- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

BALTIMORE | It wasn’t the most conventional or most dazzling performance, but Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco kicked off his NFL career in victorious fashion.

Flacco - only the second Division I-AA quarterback to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft - did a little passing, running and even some blocking to help the Ravens to a 17-10 season-opening victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Flacco completed 15 of 29 passes for 129 yards, had a key hand in the Ravens’ first touchdown and rushed for a score. Less than a month ago, it appeared unlikely he even would be active for the season opener.

Steve McNair, whose arm led the Ravens to a 13-3 record in 2006, hobbled into retirement following last season’s 5-11 campaign. And Baltimore management remained unconvinced about the long-term capabilities of 2003 first-round pick Kyle Boller or their 2007 fifth-rounder, former Heisman winner Troy Smith. So the Ravens used the 18th pick of April’s draft to select Flacco.

The Delaware alumnus wasn’t expected to take over right away as first-year coach John Harbaugh hoped either Smith or Boller could manage the offense while Flacco adjusted to the NFL.

But neither veteran made a strong case for himself during the first few weeks of the preseason. Then Boller wound up on the sidelines with a serious shoulder injury. And Smith came down with a viral illness and hasn’t taken a snap since mid-August.

And so the Ravens began the Flacco Era - at least for now - basically by default.

However, the Baltimore fans enthusiastically welcomed Flacco’s arrival. Purple and white No. 5 jerseys bearing his last name were plentiful, and the majority of fans held up preprinted promotional “Wacko 4 Flacco” signs nearly every time he completed a pass early in the game.

Flacco’s first official NFL pass was a 9-yard slant to tight end Todd Heap. The Baltimore fans rose to their feet with a roar of approval. But the ball was jarred free of Heap’s grasp, and Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers recovered the fumble on the Baltimore 33.

After another unsuccessful possession, Flacco found his rhythm on an eight-play, 78-yard scoring drive. He completed three of four pass attempts for 28 yards, got a first down on a 2-yard sneak and even played the role of lead blocker, laying two downfield hits to spring receiver Mark Clayton on a 42-yard touchdown run off of a double reverse.

“Joe was unbelievably poised,” Clayton said. “For me and my take, I don’t almost consider him a rookie quarterback. He prepared well and came out here and was ready and poised and put us in a position to win the game.”

With 2:47 left in the third quarter and Flacco and Co. retaking the field, the Baltimore fans began chanting “Let’s go Flac-co! Let’s go Flac-co.”

“I thought I heard it, but at first I wasn’t really sure,” Flacco smiled and said of the cheers. “I was like, ‘Why would they being doing that?’ But hey, if I can keep them on my side like that, it’ll be a good time.”

Six plays into that drive, Flacco read the defense and changed the play at the line of scrimmage, took the snap and rolled to his right on a bootleg. But when he approached the sideline, Flacco cut the ball downfield, faked out a defender and tumbled into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown run.

“I started running, and I was thinking first down,” Flacco said. “I got to the first-down point and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t think there’s anybody here.’ I started going up the field and thought, ‘I’m gonna get to the end zone.’”

Sunday also was expected to be the debut of Chad Johnson as “Ocho Cinco.” After legally changing his last name to the nickname he gave himself two years ago so he could wear it on the back of his jersey, the Bengals wide receiver wore a jersey bearing his new surname during pregame warmups.

But 15 minutes before game time, the Bengals released a statement from the NFL saying that “certain issues remain to be resolved before Ocho Cinco will be permitted to wear his new surname on his jersey.”

It ended up not mattering what name the receiver went by because his name was called only a couple of times as he finished with one catch for 22 yards.

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