the postseason with a wild-card playoff matchup in Houston on Saturday.
It’s beyond bizarre that in a blink a QB who went 18-3 against the Browns has gone from nemesis to hero in Cleveland.
He’s got one of the NFL’s most rabid fan bases frothing and truly believing this could be the season the Browns, one of four franchises never to reach the Super Bowl, finally end their drought.
Flacco fever is rampant.
One of the local sports-talk stations is playing a parody song to the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” that honors the QB’s exploits since he got to Cleveland in November. Last week, a Catholic priest at a West Side parish cited Flacco’s unforeseen arrival while giving his sermon during a Mass to celebrate Epiphany.
Cleveland has embraced Flacco and vice versa.
A day after he helped the Browns clinch a playoff berth with a win over the New York Jets, Flacco and his family finished dinner and were leaving a crowded restaurant near the apartment he’s renting when they got a surprise.
“They were all clapping for us and stuff,” Flacco told a small group of reporters last week, almost embarrassed. “And it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on here?’ But it’s cool. I mean, it does make you feel good, as crazy as it is.”
Surreal. Storybook. Incredible.
Flacco’s comeback is not only a personal triumph but another example of resilience by a Browns team that has plowed through an avalanche of injuries. When quarterback Deshaun Watson fractured his shoulder while leading the Browns to a dramatic win at Baltimore on Nov. 12, the season seemed hopeless.
That’s when a phone call from the Browns to Flacco’s agent, Joe Linta, led to him trying out for the Browns on Nov. 17, signing to the practice squad three days later and, well, the rest is one of the most unlikely sports stories in recent memory.
Before all that, Flacco was a rifle-armed QB without a team. And, as days turned to weeks and into months, the Super Bowl 47 MVP wondered if he had thrown his last pass.
Deep down, he felt he could still play at a high level, but the silence from around the league made him wonder.
“It’s tough because, I am sure, part of me was probably thinking, all right, what am I going to do next?” said Flacco, who went just 1-8 as a starter in three seasons before coming to Cleveland. “I probably played my last game, and then part of me was thinking, OK, but you got to stay focused. You could still play.
“I wasn’t in control of it. All I could do was do what I was doing to make sure that I was ready in case it did happen.”
So Flacco stayed in shape by throwing passes to his younger brother, Tom, a college QB who played in the CFL, at a youth field near his home. The only rush Flacco faced was handling awkward questions about his status posed by dads when he went out for coffee or was picking up the kids at school.
“You have people come up to you and they’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, man, how’s retirement?’” he said. “You don’t really want to get into it with people. So sometimes you’re just like, ‘Oh, yeah, man, going good.’ And other times you’re like: ‘Well, I’m not actually retired. I do want to play. So we’ll see what happens.’”
What’s happened has seemed to shock everyone but Flacco, who rarely seems ruffled and, if he is, doesn’t let it show. He even threw three TD passes against the Texans in a 36-22 win on Dec. 24.
“Joe Cool,” Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “He’s been there. He’s done that.”
In 2012 with the Ravens, Flacco did it all, putting together a postseason run as impressive as any quarterback’s in the modern era. He threw for 1,140 yards with 11 TDs and no interceptions, capping it with three TDs to beat San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
He hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as confetti fell that night in New Orleans, and he can only imagine what it would be like to get his hands on it again.
“Oh, my God,” he said of the possibility.
Flacco then allowed himself to dream a little.
“If you do let that creep in a little bit,” he said, “then there would be so many special things about it. It’s like when you have your first kid and then you think like, ‘Oh man, I can’t love anything really this much. And then you have another kid and you realize, ‘OK, I was wrong.’
“It’d probably be a little bit like that. Not to compare it to my kids, but there’s something special about that one. And, if it were to happen again, there would be something that was uniquely special about this one.”