Just a guess, but I think that question will be asked quite a few times over the next couple of weeks. While the inanity of the discussion that usually follows that question is not something I wish to emulate, there’s no particular reason not to take an in-depth look at Flacco’s career. The table below shows Flacco’s performance in six key metrics — all relative to league average (1.00) — for each season of his career:
As you can see, with the exception of his great interception rate — which justifies its own post during this pre-Super Bowl period — Flacco’s career performance has been rather average. His touchdown rate, like those of many quarterbacks, has bounced up and down throughout his career. His sack rate was below average during his first three years, improved significantly in 2011, and landed right at the league average in 2012.In the three main statistics — Y/A, NY/A, and ANY/A — Flacco has consistently finished in a tight window around the league average. His ANY/A has been slightly better than his NY/A thanks to that lofty interception rate, but suffice it to say Joe Flacco is, and has been for years, a league average quarterback.
If we look at ESPN’s Total QBR, Flacco ranked 27th as a rookie in 2008, 15th in 2009, and 12th in 2010, signaling a young quarterback improving and on the rise. In 2011, he ranked 14th, perhaps signaling a leveling off, and then this past season, he finished 25th. The positive spin would be that he’s a league-average quarterback, and the negative one (at least prior to this post-season) would have been that he was regressing.
On the other hand, here is how Flacco has performed in the playoffs in each game, as measured by AY/A:
Flacco has been oustanding in the playoffs over the last three years. In seven games, he has averaged 8.8 AY/A and 7.8 Y/A, while throwing 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Let’s not forget, however, that from 2008 through 2010, his poor play in the postseason caused Jason Lisk to compare him to Kyle Boller, despite his team’s impressive record. That said, perhaps that was just a new version of the SI cover jinx, as Flacco has been great in the postseason since Lisk’s article, at least, for Flacco. How great?
In the regular season this year, Flacco averaged 7.17 AY/A, but in three playoffs games in January he’s averaged 10.89 AY/A; he’s thrown 93 passes this postseason, and since he’s averaged 3.72 AY/A more than we would expect (based on his regular season performance), we could say that he’s gained 346 Adjusted Yards over expectation. Among all quarterbacks with at least 50 regular season passes (to exclude players like Frank Reich), that is the second largest amount of Adjusted Yards over expectation of any quarterback in a single postseason since 1970. The table below shows each quarterback’s number of playoff games, regular season pass attempts, regular season AY/A, and then his cumulative playoff statistics for that year. The final column shows the number of Adjusted Yards provided over average.
AY ov Exp
I assume Ravens fans hope that he’s the next Aikman and not the next Delhomme, but such is the danger of three-game sample sizes. Of course, Flacco has now excelled in consecutive postseasons. He gained 114 Adjusted Yards over expectation in 2011, giving him 460 AY over expectation the last two years in the playoff. That’s the second most by a quarterback in consecutive postseason appearances:
AY ov Exp
So yes, Flacco has been great this postseason, especially compared to his mediocre self. Of course, Jeff Hostetler and Mark Sanchez exhibited similar traits, too. It’s fair to give Flacco a pass for his first couple of seasons, but over the last three seasons, he ranks 14th among the 23 quarterbacks to throw 1,000 passes during that time. Winning the Super Bowl won’t change that fact, and I don’t think Flacco’s reputation will change significantly unless and until he improves in the regular season. Jim Plunkett was outstanding in the 1980 postseason after a mediocre regular season (and for that matter, career), culminating in a Super Bowl victory. But even with a second Super Bowl in ’83, Plunkett’s career is more remembered as a talented quarterback who played well in big moments but was far from a great player. That’s not such a bad reputation. The other obvious comparison is Eli Manning, who seemed to use his first Super Bowl victory as a spring board into a better career. More on him later this week or next, too. Apollo Creed once said to Rocky Balboa, “You fight great, but I’m a great fighter.” Flacco has played like an elite quarterback during these playoffs, but that doesn’t make him one until he does it again and again.