Joe Flacco’s superpower: The No. 1 reason Amari Cooper and David Njoku adjusted to him

HOUSTON — There are many reasons Joe Flacco waltzed right into Cleveland and saved the season with a 4-1 record and club-record four straight 300-yard games despite 10 months out of football, and Amari Cooper recently rattled off a bunch in once sentence:

“Super Bowl winner, consistent quarterback, throws a great ball, has a great understanding of the game.”

But the No. 1 reason Cooper and David Njoku, the Browns’ two biggest offensive weapons, have adjusted to Flacco from the jump — with no “knocking the rust off period” — is the incredibly catchable ball he throws.

Over his last four games with Flacco at the helm, Cooper has caught 25 passes for 485 yards and three TDs. In that span, he set the Browns record with 265 receiving yards in the 36-22 victory over Houston on Christmas Eve, and caught three of his five TD passes.

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The flurry helped catapult Cooper to his fifth Pro Bowl as the Browns head into Saturday’s rematch against the Texans in the wild card game. He’s caught touchdown passes of 51 and 75 yards from Flacco, and a 53-yard strike on the opening play of the previous game against the Texans.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t (reinvigorate me), because he throws such an easy ball to catch,” said Cooper. “If you ask any receiver, they love a very catchable ball.”

Cooper, who’s caught passes from five different Browns quarterbacks over the past two season and many more in his previous seven, attributes the uncanny accuracy to the timing of the throw, which works beautifully with Cooper, arguably the best route runner in the NFL.

“It’s not necessarily a tight spiral,” Cooper said. “I’d more so say velocity and trajectory of the ball. The ball has a little less velocity, but because he’s on time with the throw, it doesn’t fit, it’s not a late throw, it’s still on time, but it’s just easy to catch. Receivers, even though they shouldn’t, we all like to think about the yards after the catch.

“Sometimes we neglect actually the catch point. That’s how a lot of receivers drop balls. But it seems like with a quarterback like Joe, you can kind of get away with that because you don’t really have to think about catching the ball because it’s such an easy grab.”

Even a 51-yard catch and run for a TD against the Bears — 30 yards of which were yards after the catch — came in like a Nerf ball despite the fact Flacco squeezed it into heavy traffic near the right sideline.

“It might’ve looked like (a bullet), but that’s the thing,” Cooper said. “Even his straight line balls, they don’t come in with a lot of velocity, but they’re on time. So it was an easy grab.”

Flacco’s younger brother, Tom, 29, who threw with him every Tuesday and Thursday this fall at a youth football field near their hometown in south New Jersey, has caught as many passes from Flacco as anyone, and can attest to the ease of the exercise. Their father, Steve, 62, can attest to it too. The brothers, both quarterbacks with Tom having played at Towson and with a short stint in the Canadian Football League, fired footballs to their dad at a spot for about 45 minutes during those sessions.

“He’s got such nice touch on his ball,” Tom said. “A lot of these guys, they’ll throw a slant as hard as they can. Well, that’s not arm strength. Arm strength is being able to throw every throw. When you throw a slant, you make it catchable. And that’s what I’ve learned from Joe watching him, and that’s what I’ve always appreciated.”

Tom noted that Flacco’s touch “is why his receivers love him — but he can also throw the 18-yard out on a dime.”

Tom remembers the day he realized his oldest brother had a cannon arm. It was during the long-distance throw competition of ESPN’s College Football All-Star Challenge, when Flacco was coming out of Delaware in 2008. Other competitors were Matt Ryan, Colt Brennan, Chad Henne and Josh David Booty.

“Joe won it with a throw of 74 yards, and the next longest (Chad Henne) was 67,” Tom said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, he’s slinging it. His arm’s pretty legit.’ But I learned from him over the years that the touch is the most important thing. At the same time, he can sling it whenever he needs to.”

Tom kidded that Flacco also had to emphasize touch when throwing this fall to his dad, a former running back for Penn, for 45 minutes at a time.

“We can’t be killing my dad out there,” Tom said.

Steve, who’s been throwing with Flacco since he was a young boy, noted that “a lot of balls are overthrown in games and that’s why they’re not caught. It’s not about throwing the ball hard. It’s about getting it to a spot on time and making it as catchable as possible. Joe does a good job with that. He has a really good sense of timing.”

Steve said that’s why Njoku is flourishing with Flacco, because the ball is arriving on time and giving him a chance for yards after catch. In the weeks before Flacco took over, Njoku struggled with several multiple drop games. He’s come alive with Flacco at the helm.

“The Chief’s out there snagging balls in one hand,” Steve said. “He doesn’t even worry about getting the other hand on the ball.”

Over the past five games with Flacco, Njoku has caught 30 passes for 390 yards — and four of his six TDs. He had 99 yards after catch against the Jets’ No. 2 pass defense, and leads the NFL with 608. Like Cooper, Njoku’s late-season production helped him earn Pro Bowl honors — for the first time in his case.

“He’s going to be very hard for linebackers to cover during these playoffs,” Steve said.

Steve said the game plans have showcased Flacco’s strengths almost like never before. He flourished similarly under Kevin Stefanski’s mentor, Gary Kubiak, in Baltimore in 2014, producing some of his best career numbers that year (27 TDs, 12 INTs, 91.0 passer rating for second-best in his career). But Kubiak left after that season to take over as Broncos head coach.

“We’ve never seen a more aggressive play caller than Kevin (Stefanski),” Steve said. “It’s been unbelievable.”

What’s more, he said, “they’ve probably moved the pocket more in the last five weeks than Joe’s had the entire time he’s played elsewhere, because we’ve had protection problems in the past. That’s one of the reasons nobody thinks Joe can run, because he had nowhere to run. These guys have actually given him room to move around, which presents problems.”

He noted that’s because “it’s not who gets rid of the ball the quickest. It’s who holds the ball the longest that wins. And they’ve allowed that to happen with that offensive line. There’s room for him to slide around in some cases, actually run a little bit. And in other cases, they’ve moved the pocket purposely.”

That strategy will come in handy Saturday against the Texans with the return of their two starting pass rushers: Will Anderson Jr. (7.0 sacks) and Jonathan Greenard (12.5 sacks). The Browns are down to their fourth and fifth offensive tackles in Geron Christian Jr. on the left side and James Hudson III on the right. But Flacco sees the field so well and is moving so effectively, he should be able to handle the rush — even though Texans coach DeMeco Ryans lamented giving him all day to throw in the Browns’ Christmas Eve victory.

Flacco carved up the Texans for 368 passing yards that game, including 246 in the first half. Cooper and Njoku combined for 17 receptions, more than 300 yards receiving, and three TDs. And if Flacco keeps delivering the kind of ball that even his 62-year-old dad can catch, they should enjoy another explosive afternoon.



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