The Consistent Mediocrity of Joe Flacco

Flacco loss

Far too many football fans jumped to declare Joe Flacco elite after one incredible four-game stretch, completely ignoring in the fact that it was just one four-game stretch. Well, we’ve now seen Joe Flacco’s next four-game stretch, and the results aren’t exactly promising. Through four games, Flacco has five touchdowns, seven interceptions and 1,091 passing yards.

Plenty of people are going to shift blame onto one horrible game against Buffalo. Well, there are several problems with that. First of all, it came against Buffalo. Five interceptions against the Seahawks is one thing, but the Bills aren’t exactly contenders. More importantly, two of his most important numbers are too low to be attributed to one game: his 57.4 completion percentage is 27th among full-time starting quarterbacks, and his 69.4 passer rating is 29th. No one game is important enough to do that.

Those numbers don’t do Flacco justice over the course of his career, but it proves a pretty obvious point: Flacco isn’t elite. He’s not even close. In 2012 alone, what was arguably his best regular season, there wasn’t a single metric that placed him among the 10 best quarterbacks in football. He finished 12th in passer rating, 14th in passing yards, 15th in passing touchdowns and 19th in completion percentage. The average of those numbers is 15. Flacco as the 15th best quarterback in football? Seems about right.

If you want to argue that he’s even worse than that, you have plenty of advanced metrics that help you. Football Outsider’s value over adjusted statistic rated Joe Flacco as -0.1% in 2012 and -0.6% in 2011. That implies that in both seasons Flacco was below average on a per play basis. ESPN’s QBR tells a similar story. They have him ranked 24th in 2012 and 14th in 2011.

Plenty of people argued that it was Cam Cameron that held Flacco back, and that once he escaped such a horrible coordinator in favor of the more long-ball friendly Jim Caldwell, he’d thrive. It certainly looked that way in the playoffs, but was it possible that he simply took advantage of bad competition? Two of his opponents in the playoffs, Indianapolis and New England, were ranked in the bottom-20 of pass defense (21 and 29, respectively).

Flacco as the 15th best quarterback in football? Seems about right.

Denver was ranked far higher, but remember, the sole reason Flacco won that game was because of an uncharacteristic gaffe on the part of their passing defense. He was lucky to win that game, it was unsustainable. Finally, San Francisco obviously had a highly respected defense, but once Justin Smith got hurt against New England, they weren’t the same. In the four full games they played between Week 15 at New England and the Super Bowl, they gave up 27.5 points per game, up from 17.1 over the full season.

Now, let’s consider how the Ravens offense has performed under Caldwell against different competition and with a full offseason to prepare for it. The new, pass-happy Ravens are sixth in the NFL in pass attempts, yet 13th in passing yards and only 16th in points per game at 22.8. They’re trying to force the issue with the pass and failing.

Granted, part of that falls on Flacco’s weapons. Dennis Pitta is out for the year and Anquan Boldin is a 49er. We can absolutely blame Boldin’s departure on Flacco, though, as his inflated contract forced serious salary cap issues on the Ravens. We can’t hold this against him in terms of his performance, but it’s worth noting.

But ultimately, the onus falls on Flacco. Despite being a sixth-year Super Bowl winning quarterback, he still makes several very simple mistakes that elite quarterbacks just don’t make.

Take a look at the formation the Ravens ran on Joe Flacco’s first interception against the Bills. Baltimore is in their 11-personnel, obviously looking to pass. The Bills have responded by pressing their corners on the line and leaving nine men up front. Obviously not all nine are going to blitz, so it’s Flacco’s job to figure out who is. He also has to account for the two deep safeties.

With the middle of the field open, Flacco should have expected the safeties to provide support for the corners (a necessity in press-coverage), giving him an opportunity to pick up the first down by throwing to the middle of the field.

Here’s the exact moment the pass was intercepted. As you can see, the receiver on the outisde (Tandon Doss) was double-covered as expected. Yet Flacco still tried to throw it to him despite very meager returns.

Throwing into double-coverage is acceptable with a suitable reward. If you throw a 50-yard bomb into double coverage that’s intercepted, it essentially amounts to a punt, and it makes sense because the reward was either a touchdown or red zone possession. This was for a first down in his own territory in the first quarter. The risk was huge, handing Buffalo the ball in scoring position, while the reward was minimal, a first down in the first quarter. Flacco needs to be able to manage these situations.

In fact, Flacco made a very questionable decision by not sending Doss deep. Aside from the greater returns, consider the defensive formation. Their corners were in press coverage and their safeties were set up fairly deep. If the safety were to come up and help in coverage, then Doss would’ve had free range to score a touchdown on a go-route once he got past the press corner. If the safety stayed deep, then Doss would’ve had space at around the 10-15 yard range to get the first down on a similar route.

The last thing you want to do is throw a curl against press coverage. Flacco did it, a rookie mistake.

Here’s the formation on Flacco’s third interception. There are no running backs and it is obviously a passing situation. The defense appears to be in Cover-3, with Aaron Williams backed off of Torrey Smith in an attempt to give him room to make a catch but not score.

Considering the game situation, the smart move would’ve been taking advantage of the cushion and hitting Smith on a five-yard in-route and hoping his speed would allow him to run for a first down. If not, take the field goal, there are still 25 minutes left in the game. So what does Flacco do? He chucks it deep to Smith against a defense specifically designed not to allow it. And what happens? Check out the screenshot.

Flacco underthrew a go-route against a Cover-3 defense. This seems almost impossible, yet it happened. If you’re going deep against Cover-3, especially without enough space on the field for your receiver to get any sort of separation, you have to place the ball absolutely perfectly. You shouldn’t make the throw, but if you do you can’t be off by an inch. Flacco is here as he pretty significantly underthrew Torrey Smith.

Finally, look at the first interception Flacco threw against Denver. There is only one deep safety, indicating that the middle of the field is closed. When the middle of the field is closed, the goal for the quarterback is to throw the ball deep. As you can see on the far right, there’s a corner in press coverage; the opportunity was there.

On the left, Torrey Smith was given plenty of space (as is customary when there’s only one deep safety against a deep threat like Smith). Flacco could have sent him on a curl that pretty easily would’ve gotten the necessary eight yards for a first down. What happened?

Flacco threw a crossing route to Brandon Stokley in the middle of the field. With the middle of the field closed, this is never a good idea, but luckily for Flacco, he got Stokley in single-coverage. However, he misread what kind of throw he had to make.

Look at where Stokley is in relation to the other Denver defenders. He had plenty of space, so Flacco didn’t have to zip it into him. He could have led Stokley a bit further down, but instead he tried to force it in and underthrew Stokley, leading to an interception.

These are the kind of mistakes that Peyton Manning doesn’t make. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t make them and neither does Tom Brady. Some might say it’s unfair to hold Flacco to that standard, but if you’re arguing that he’s elite or close to it, then he can’t make mistakes that they wouldn’t.

That holds up just as well statistically. By passer rating, Joe Flacco’s best season is worse than Rodgers’s worst season. Peyton Manning has never thrown below 25 passing touchdowns, Flacco’s career high, and at the rate Manning is going he’ll top 25 by Week 7 this year. I could go on and on.

The difference in those statistics are huge. If Flacco is on the level of those quarterbacks, shouldn’t he produce similar numbers? He hasn’t, and he isn’t. Even if you aren’t a fan of statistics, then look at some of the very basic mistakes that he makes week in week out. Should an elite quarterback make those mistakes?

What’s the argument that he belongs in the same class as Rodgers, Manning, and Brady? That he’s a winner? The Ravens look mediocre at best. With two losses already on the books and games coming up against Green Bay, New England, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinatti and Pittsburgh (always tough even if their record doesn’t indicate it), what are the odds that Baltimore hits 10 wins this year? Will they even win eight? If they can’t beat Buffalo on the road, why should I believe they can win a road game at Cleveland?

The bottom line is that any “winner” argument Flacco can make should be erased by year’s end. The statistical and subjective arguments never existed.

For the record, I don’t hate Joe Flacco, I hate what the world has turned him into. I hate the idea that one Super Bowl run can make a quarterback elite even when we have five years worth of evidence that prove otherwise. I hope this Joe Flacco season teaches the ring-loving masses a lesson. A player can’t be judged on the basis of one four-game stretch when we have years of evidence that contradict it.

Joe Flacco is a decent quarterback. He is not an elite quarterback. Let’s remember to make that distinction.

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