When Joe Flacco sustained a herniated disk in his neck last November, many wondered if the accomplished veteran quarterback would ever take another snap in the NFL. But after the Broncos released him in March with a failed physical designation, Flacco elected to undergo surgery in April and determined that the professional football chapter of his life wasn't at an end.
"I definitely was not done playing football in my mind," Flacco said this week. "I wasn't ready to do that. At that point, it became a no-brainer to go under and do it."
Flacco signed a one-year deal with the Jets in March, assured that he would be a backup QB for the first time. The 35-year-old, who set 20 school records at Delaware and was a first-round pick (No. 18 overall) of the Ravens in the 2008 NFL Draft, has a 98-73 mark as a starting QB in the NFL and has passed for 40,083 yards. Yet Flacco was signed as insurance, so the Jets had somewhere to turn if Sam Darnold missed time. When Darnold didn't start in 2018-19, the Green & White were 0-6.
The offseason wasn't an easy transition for Flacco. Following the successful procedure, he had to get used to swallowing food and water for a few days. Then he had to swallow hard throughout August while the Jets practiced and he remained on the club's PUP list.
"It was obviously frustrating before to kind of sit around during training camp and not really be able to practice even though I felt like I could," Flacco said.
Activated on Sept. 5, Flacco took the field on game day for the first time in Week 4. Serving as Darnold's backup for the Jets-Broncos contest, Flacco was forced into action for 5 snaps when Darnold went down with a shoulder injury. Flacco completed both of his passes for 16 yards.
"It was a little bit weird last week because you're always ready for that, but you don't necessarily expect anything like that to happen," Flacco said. "My adrenaline was definitely pumping last week when Sam went down there for the few plays I had to go in."
But this week, things have been different. Darnold is out for Sunday's contest vs. the visiting Cardinals (2-2) and Flacco is back in the saddle, leading a team that has had more questions than answers during its 0-4 start.
"I'm not looking at it in terms of bringing a spark," Flacco said. "Of course, we want to get things rolling as a team and kind of get our morale up and get us headed in the right direction. But not one guy, including myself, can try to do too much. We just have to go out there, take it play-by-play and let things fall in place."
While Darnold, 23, is an improviser who ran for a career-high 84 yards against Denver -- including an improbable 46-yard scoring rush, which was the longest ground gain by a QB in franchise history -- Flacco is an old-school pocket passer. He's averaged 2.3 yards per rushing attempt throughout his career and he won't look to run unless a gaping hole develops.
"He's a big dude, strong arm and can spin it and mentally, he's as sharp as they come," Darnold said of Flacco.
"The arm strength is still there, I know that," said Head Coach Adam Gase. "Joe seems like he's going to be fine. It's just more about just kind of working with the guys that he's got to work with that he's going to play with on Sunday and just kind of getting into some kind of rhythm."
Gase described Flacco as steady as they go and the latter is taking a measured approach to his return to extended action. The Jets continue to get healthier at the skill positions as both RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Vyncint Smith are expected to get the green light for action. Last week, the reliable Jamison Crowder (7-104) and youngster Jeff Smith (7-81) came back from injury and flashed. But the Green & White are likely to miss rookie LT Mekhi Becton and they'll face a Cardinals front that features Chandler Jones, a game-changer up front who racked up 19 sacks last season.
"You don't want to overdo it in your head and give yourself situations where you're going to go out there and try to do more than you should do," Flacco said. "I have to go out there and play within the offense and do the best I can for this team in the situation that we're in right now. That's focusing on this week and seeing it where it goes from there."
With his controlled emotions, Joe Cool is a symbol of calm and remains passionate about the game he loves.
"You want that excitement to show through a little bit," he said. "I don't know if anybody can necessarily ever see that in myself, but it's definitely there."
Flacco was a fixture behind center for the Ravens from 2008-18, connecting on 61.7% of his passes for 38,245 yards with 212 TDs and 136 INTs. He also had a 10-5 mark in the postseason and led Baltimore to an NFL championship in 2012, capturing MVP honors for his Super Bowl XLVII performance. He started eight games for the Broncos last year, absorbed a physical pounding and then went to injured reserve. The future appeared cloudy at best.
But six months after neck surgery, Flacco is set to make his first start for the New York Jets. He will become the oldest QB in franchise history to make his first Titans/Jets start in a non-opening day game.
"I think I have a lot left," he said. "I want to go out there and show my teammates I can play and I want to be there for them."