Four games into his fourth season, Joe Flacco has completed less than 50% of his passes. He runs hot and cold from week to week, showing no consistency. He's been criticized for making boneheaded plays that hurt his team. He doesn't raise his game to the level of stiff opposition. He is no longer at a point where he can use youth as an excuse.
Elite quarterbacks do better. They can be trusted to throw accurate passes. They maintain a steady level of play. They don't give up the ball at inopportune times. They step up their game against the toughest defenses. By their fourth year, elite quarterbacks have shed their training wheels and can be counted on to carry their team. And elite quarterbacks definitely do not look like deer in headlights.
At least, that's what I hear.
Some of our more vocal fellows have stars in their eyes when it comes to the great quarterbacks. They think that Tom Brady wasn't born, but sprung full-formed from Bill Belichik's head, ready to throw touchdowns to Randy Moss. Certain quarterbacks carry the status of elite, and those types of quarterbacks don't suffer from the same problems that the lowly Flacco has seen this year.
What I hope to show here is that these elite quarterbacks -- in their respective fourth years -- each had down games. In fact, they had some very down games; the type of games that would have some people around here calling for Tyrod Taylor's immediate succession. I've selected four games from the fourth year of each of these quarterbacks that fit the bill. Rather than looking at this as cherry picking, I see it as proof that even those that fly highest can still get caught in the mud. In other words, a couple down games early in his career is no indication of Flacco's ceiling.
For analysis, I've chosen Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees from the modern era, as well as Dan Marino and Joe Montana from past generations for good measure. I was going to include Aikman because he earned his spot in the Hall of Fame using an Air Coryell offense, but he just really sucked in his fourth year; it was like shooting fish in a barrel. A small sample size precludes some of Flacco's popular contemporaries, but I think you could also say that Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman have fallen back to Earth relative to their performances last year.
Week 1 was pretty rough, huh? Interestingly enough, that was the only game listed here the Patriots lost. The other three games were won via a defense that kept the opposition out of the end zone. A stingy defense and a quarterback that didn't always put the team on his back; that sounds vaguely familiar. Check out those completion percentages, too. They aren't very elite. Another point of interest here is that Brady won a Super Bowl in season four, even though he really sucked for a quarter of the season.
Peyton Manning is a turnover machine! His interception total from these four games is just one shy of Flacco's interception total from 16 games last year. Manning also had two fumbles in the listed games. I wonder if anybody in 2001 was calling him "Blind Peyton Manning"?
Brees doesn't fit neatly into my 5x5 grid. His performance in Week 7 wasn't bad; it just wasn't elite, and that's really the point here. He didn't necessarily do anything wrong, but he definitely didn't put his team on his back that week, either. In the other three examples, God's gift to tightly covered receivers wasn't getting it done. His vaunted accuracy disappeared, and he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
Dan Marino's completion percentage was on the low side, and he, like Manning, was turning over the ball left and right. Like Manning, he was being asked to do much more than his fair share of the work load on his offense. This isn't really the most fair comparison to Flacco, but it really isn't meant to be that. I think that this just reinforces the fact that the most elite quarterbacks in the game still struggled at times in season four.
Montana's fourth season was comprised of just nine games in a strike-shortened year, so these games were each pulled from his fifth season, instead. Even with that handicap, the great Montana put up some ugly games. He had a low completion percentage, lots of interceptions, and little in the way of end zone production.
As I mentioned in various places above, my intention isn't to compare Flacco to anybody here. Most of these quarterbacks are either in or on their way to the Hall of Fame; even as one of his biggest supporters, I can't justify that kind of prediction for Flacco. The point is that a couple of poor showings in season four isn't the end of the world. It doesn't mean we have no shot at the Super Bowl. It doesn't mean that we've already seen the best that Flacco has to offer. If anything, it's that the opposite is possible. Brady had some real duds on the road to his first ring. Each of these quarterbacks moved past very poor games to become among the best in the game. Flacco has improved yearly, and we have no reason to think that won't continue.