Joe Flacco driven by family as Browns chase AFC playoff bid

BEREA, Ohio — Twice a week, Joe Flacco met his brother and dad on a Pee Wee turf field with an unlocked gate just a couple miles away from their homes in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

Their ritual began with tossing a heavy baseball, 10 ounces heavier than a normal one. Then, switching to a football, Joe and his brother, Tom, would place their dad, Steve, around the field to simulate receiving routes. While catching passes, Steve, who wore gloves to keep his hands from stinging, would recap the NFL weekend that was, which seemingly always featured a major quarterback injury.

“You’re going over that past Sunday, the guys who went down, and we’re like, ‘Has anybody reached out? They got to have called you, right?” Tom recalled. “And Joe’s like, ‘Nah, no one’s called me.’ And it’s like, ‘What the hell?'”

As the weeks passed, Joe kept waiting for that call to play in the NFL again. But still, Joe, his dad and his brother kept meeting up to throw and help keep Joe’s big right arm ready. Sometimes they went until their arms got tired. Other days they had to call it early to chase down Tom’s toddler son, Joseph, who would wander off to a nearby field on his toy bike.

Finally in mid-November, Joe got that call. The quarterback-needy Cleveland Browns wanted to fly him in for a workout following a season-ending shoulder injury to starter Deshaun Watson. So Joe, Tom and Steve met to throw one final time before Joe boarded a flight from Philadelphia to Cleveland that night.

“You could tell he was excited he had this opportunity,” Tom said. “That was cool to see. Like, all right, this is sweet.”

A little over a month later, Joe improbably has propelled the Browns to the brink of their first postseason appearance since 2020. Thursday night, Cleveland (10-5) can clinch a playoff berth in its regular-season home finale against the New York Jets (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox).

“We’re just happy as s—, as you can imagine,” Steve said. “We want to see those Cleveland fans win, baby. And we’re very appreciative of the organization for bringing him in.”

Since he took over at quarterback for the Browns in Week 13, Joe leads the NFL with 1,307 passing yards. Before that, while rotating between Watson, PJ Walker and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback, Cleveland had ranked 28th in passing.

Suddenly, the Browns have won three in a row. Joe, meanwhile, who turns 39 next month, became the third-oldest quarterback behind Tom Brady and Warren Moon to pass for more than 300 yards in three consecutive games, all coming during the winning streak.

Now, with a tenacious defense and a newfound downfield passing attack behind Flacco, Cleveland is beginning to look like a real threat heading into the AFC playoffs.

“When Joe came in, it was like a weight was lifted off of our shoulders,” said star wideout Amari Cooper, who broke a Browns record with 265 receiving yards in Sunday’s 36-22 win over the Houston Texans. “This is a guy we trust in.”

As Cooper points out, Flacco’s success shouldn’t be so surprising. He’s one of the most accomplished quarterbacks still in the league. He was a former first-round draft pick who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, earning the game’s MVP honors.

But Flacco also hadn’t started a full season in six years. After a stint with the Jets last season that included four starts, he went unsigned during the offseason. He went unsigned during the preseason. He went unsigned for more than half the regular season, too.

“As I sat at home for most of this year,” Flacco said, “I was probably beginning to lose a little bit of faith.”

So how did Flacco arrive in Cleveland slinging passes like one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL? It goes back, at least in part, to those days with his dad and brother on that little league field.

“I can’t disclose our secret workouts,” Steve said, jokingly. “Really, it was just three knuckleheads on a field goofing off.”

STEVE AND HIS wife Karen raised six children: Joe, the oldest, followed by Mike, Stephanie, John, Brian and Tom, the youngest by a decade. Until Joe moved to Cleveland last month, the siblings had all settled with their families around Haddonfield, within five miles of their parents, with the exception of John, a doctor doing his residency in Jersey City.

“We were all super close growing up,” Joe said. “I think it’s just built into us, to want to stay like that.”

Following in the footsteps of his big brother who was a Football Championship Subdivision All-American for the University of Delaware, Tom also starred at quarterback, throwing 50 touchdowns over two seasons for Towson University.

“Even though we’re 10 years apart, it doesn’t seem like it because we’re so tight,” said Tom, who was a high school junior when Joe won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. “But I’d never really thrown with him on a field that much.”

That all changed this fall as Tom, like Joe, sought to keep his own football dreams alive following a spell in the Canadian Football League. So in September, he and Joe started throwing together to keep their arms in shape. Instead of soliciting receivers, they just brought in their dad to catch their passes.

“I can still catch the ball standing. Running [routes] is another story,” Steve said. “They bust my balls because I’ve gone to wearing gloves. But dude, my hands get chewed up.”

Last year, while serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, Watson worked out regularly with his personal quarterbacks coach and threw to receivers at a nearby Ohio athletic training facility. Flacco kept his body in shape. But the only passing he did this fall was to Tom and Steve.

“Joe’s thrown a ton of footballs, obviously, so we were really just trying to keep him loose and feeling good about his arm,” said Steve, who noted they threw in the late morning after Joe finished his workouts at the gym. “That’s really all it was. That’s really why we were out there.”

The three spent a lot of their time on the field playing catch with a baseball. First with the heavy ball, then long toss with a normal baseball, until Steve forced them to stop.

“That’s how we got warmed up,” Tom said.

After that, Joe and Tom practiced their footwork, including their three- and five-step drops, moving their father around the field.

“We would just go through routes with my dad, setting him up,” Tom said, “and sometimes he would jog them, so we’re hitting a moving target.”

All the while, the three would carry on prattling.

The brothers would have “stupid arguments, that’s the name of the game with us,” said Joe, including whether it’s better or worse to have a high heart rate.

Steve, meanwhile, would rattle through what he saw in all the NFL games from the previous weekend, “and me and my brother aren’t listening to him at all,” Joe said, laughing, “because we could [not] care less.”

Joe, Tom and Steve spent plenty of time with one another away from the Pee Wee field this fall. The Flacco families gathered on Fridays for pizza night and on Sundays to watch NFL games. But their throwing sessions became special, especially for Tom.

“To be in this situation where I’m throwing with him,” he said, “it’s not lost on me.”

ON NOV. 16, Tom met his brother and dad at the field not realizing it would be their last time throwing together. Watson, whom the Browns had given a record $230 million fully guaranteed contract to last year, needed season-ending right shoulder surgery. The Browns had called Joe to work out for them. Joe had not worked out for a team since entering the NFL draft 15 years ago. Tom and Steve gave Joe one final rehearsal, going over the Browns route tree, before he boarded a flight to Cleveland.

“We were fired up,” Steve said. “We’re like, ‘They’re going to work you out?’ When they see you on the field, I’m going to be feeling pretty good.”

According to multiple team sources who saw the audition in Cleveland firsthand, Joe crushed the workout. He’s been crushing opposing defenses ever since, rising to become one of the top comeback stories of this NFL season.

“It’s just cool to see for me how excited they are,” Joe said, “and it makes me feel the same way.”

Thursday night, Steve, Tom and Joe will be together again for the first time since that last passing session. The Flaccos are bringing a large contingent of family and friends from New Jersey to see Joe play for the Browns in person for the first time.

“The opportunity to see him in that stadium playing a home game, we’re not going to miss it,” Steve said. “Dude, this is the best thing ever.”

Tom, meanwhile, got the call he’d been waiting for, as well. He recently signed to play for the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks.

He’s continued to throw on the same field with his dad and now Vinny Papale, who is trying to make it in the USFL. Papale is the son of Vince Papale, who, at age 30, made the Philadelphia Eagles roster, a story told in the 2006 movie “Invincible,” starring Mark Wahlberg.

Now, after every Browns game, Joe and Tom break down what happened over the phone.

“Joe playing for Cleveland now and the way that they’re playing, it’s been exciting for my whole family, but it is really cool for me,” Tom said. “I’m not just a 16-year-old kid who just thinks that’s just what happens to your brother. I can appreciate it now a lot more.”

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