I started writing this article when everyone was debating how much Joe Flacco was worth, but once he got paid in his 6 year 120 million dollar contract, I left it unwritten.
However, with Tony Romo signing his extension, a friend of mine commented "I would still take Romo over Flacco any day." I rattled off some statistics, and argued with him a little. But then I told him, I would show him why he should chose Flacco over almost any other quarterback in the league.
The big question which seems impossible to settle until Flacco plays a few more seasons is: Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? It depends on your definition of elite; but based on my definition he is not. At least not yet.
How does this apply to football, and quarterbacks in particular? My definition is based on what defines our current crop of elite quarterbacks:
- Multiple season's of Pro-bowl caliber stats, 3000+ yards, 30+ tds
- Sustained regular season AND post-season success, usually including at least 1 ring
Flacco has sustained regular season and postseason success, but he hasn't hit the statistical criteria. Other QB's like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan may have the statistics, but don't have the postseason resume's. The only active quarterbacks who would be defined as elite according to this definition are: Tom Brady. Peyton Manning. Drew Brees. and Aaron Rodgers.
Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger would just miss based on this definition. They have both only topped 30 td's once, and while breaking 4000 yards multiple times is nice, it is skewed by the amount of attempts. Each has 2 rings which also contributes to the illusion that they are elite, but the problem is they both don't take their teams to the playoffs almost every year, nor win games there on a regular basis. So I categorize those 2 in a category called sub-elite.
So back to Joe Flacco. Aaron Rodgers is a hard comparison because he didn't play for 3 years, and although he is obliterating my statistical benchmarks and you can never count him out, he only had success in the playoffs once, when he won a ring. The real question is how does the first 5 years of Flacco's career compare to the first 5 years starting of our other 3 elite QB's (and sub-elite), all who became starting QB's in their first or second years?
The big knocks on Joe were inconsistency, lack of big numbers. and having a good defense for most of his career. Debunking the criticism:
Point 1: Inconsistency
I decided to delve into the numbers to see if any of the elite or sub-elite QB's, also had inconsistency problems early on:
Brady year 5: 6 games of 100+ QBR, 4 games of 80-100 QBR, 4 games of 60-80 QBR, and 2 games of 40-60 QBR
Brees year 5: 5 games of 100+ QBR, 7 games of 80-100 QBR, 3 games of 60-80 QBR, and 1 games of 40-60 QBR
Peyton year 5: 3 games of 100+ QBR, 7 games of 80-100 QBR, 5 games of 60-80 QBR, and 1 games of 40-60 QBR
Eli year 5 (only started 1/2 of year 1): 3 games of 100+ QBR, 6 games of 80-100 QBR, 5 games of 60-80 QBR, and 2 games of 40-60 QBR.
Roethlisberger year 5: 4 games of 100+ QBR, 6 games of 80-100 QBR, 1 games of 60-80 QBR, and 4 games of 40-60 QBR.
Flacco year 5: 6 games of 100+ QBR, 3 games of 80-100 QBR, 5 games of 60-80 QBR, and 2 games of 40-60 QBR.
As you can see, all of these elite and sub-elite QB's had similar issues with consistency. Inconsistency isn't really a knock on Flacco; he is just your typical 5th year QB. In fact it shows that he is further along than Eli and Big Ben in terms of consistency and had shown more upside than them in year 5. It also shows that he is currently on par with Brady, Brees, and Peyton (although Peyton had less 100+ games) in their 5th year. Inconsistency is part of the growing process of all quarterbacks, even elite ones.
Point 2: Lack of big numbers statistically
Brady didn't explode offensively until year 7, when a WR named Randy Moss joined him in New England. Brees didn't break 30 tds until year 7 as a starter (3rd year in New Orleans), which was when he also had his first 5000 yard season. Peyton started a little quicker and had 33 tds in year 3, but didn't break 30 again until year 7 when he exploded with 49 tds. Roethlisberger and Eli have only broken 30 tds once each in their careers, Eli in his 6th year starting.
See here for the stats from the first 5 years starting for some of the elite QB's:
Player 1 is Drew Brees. Player 2 is Joe Flacco. Player 3 is Tom Brady. Player 4 is Peyton Manning
When you take into account that Flacco has thrown much less attempts through season 5 than Brady, Brees and Peyton, you realize that the yardage totals aren't an indicator of skill as much as sheer abundance of throws, much like Matt Stafford the past 2 years. Stafford's numbers the past 2 years are skewed by the lack of run game. He had 1390 attempts over the past 2 years, which averages to over 43 attempts a game. He only averaged 7.6 ypa, which is less than many average QB’s, including Henne, Locker, Kolb etc. If Flacco was given those attempts, and would have maintained his pace he would have had 4515 yds in 2011 and 5225 yds in 2012. So I do not respect Stafford for his yardage totals. Rodgers 4643 yds in 2011 on only 502 attempts (9.2 ypa) is much more impressive than Staffords 5038 on 663. To give you an idea, if given those attempts Rodgers would have put up 6132 yds! Holy crap. Andrew Luck's rookie season was less impressive than RG3's and Russell Wilson's because they had under 400 passing attempts, in addition to their advantage as rushers, and Luck had a ridiculous 627 attempts to break the rookie yardage record.
So the bottom line is, none of the elite QB's put up those video-game caliber numbers before year 7, so why do people expect that Flacco should?
Point 3: Having a good defense
People say that Flacco has benefited from a top defense his whole career, and he hasn't had to do much to win. They compare him to Mark Sanchez making the AFCCG 2 years in a row. But they don't look deeper than that. The only championships that Tom Brady has won were in the first 4 years he was starting. His teams went 11-5, 14-2 and 14-2. You think his defense wasn't good? He only put up between 18-28 tds a year, so they must have been really good to be dominating like that. We all know how good Eli's defensive line was in his 2 title runs. Big Ben won many games early in his career too, with his dominant defense and stellar run game leading the way. So I am not sure why this is used as an argument against Joe.
Now the truth is, I don't mind the Sanchez comparisons for the first 2 years of Flacco's career. Those 2 years the defense led the way, with Flacco attempting to not screw it up and make an occasional big play, ala Trent Dilfer. But in the past 3 years, the playoff runs and the regular season success were just as much a product of Flacco's importance as the defensive performance. Flacco's playoff stats:
In addition, take a look at his teams record when he has a bad performance in relation to the elite and sub-elite quarterbacks:
Rodgers has won 30% of his games when he performs badly. Peyton Manning 42%. Ben Roethlisberger 33%. Tom Brady 37.5 %. Eli Manning 32%. Drew Brees 20%. and Joe Flacco 41%. (Keep in mind this is Flacco's first 5 years in the league vs, the other QB's prime years) So Flacco wins slightly more of his bad performances than Tom Brady, 10% more than Rodgers, Eli and Big Ben, 20% more than Drew Brees, but the same amount as Peyton? It is amusing- we all know that Roethlisberger and Brady played with good defenses, but Peyton and Drew Brees have never had good defenses (prior to Peyton's Denver team this year). Yet Peyton and Brees have very different % of wins. Clearly having an elite defense doesn't automatically mean you are going to win games, even when your QB has a stinker, and Flacco's win % in stinkers is near identical to Peyton, who didn't have an elite defense.
In addition, Brady also had 34 games of less than a 80 passer rating in his first 5 years starting. He was 15-19 in those 34 games, or nearly identical to Flacco's 14-20.
There are 3 parts to a players career, which are more pronounced at Quarterback. There is the ascendance, the peak or prime, and the decline. Flacco is a player who just is hitting his prime as an NFL QB. It is hard to compare him to players in their peak or just past their peak like Peyton or Brady, because Flacco came into the league 7 years later. None of those quarterback's were throwing 40+ td's every year when they were at his stage, so why does everyone expect him to. The real question you have to ask is how does he compare to elite players when they were at the stage he is now. My answer is he stacks up really well.
Comparing him to the rest of the league:
Additionally, here are many out there who want to anoint the next best thing at QB and say that they are better than Flacco. So let's look at the those QB's and see whether they really are better. They fall under 3 categories: The young guns, the ceiling QB's, and the not-battle tested.
The not battle tested: Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton
Category 1: The Young Guns
The problem with saying that Colin Kapernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson are already in the top 10 QB's is that 1 year means nothing. Teams have less game tape to study, and in the NFL, that is an advantage for the rookie QB. But by year 2, there is a high probability of regression.
Look at these 3 stat lines from first year starting QB's:
Player #1 is Derek Anderson. Player #2 is Andrew Luck. Player #3 is Sam Bradford.
Derek Anderson never returned to the heights of his Pro-bowl year. Sam Bradford will be a very good QB in this league, but has yet to make a significant jump from his rookie year through his 3rd year in the league. We all know Cam Newton had a slight regression in year 2 starting. I am not saying Luck, Kapernick, Griffin or Wilson are not going to be elite, franchise QB's. Chances are all of them will be. But they have alot of growing to do before they are top 10 QB's.
Category 2: The Ceiling Quarterback's
These are the QB's who have hit their ceilings. These guys have all been starting in the league 7+ years, are on the wrong side of 30, and have yet to consistently put up elite stats or make a significant run in the playoffs.
Jay Cutler: 6 (full) years starting, 51-42 record, 0 seasons 30+ tds, 1-1 playoff record, missed the playoffs 5/6 years
Tony Romo: 7 years starting, 55-38 record, 2 season's 30+ tds, 1-3 playoff record, missed the playoffs 4/7 years.
Phillip Rivers: 7 years starting, 70-42 record, 2 season's 30+ tds, 3-4 playoff record, missed the playoffs 3/7 years.
Matt Schaub: 6 years starting, 44-36 record, 0 season's 30+ tds, 1-1 playoff record, missed the playoffs 4/6 years.
Some of these QB's have great resumes. Other's are not that impressive. All of them has at least 1 pro-bowl on their resume, unlike Flacco. But they all seem to have reached their ceiling. It is possible one of them will surprise me and lead their team to the promised land. However I think all of these QB's, have shown us what they can do. 7 years starting is how long it took Brady, Manning, and Brees to peak. Some of the ceiling quarterbacks have shown us they can put up big numbers starting, matching the stats of sub-elite QB's Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. But none have shown the ability to lead their team on a playoff run, nor have they even shown they can make the playoffs on a regular basis. Only Rivers (4 Pro-bowls) has strung together multiple playoff wins, but that was on great Chargers team with Tomlinson and a top ranked defense. He also hasn't made the playoffs in 4 years.
So I don't really think that any of these quarterbacks have proven to be better than Flacco, because despite many years and opportunities, none of them have put up consistent elite-level stats nor done anything in the playoffs.
Category 3: The Not Battle Tested
Last but not least, we have the not battle tested quarterbacks. Matt Ryan is the best of these QB's, but lets discuss the other 3 first. Dalton, Stafford, and Freeman have all been impressive and are still young. Dalton and Stafford have each made the playoffs in the past 2 years, and Stafford has basically broken 5000 yards 2 years running and also threw over 40 td's in 2011. However he also had 1390 attempts, which is a ridiculous amount (over 43 attempts a game). He only averaged 7.6 ypa, which is less than many average QB’s, including Henne, Locker, Kolb etc. If Flacco was given those attempts, and would have maintained his pace he would have had 4515 yds in 2011 and 5225 yds in 2012. So I do not respect Stafford for his yardage totals. He also has Megatron. Like the young guns, I think he could prove himself elite at some point in his career. But right now he is unproven despite his Madden-esque numbers. He needs to win some playoff games and put up those numbers consistently before you can put him ahead of a winning QB like Flacco.
Dalton and Freeman have shown flashes, but lack the numbers, consistency, and the winning pedigree to be top 10 QB's. I am not saying they won't get there, but neither of them boast better numbers, nor have they won anything.
Last but not least is Matt Ryan. Since they were drafted the same year, they will always be compared. But as many Ravens fans, I believe that Flacco has shown to be the superior QB thus-far, despite averaging 5 less touchdowns a season.
It’s worth remembering that it’s far too early to write the book on Joe Flacco’s career. The table below shows Flacco, the nine quarterbacks that entered the league after the AFL-NFL merger and the eight quarterbacks with rings that are either active or have retired in the last three years. The table below shows how many games they had started after 5 years, their passing stats through five years, and their career NY/A and ANY/A averages after year five. The final two columns show their NY/A and ANY/A relative to league average.
After year five, Aaron Rodgers had only been a starter for two years, Steve Young had only started 9 games for the 49ers, and Dan Fouts had barely begun building his Hall of Fame career. Terry Bradshaw won his first Super Bowl in year five, and had been a worse quarterback than Flacco up to that point in his career. Eli Manning and Flacco have had similar starts to their careers, too. Meanwhile, Warren Moon, John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Drew Brees weren’t playing at Hall of Fame levels at this stage of their careers, either.
Flacco has a long way to go towards building a Hall of Fame career, and even his win on Sunday won’t separate him from players like Mark Rypien, Jim McMahon, Doug Williams, Joe Theismann, and Phil Simms. But it’s worth remembering that Flacco is still pretty young, and who knows what having won this Super Bowl could do for him.
Look at the chart: Through 5 years, Flacco was in the top 5 in games started and touchdowns, top 3 in yards, bottom 7 in interceptions, and top 10 in ANY/A & NY/A. I think that is a quarterback who everyone needs to stop overlooking and pay him his due. Because before you can blink, he is going to be the next elite quarterback. So you can keep your Romo's and your Luck's, because I, like every Raven's fan can appreciate what we have.