Monday's NFL: Flacco, 37, steps in at QB for Jets; Steelers WR Pickens dazzles in opener
Florham Park, N.J. — There are moments – and they seem to be increasing by the year – when Joe Flacco knows his teammates are laughing at him.
Not for anything he’s doing on the field. But the New York Jets quarterback is 37 years old, and that’s practically ancient when you consider he’s on a roster filled with guys who were still learning how to add, subtract and read when he was starting his NFL career.
“I don’t view myself as an old person,” Flacco said with a smile. “But every now and then, when these guys come up to you and say something to you, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, you think I’m like 50 years old. I got it.’”
Still a kid at heart with the arm of a youngster, Flacco is the Jets’ QB1 while New York awaits the results of Zach Wilson’s arthroscopic knee surgery Tuesday in Los Angeles. Wilson is expected to miss two to four weeks with a torn meniscus and bone bruise in his right knee, but it could be more if doctors discover additional damage.
While Wilson playing in the season opener on Sept. 11 against Baltimore remains a possibility, it would seem more likely that Flacco is under center against the Ravens – his old team – and perhaps a few opponents beyond. It all depends on Wilson’s knee.
Until then, Flacco is preparing just as he always has.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing and I love helping out a young guy and playing my role on this team,” Flacco said. “But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the desire to still be really good at what I do and didn’t still believe that I could still play this game.”
Coach Robert Saleh (Dearborn) has raved about Flacco since the Jets re-signed him in March to be Wilson’s backup. Saleh has run down the list of accomplishments, which include winning the Super Bowl and the game’s MVP award to cap the 2012 season with the Ravens. He has thrown for 41,269 yards and 227 touchdowns in his 14 NFL seasons.
Flacco has been a starter and, at one time, the highest-paid quarterback in league history. He also has been a backup and mentor. Now, he needs to be a starter again, at least for the next few weeks – and possibly the start of this season.
“He’s a veteran,” Saleh said, “and I just expect him to approach it like he has his entire career.”
Flacco realizes he’s part of an older generation of players – especially in his own locker room. After all, Wilson is 23. Cornerback Sauce Gardner, the Jets’ top draft pick in April, is a mere 21. There are only eight players out of 90 even in their 30s, with Flacco topping the list – and newly signed left tackle Duane Brown right behind him, with his 37th birthday on Aug. 30.
“Every now and then, you think about the fact that I’m the oldest person in the room and it’s tough to wrap my head around because when you’re in the locker room and around a bunch of … I mean, Sauce is like 20 or 21 years old,” Flacco said. “I view myself as 25, 26 at max, so it’s just one of those things you just get used to it and you develop relationships and all that other stuff just goes out of the window.”
Age becomes just a number if you can still perform. Just ask Tom Brady, who retired after last season but is back for another year with Tampa Bay at age 45.
“Tom’s different,” Flacco said. “To be able to do what he has done, it’s crazy.”
But what Flacco is doing isn’t too shabby, either. And while the age gap between him and the rookies continues to grow with each season, Flacco’s teammates keep the father of five feeling young.
Even if it’s by him being the butt of their old-man jokes.
“You get to know guys and you get to develop relationships with people and they see you different,” Flacco said. “After they interact with me for a little bit, they’re sitting at lunch and we’re chopping it up and all of a sudden in a couple of minutes they might see me completely different than they did before they sat down at the table, so it’s really neat.
“I feel like I’m like a dad that’s easy to pick on and they like laughing at me because of that, so I embrace it.”
Promising Pickens dazzles
The secret might be out about Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver George Pickens.
Pickens has been the talk of the team’s training camp, as he has turned heads with his big-play ability through three weeks of workouts at St. Vincent College.
The promising rookie was just as impressive in his professional debut, helping the offense to three first-half scoring drives during Pittsburgh’s preseason-opening win against Seattle on Saturday.
Pickens was pleased with his first preseason game, but he’s far from satisfied.
“It’s like a dream come true, but I feel like if you look at it like a dream come true, you’ll kind of get stuck in your dream,” Pickens said. “I don’t really pay no mind. I just kind of keep working.”
Pickens finished the game with three receptions for 43 yards, including a highlight-reel 26-yard touchdown catch.
“I’ve been doing the same thing I’ve been doing at practice,” Pickens said. “Just to get the feel of the game … that’s really the most important part.”
Pickens has quickly built chemistry and trust with Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett, the three quarterbacks vying for the opportunity to replace the retired Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers new starter.
Pickens had five targets on Saturday, tied for the most among all players. Trubisky immediately put Pickens into the mix with a 9-yard short pass on the first play of the game and another deep target later in the drive. Pickens later made a spinning 8-yard grab near the sideline in tight coverage.
Trubisky has certainly noticed the young rookie.
“He’s standing out,” Trubisky said. “He’s making plays and he’s definitely a guy you want to go to. He’s been really impressive up to this point.”
The most impressive moment came during his 26-yard touchdown reception from Rudolph late in the first quarter. Pickens rushed past Seahawks rookie cornerback Coby Bryant, created separation near the goal line and barely kept his toes inbounds, as he pulled in a high-arching, over-the-shoulder pass at the back pylon.
Rudolph has witnessed it throughout training camp, not only Pickens’ innate ability to separate, but also the capability to come down with a reception while battling with a defender.
“We’ve seen it where it’s a 50-50 shot and he makes those plays,” Rudolph said. “It was good to connect and build some confidence. He made a great play and got his toes down when we needed it.”
Pickens displayed his abilities away from the football, too. His downfield block took out two defenders and helped Anthony McFarland bust off a 24-yard run on a third-and-1, a crucial play that led to a Steelers touchdown on the game’s first drive.
Pickens also delivered a hard shove to Bryant from the line of scrimmage on another opposite-field run. It was a push so hard that isolated replays went viral on social media, as Bryant tumbled several yards backward following the shove.
“He’s a young player with a lot of potential,” Rudolph said. “He’s already done well and I think he’s going to continue to fine-tune the little things. We’re excited about it.”
So are the Steelers, who feel they may have gotten the steal of the 2022 draft after selecting the former Georgia standout in the second round.
Pickens tore the ACL in his right knee in March 2021. But less than nine months after his injury, Pickens made an impact in Georgia’s run through the College Football Playoff, as the 6-foot-3 standout hauled in a 52-yard reception in the win against Alabama during the national championship game.
Pickens likely would have been rated a first-round pick if not for his injury.
Pickens, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, caught 85 passes for 1,240 yards during his first two seasons with Georgia. The Steelers were well aware of Pickens before his knee injury on the fourth day of Georgia’s spring drills and didn’t hesitate to add the star receiver to a young, talented offensive skill group that includes Diontae Johnson, Najee Harris, Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth.
“Instead of going off analytics, I wanted to show people that I could really play,” Pickens said. “That’s what I was telling people at the (NFL) Combine, the type of player that I am.”
Pickens has certainly proven as much through three weeks of training camp practices and his first preseason game in the NFL.
“Anytime the ball is in his area, it’s a big-play opportunity,” Trubisky said. “We have to keep getting reps with him, keep giving him opportunities and he’s going to continue to do special things.”