By Jill Martin, CNN
(CNN) — Joe Flacco is 38 years old, but he says feels like a 10-year-old kid.
The Cleveland Browns are thankful for that youthful feeling.
Flacco is back playing in the NFL on a Browns team trying to claw its way into the playoffs – and he’s been named the starter for the rest of the season with four games to go.
On Sunday, as he outdueled Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Flacco threw 26-of-45 for 311 yards and three touchdowns as the Browns held off the Jaguars 31-27 to stop a two-game losing streak.
His performance wasn’t flawless – Flacco threw an interception and lost a fumble in his second game as Cleveland’s starter – but there’s a statistic that gives Browns fans comfort: the 38-year-old is the franchise’s first quarterback to throw three touchdown passes at least 30 yards in the same game since Brian Sipe on December 21, 1980.
“It was not pretty today, and I was not my best, but these are what make teams, these tough games,” Flacco said in the locker room to his team.
It’s potentially one of the most unlikely storylines of an NFL season that has seen a growing list of starting quarterbacks sidelined by injury.
“You guys earned the right all year to play December football and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Flacco said. “And that’s what it looks like sometimes. In January and February, this is what it’s going to be. To have the mental toughness to come through in those types of games, that’s what winners are made of.”
Flacco should know. Thanks to the Browns, he’s made it to his 16th NFL season despite starting the season on his couch – and with how his previous year ended.
It looked like the veteran quarterback’s playing days were over after a disappointing 2022 season with the New York Jets. The majority of Flacco’s career appearances came as the starter of the Browns’ divisional rival, the Baltimore Ravens, where he spent his first 11 seasons, notably winning Super Bowl XLVII.
“I appreciate you guys having me,” Flacco said Sunday to his teammates. “I feel like a 10-year-old kid out there.”
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski affirmed after Sunday’s win that Flacco would start the rest of the season.
“I think a player that’s been around and has had the career that he’s had, he can really lean on his experiences,” Stefanski said.
“Lean on his games that he’s played, the different systems he’s been in. And he just told that to the football team, just some of the things that he’s been through and now we as a team have been through. It is good for you in the end.”
‘It’s unbelievable to be out there’
In 2023, the list of injured NFL quarterbacks doesn’t quite mirror the complete, infamous list of every Browns starting quarterback since 1999 – that would be 37 since Flacco has taken over – but it might feel that way.
On Sunday alone, two notable starting quarterbacks made early exits: Houston Texans rookie CJ Stroud with a head injury and Justin Herbert (finger) of the Los Angeles Chargers.
It’s yet to be determined how long Stroud and Herbert will be out, but add those two to the long list of sidelined starting signal callers – which includes the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers lasting just one drive as starter of the Jets and Deshaun Watson of the Browns.
The Browns started the season with Watson, but he was plagued with injury trouble off and on.
By mid-November, he was shut down for the season, undergoing shoulder surgery. In his absence, Cleveland turned to Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who also got hurt, suffering a head injury, and to PJ Walker.
The Browns needed more quarterback help, opting for Flacco last month, signing him to the practice squad on November 20.
He didn’t stay there for long though, starting for Cleveland on December 3 on the road against the Los Angeles Rams. With Flacco under center going 23-of-44 passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns, the Browns initially kept the contest competitive.
But, ultimately, things started to unravel with a Flacco interception, and the Browns went on to lose 36-19.
On Sunday, Flacco’s first touchdown was a 34-yard pass to David Njoku for a 7-0 lead against Jacksonville in the first quarter. He found Djoku again in the second quarter with a 30-yard touchdown pass to give the Browns a 14-0 lead.
Then in the fourth quarter, when it was fourth-and-three, Flacco wowed Browns fans with a 41-yard touchdown pass to David Bell, putting Cleveland up 28-14.
Flacco’s style of play these days feels definitively old school.
Known more for his poise in the pocket – he doesn’t run like many of today’s dual-threat quarterbacks – but Flacco, listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, pushed his way up the middle for a first down on a fourth-and-short in the third quarter against the Jags, keeping the drive alive, ending with a Kareem Hunt four-yard touchdown rush.
The Browns went three-for-three on fourth downs on the day.
The Browns have now had four different starting quarterbacks this season, but remain in the playoff hunt at 8-5, with games remaining against the Bears (5-8), Texans (7-6), Jets (5-8) and Bengals (7-6).
Of those four teams, all of them have lost their starting quarterback at some point during the season.
Flacco has four sons and a daughter – previously, he’s said they’re “all Tyreek Hill fans” – and right now, he’s doing a pretty good job of creating some memorable memories for his kids.
“Coming up with words about how this feels, I’m not going to do a good job of that,” Flacco said.
“There’s so many different things that are going through my head. It’s unbelievable to be out there. It’s a really a unique experience.
“I can’t say it enough to have children that are of the age where they understand what’s going on and I’m going to remember these things forever.”
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