Towson University's Tom Flacco tends to be unassuming, personifying the "Joe Cool" moniker attached to his famous brother. But call Flacco a "running quarterback" at your own risk.
In high school, he threw for 7,387 career yards, which ranked as the third-highest total in southern New Jersey history. The redshirt junior ranks ninth among all Football Championship Subdivision quarterbacks with 1,482 passing yards and is tied for fourth in touchdown throws with 14. But he can't seem to shake the perception that he is a quarterback who relies extensively on his legs.
"That bothered me," Flacco said in the aftermath of the No. 17 Tigers' 52-28 blowout of then-No. 13 Stony Brook on Saturday. "I don't know why I got it. Even in high school, if you look at my stats, I threw for 7,000-something yards. So I was kind of wondering why I got that. It must have been some of the coaches that I was with, but I knew I could throw the ball. I knew I was a quarterback who's athletic, not just an athletic quarterback."
To be fair, Flacco does lead the Tigers in rushing, gaining 326 yards on 66 carries and scoring twice. But if observers are paying attention to only what he does with his legs, they are short-changing themselves, according to older brother Joe, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.
"I've watched him play, and he's got a strong arm, he's accurate, and he's able to create a little space when he needs to and still have that strength in his arm to get it downfield and get it in an accurate spot," said Joe Flacco, who is 10 years older than his youngest sibling. "I think he's a good athlete. He can run the ball. I think people probably assume that that is what he is more of, but he really has the capability to take advantage of some of the things that are presented."
Flacco's journey to Towson (2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association, 4-1 overall) was not serendipitous. After transferring from Western Michigan to Rutgers, Flacco sat out the 2017 season as a redshirt and was buried on the Scarlet Knights depth chart behind three other quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, after a 5-6 overall record and a 3-5 mark in the CAA in 2017, the Tigers overhauled their offensive schemes. Coach Rob Ambrose and offensive coordinator and younger brother Jared Ambrose scoured the Football Bowl Subdivision landscape for a quarterback who would fit what they were seeking to accomplish.
"The reason he's here is, I wasn't happy with where we were at the quarterback position by the end of spring," Rob Ambrose said. "I was happy with where we were going in general, but I didn't think we were getting everything that we could out of that position. Tom was the perfect plug-and-play. Skill-wise and intellectually, he already gets this. Personality-wise, with me, him and my brother, it didn't take me long to see that he was the right kind of guy for us."
The feeling is mutual for Flacco, who was selected in the 32nd round by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2014 MLB draft and was sparingly utilized by the Broncos.
"This season, finally there's a coaching staff that trusted me and gave me the keys," he said. "That's what it was."
With Flacco under center, Towson's offense has run the no-huddle almost exclusively, pausing only for timeouts and when opponents are injured. He threw for a career-high four touchdowns in the rout of the Seawolves, which occurred one week after he ran for a school-record-by-a-quarterback 185 yards and two scores in a 44-27 dismantling of The Citadel.
Although he is trying to distance himself from the idea that he is a running quarterback, Flacco is not afraid to use his arm and legs to contribute to his team's success.
"I'm going to do whatever I need to do in whatever week it is," he said. "Last week, I ran for a bunch of yards. Whatever it takes to win. I'm not really trying to prove anything. I do have a chip on my shoulder, but otherwise, it's just about winning. We're going to continue to prove people wrong because people keep doubting us for whatever reason, and that's just going to happen no matter how we play. But I'm not thinking about that."
"Tom's an athletic guy playing quarterback, and normally those guys are more run-around guys than anything else, and when they throw, sometimes it can be good and sometimes it's not," Ambrose said. "He's a passer who's athletic. There's a difference. He's not a thrower. He's a passer, and that's really dangerous. When you have a quarterback who can run a little bit and you're playing football with all 11 and not just a pocket passer, if I'm a defensive coordinator, that's kind of scary."
Ambrose quipped that he would not like to be an opposing defensive coordinator preparing for the Tigers offense. In the same vein, redshirt junior running back Shane Simpson called the offense under Flacco "definitely different."
"He's so dynamic," Simpson said. "He can throw, but also he can run. So you don't know what he's going to do. He's definitely great for our offense."
Many people may assume that Flacco has the advantage of leaning on his older brother for his football expertise. But Joe Flacco said the two tend to discuss non-football subjects if his younger brother is not chasing after his nephews and nieces.
"I don't think he models anything off of anybody," the elder brother said, dismissing the notion that his playing style has been the standard for Tom Flacco. "He's just out there playing and doing what he does."
Being named the STATS FCS National Offensive Player of the Week after his performance against The Citadel has helped Tom Flacco emerge on a national scale, but he has never lacked confidence that he is capable of making an impact for a team that trusted him to do so.
"I've known what I can do, and I'm finally like, 'All right,' " he said. "So this is not surprising to me at all. The way these guys work on offense, the way our whole offense worked in the summer, no, this is not a shock at all. This is what we saw, and we see bigger things, too."
Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore left Johnny Unitas Stadium impressed with what he saw from Flacco.
"He's very instinctive," Priore said. "He does a lot with his feet, but he's got a surrounding cast that's playing well also. Their receiver, No. 3 (redshirt junior Shane Leatherbury), is a good player, their running backs are good players. He extended drives. If you look at the outcome of this game, I think we're all going to be wrong if we say it's just about Tom Flacco because it's an 11-man game and I don't think Towson will do that either. I think it's about their entire team. But he's a good player certainly, and they're excited about watching him."