Time to talk about everybody’s favorite topic – Joe Flacco. Several RSR writers participate in this roundtable discussion below.
Derek Arnold: This topic originally came to me due to something I saw show up in my Facebook memories from a few years back. It was a comparison of Flacco’s stats vs. Ben Roethlisberger’s stats for the first four years of each of their respective careers. Check it out:
First 4 seasons:
Flacco – 61% comp., 13,816 yards, 7.1 Yard/ATT, 80 TD, 46 INT (1.7 TD/int)
Roethlisberger – 63%, 11,674 yards, 8.1 Yard/ATT, 84 TD, 54 INT (1.6 TD/int)
Remarkably similar! However, over the next five years of their careers, they diverged significantly.
Next 5 seasons (years 5-9 of career):
Flacco – 62% comp, 18,823 yards, 6.8 Yard/ATT, 102 TD, 71 INT (1.4 TD/Int)
Ben – 63%, 18,171 yards, 7.8 Yard/ATT, 107 TD, 54 INT (2.0 TD/Int)
Roethlisberger maintained his 1.0 yard/attempt advantage over Joe, but the TD:INT ratio really took off in Fat Ben’s favor. Now, I’ve been Wacko for Flacco since he showed up with a single unibrow, and I’m loath to give Pittsburgh’s chunky gunslinger any credit at all. It’s better that I’m typing this than saying it aloud, because I’m not sure I could do the latter without vomiting – over the last few years, Roethlisberger has elevated his game to become one of the unquestioned best in the sport. That ascension began with those stats from years 5-9 above.
Meanwhile, Joe has languished in mediocrity, and has gone from borderline (ugh) “elite” into one of the sport’s worst starters, statistically. My question is: Why?
Did the Steelers do a better job investing in (and developing) talent around their franchise quarterback? High draft picks, sly FA pickups, offensive coordinator stability?
Did Joe simply rest on his laurels, happy to have his Super Bowl? Do you think there is anything to 105.7’s Vinny Cerrato’s constant insistence that Joe doesn’t put in the extra time needed with his teammates and in the film room?
What combination of factors has stunted Joe’s growth so markedly?
Tony Lombardi: The Steelers have done a better job of surrounding Roethlisberger with talented, speedy, multi-dimensional receivers than the Ravens have for Flacco. They’ve had Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Hines Ward and of course the 6th-round gem Antonio Brown. But the divergent paths of their respective careers goes behind that.
Roethlisberger pays attention to the finer nuances of the game. He runs a more efficient two-minute drill; uses cadence as a weapon; breaks containment to extend plays; and he’s far more efficient reading through progressions. Flacco has the stronger arm but Roethlisberger throws a more accurate deep ball and he’s more adept at hitting receivers in stride which of course leads to more yards after the catch and bigger plays.
Some may say that Ben has a better offensive line than Flacco and for the moment that might be true. But during the seasons being compared, the Steelers had a rag-tag line and it was Roethlisberger’s ability to step up in the pocket and keep plays alive that helped his cause. Flacco isn’t as technically sound as Roethlisberger. The best quarterbacks can make the offensive front seem more talented with pre-snap reads/adjustments and by getting the ball out faster. Flacco falls short of Roethlisberger in both departments and this too has helped make the Steelers QB the superior player.
Roethlisberger is headed to the Hall of Fame.
Flacco seems happy to rest on his laurels. Hopefully being called out by his coach, GM and owner during the most recent State of the Ravens presser will light a fire. Time will tell…
DA: There are a lot of factors here, and I don’t think it’s fair to gloss over any of them. Let’s look at offensive coordinators. Ben had Ken Whisenhunt for his first two seasons, then Bruce Arians for his next five, and now Todd Haley for the last five. That’s three offensive coordinators over twelve years, two of whom stuck around for at least five seasons. Joe, on the other hand, had Cam Cameron for four-plus seasons – still the longest tenure of any Ravens OC since Flacco came to the NFL. A season-plus of Jim Caldwell, one season of Gary Kubiak, one season-plus of Marc Trestman, and now Marty Mornhinweg. Five coordinators in nine seasons, with a maximum tenure of less than five seasons.
It’s hard to work like that.
Joe’s best statistical season came in 2010. That year, he had career-bests in QB Rating (93.6), touchdowns (25), TD percentage (5.1), interceptions (10T), INT percentage (2.0), and yards per attempt (7.4). It was his third year in the league and his third under Cameron. To that point, his career was following a very positive arc – his number of touchdown passes had increased from 14 to 21 to 25, while his interceptions had gone from a very decent 12 down to an even better 10. His QB rating had gone from 80.3 as a rookie, to 88.9 as a sophomore, to 93.6.
To put it mildly, things were looking up! This is the Joe Flacco that folks seem to forget ever existed. On the other hand, it’s the one that many of his staunchest defenders argue STILL takes the field, when that’s obviously not the case.
Brian Bower: It all comes down to talent. The Steelers surrounded Big Ben with quality players at skill positions and frankly that’s something the Ravens have never done for Joe Flacco. Secondly, as TL pointed out perhaps Joe just doesn’t want to be great. Maybe he is just fine letting the smallest of details go to the wayside. Good quarterbacks do enough to survive in the league, great quarterbacks go the extra mile. Joe, in my eyes, doesn’t do that.
DA: In 2011, he regressed, despite the stability of Cameron as his OC. His rating fell to 80.9 as his touchdowns decreased to 20 and his picks went back to 12. I maintain that that was the best Ravens team ever assembled, and they still managed to go 12-4 and earn their only playoff bye of the Harbaugh-Flacco era to date.
The offense’s regression as a whole in 2012 got Cameron fired – and of course, led to a Super Bowl victory. Jim Caldwell’s second season was a disaster, largely due to the complete absence of anything resembling a running game. Gary Kubiak righted the ship in 2014, but was promptly hired away by John Elway in Denver. Marc Trestman and Marty Mornhinweg have – thus far – been unable to get any kind of consistent play out of Joe or the offense in general.
I don’t know this for sure, obviously – but perhaps if Joe had some more time with any one coordinator, they could have helped him with some of those finer details that Tony talked about. When you have a new guy with new terminologies and new plays every year or two, QB and OC spend all their time working on the big things, with no time left for the intricacies.
I’m not absolving Joe here; he absolutely could have done those things on his own over nine seasons. Just saying that the coordinator turnover might be a bit underestimated.
As for talent around them, it’s a chicken-or-egg situation. Do the Steelers have better playmakers for Ben, or does he create better playmakers with his own performance?
Dev Panchwagh: There is definite legitimacy to the points that Ben has had greater resources — both in the way of offensive coaching prowess and sheer talent on offense — than Flacco has had through much of his career. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress were established WR talent when Big Ben was a rookie, and after losing Burress to free agency, the Steelers have continued to restock the cabinet.
But a nod certainly goes to Ben for helping to develop these receivers. Look at Antonio Brown. Would Brown be Brown with Flacco throwing the ball to him? It’s hard to say. Has Flacco elevated any young receivers in his career?
Yes, the Steelers’ front office has hit on more draft picks than the Ravens’ brass to give Big Ben plenty of offensive firepower to work with. But there is something to be said about Roethlisberger’s progress being a result of hard work and drive. He’s always had the talent, but as everyone else has astutely pointed out, he’s also put in the time to work on his craft and take his game to the next level. He’s gone from a swashbuckling QB who did most of his damage outside of the pocket to being a dominant pocket passer.
Flacco’s lack of progress isn’t attributable to a straightforward analysis. There are a lot of variances involved in any assessment — lack of coaching stability, lack of legitimate personnel investments. But Flacco certainly deserves a portion of the blame for not working on his craft. Throwing careless interceptions, not handling the two-minute offense well, making consistent clock management errors, getting sloppy with his footwork — these are issues we’ve seen from Joe at certain points throughout his career, and he hasn’t been able to consistently shake off his bad habits regardless of the coach.
The comparisons to Matt Ryan continue, as the two will forever be linked due to being a part of the same draft class. Ryan earned an NFL MVP award this season, something for which Flacco has never even been in the discussion. However, Ryan failed to win a Super Bowl yet again, instead “leading” the largest collapse in the history of the game. Since Joe still has the ring over Matt, some will happily point out that the comparison isn’t nearly as lopsided as others may claim.
Dev: It seems that there is a sharp divide when you contrast the careers of Ryan and Flacco. Ryan has clearly been the more accomplished regular season quarterback. Besides capturing the 2016 MVP award, he’s consistently posted a virtual 2:1 TD/INT ratio. Last year was really his most mediocre showing from a statistical standpoint and he followed that season up with an MVP campaign.
TL: Ryan is clearly the more fundamentally sound quarterback. But personal achievement aside he hasn’t advanced his team in the postseason the way Flacco has. That might not be all on Ryan but at the end of the day, the benchmark is really championships and Ryan is still in search of his first.
Dev: Ryan has played with an excellent cast around him as well. His offensive talent has clearly been better over the years. He’s also had the luxury of playing in a dome and a more defensively challenged NFC South year in and year out.
For a lot of reasons, it’s fair for observers to consider Ryan the better all-around QB compared to Flacco. He reads the field better. He is in total command of his offense. He’s been more productive and consistent throughout his career.
DA: I feel like I need to chime in with this: Ryan’s offensive coordinators: Mike Mularkey (2008-11), Dirk Koetter (2012-14), and Kyle Shanahan (2015-16). He’ll have another one next season as Shanahan is moving on to be the head coach in San Francisco. Still, as of this moment, Ryan has had three coordinators in nine seasons – two fewer than Joe. Some will say I’m making excuses for him, but I don’t think we can just gloss over that part of it.
Dev: Despite the stats, it’s not a slam dunk choice by any means, and the postseason comparison carries weight. Anybody that says otherwise isn’t fully considering that Flacco is an all-time clutch postseason performer (let that sink in for a moment). He’s the only AFC quarterback to break the Brady-Roethlisberger-Manning force field since 2003.
That said, While Flacco has been the better postseason QB, Ryan was on the verge of a Flacco-esque run himself. Throughout the 2016-17 playoffs, he threw for 9 TDs and 0 INTs in just three games. He seemed to completely erase his pedestrian 9-7 TD ratio coming into this postseason, and beyond the numbers, he commanded the competition he faced, including the New England Patriots for about three and a half quarters (give or take).
Then we saw Ryan drop the ball on a strip-sack fumble in the 4th quarter and take an inexplicable sack even later in the game to essentially knock the Falcons out of FG range. The wheels came off an Atlanta offense that had too many stalled drives.
Not all of these struggles can be pinned on Ryan. But as a QB who had the game in his hand and a chance to put himself closer to the rarefied air group of Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, and yes, Brady, he came up small at the worst time. And he continued to pour cold water onto his postseason legacy which at best can be characterized as a C or C+ level (if you factor in the four games he has really played well in). The losses to the Patriots and 49ers in particular, when the Falcons had commanding leads, are damning.
Meanwhile, Flacco can lay claim to having at least eight stellar playoff games (against the Chiefs in 2010, Patriots in 2011, the entire 2012 run, and the entire 2014 run). Overall, since 2010, he’s thrown for 24 TDs and just 4 INTs! That’s all-time great. While he hasn’t won a regular season MVP, he has won a Super Bowl MVP, or am I the only person who remembers that?
TL: Dev brings up several good points about talent, competition and the comfy confines of dome football — a minimum of nine games per season. His conditions are far more conducive to statistical achievement.
There may never be a clear winner in this debate. However, if Ryan had been drafted by the Ravens and Flacco by the Falcons with all other things being equal, I think that Flacco would have a better chance of duplicating Ryan’s accomplishments than Ryan would of matching January Joe.
Dev: Expanding on the playoff point, with Flacco at the helm, the Ravens have never been a one-and-done team. Ryan has been one-and-done at least three times, with one of those losses coming as the No.1 seed at home against Green Bay. Which leads me to another important point — Flacco has only played at home twice in his career in the playoffs. Ryan’s teams have lost the same number of home games that Flacco’s teams have played altogether.
Now, the argument will be that Flacco had a much better defense and run game that carried him to postseason success. Certainly that argument could have been made in his early playoff runs, but as of the 2012 AFC Championship against the Patriots, Flacco was the one putting the team on his back.
BB: What came first: the chicken or the egg? That’s what he Joe Flacco-Matt Ryan comparison reminds me off. There are plenty of opinions on this question. While Flacco has led his team to more success in the postseason, Ryan puts up fantasy-type numbers on a regular basis. Ryan’s stellar 2016/2017 campaign was impressive but it’s Flacco that brought home the most significant hardware, the Super Bowl MVP award.
Flacco and Ryan will be forever linked and the clear cut winner may not be decided for several seasons to come.
Dev: Give me the guy who can take over a game when it counts and doesn’t buckle under pressure. Flacco has his considerable shortcomings, but there’s no way I would take Ryan over him if I needed to win one game.
January Joe is better than Matty Ice in postseason play. And that keeps this debate awfully close, if not even a tossup, for me.
So what has the team done wrong in trying to maximize Flacco’s talents? Where does blame lie with Joe as far as stepping up his own game?
DA: It’s a bit of a cruel irony – the Ravens wasted a large chunk of the careers of two Hall-of-Fame defenders in Ray Lewis & Ed Reed because they couldn’t find a quarterback. They finally found one and got Ray his second ring and Ed his only one. That’s the happy ending to their stories. However, since they left, the franchise has largely wasted the last half-decade of said quarterback’s career because they have no idea what to do with him now that they have him. They failed to properly invest in and/or develop the talent around him, to provide him with stability in his offensive coaching staff, and have continued to try to force square pegs into round holes in their efforts to build a 21st-century offense.
Hell, they took the main weapon with whom he’d developed the most chemistry during his amazing playoff run – Anquan Boldin – and jettisoned him after the season over a couple million dollars. That was a move that many of us – myself included – dismissed the importance of at the time, saying that Boldin was old and slow and easily replaced. In retrospect, that was a terrible decision by the organization and overly optimistic analysis by fans and media. We told ourselves that Joe had MADE Boldin. While that wasn’t true, nor was the reverse – it was, however, a very symbiotic relationship that we were too quick to dismiss.
The front office did their best to atone for that mistake by bringing in Steve Smith, Sr before the 2014 season. Once he and Joe got on the same page, they were fun to watch, and nearly reached another AFC Championship game.
Still, to me, that particular series of moves underscores my assertion that they really have no idea what it takes for Flacco & this offense to be successful. Instead of investing in continuity for an offense that had just carried them to a title, Ozzie & Co. instead prioritized rebuilding the defense that had nearly choked away said title. With Ray retiring and Ed moving on (though I wish he’d just retired), it was the perfect opportunity to focus on putting the pieces around Flacco to allow him to not only maintain his level of play, but to continue to ascend.
As we know, none of that happened.
Joe isn’t without blame here, so again, don’t think that I’m completely excusing him. There are other quarterbacks who would have taken the tools that Joe had and maximized them, finding a way to make lemonade out of the lemons that they were given. Quarterbacks who would have redoubled their efforts on the practice field and in the film room, who would have learned to emphasize the finer points of the game (using cadence to their advantage, for example, as TL mentioned above) and who would have been driven to prove that that magnificent playoff run was no fluke, as so many proclaimed at the time – folks who, so far, have been vindicated.
BB: Every year the front office says they have to surround Joe with the best talent available in order for him to achieve maximum success. It’s cliche, but it all starts up front – in the trenches along the offensive line. Given Joe’s ability to dissect defenses when given adequate amounts of time is a no-brainer. Ozzie and company can no longer afford the likes of James Hurst, Jeremy Zuttah amongst others protecting Flacco. It simply doesn’t work. He has had the weapons at the specialty positions but with a constant pass rush in his face, it doesn’t matter their caliber.
It’s a two-way street for Flacco when it comes to the blame game for why he has not, in my mind, played to the level of his contract. Joe, a nine-year veteran, still commits mistakes that you would expect a rookie to make. His inability to throw the ball away has cost the Ravens valuable points and field position. His mechanics, except under the tutorial of Gary Kubiak, have left a lot to be desired while throwing off his back foot is an every game occurrence.
Combine the lack of protection with the poor mechanics and you see Flacco’s recent struggles.
TL: Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is a big believer in continuity yet the Ravens have had anything but continuity at Offensive Coordinator. Each OC wants to leave his mark — put his stamp on the offense and when that happens change occurs and continuity is disrupted. The change could be schematic, it could be terminology, it may even be philosophical or worse, as in all of the above. The change requires more thinking and more thinking slows down an athlete’s ability to fully enable his physical prowess. As reaction time slows, windows of opportunity on the field shut. It’s difficult to measure how much the constant flux of OC’s affects Flacco but one thing we can probably all agree on, the constant change can’t be good.
So that’s one thing…
And then if you are going to pay your quarterback like a franchise QB, he has to be supported with the tools to yield the most from the investment in said QB. The Ravens haven’t been able to do that effectively and we can point to failed draft choices and less than ideal cap management as two of the primary culprits.
As for what Joe can do be better?
A couple of my pet Flacco peeves stem from his lack of patience in the pocket and the way he predetermines where he will go with the football. The former leads to an inordinate number of check downs and the latter prevents him from seeing the field properly. Both are illustrated in detail in two pieces that I posted during the 2016 season.
And if the visual evidence provided in the links above isn’t enough to convince you, consider the study that Football Outsiders (“FO”) published this month on “Failed Completions”. FO defines a Failed Completion as any completed pass that fails to:
– Gain 45% of needed yards on 1st down; or
– 60% of needed yards on 2nd down; or
– 100% of needed yards on 3rd or 4th down
Flacco ranked second in the league in Failed Completion percentage with 33%. That number was better than only one other starter, Jared Goff, who had a Failed Completion percentage of 39.3%. Since FO began recording this statistic in 1989, Flacco’s 33% is the highest among all NFL QB’s who have thrown 100+ Failed Completions in a single season. His 144 Failed Completions in 2016 are FO’s highest ever.
I’d also like to see Joe try to work on the nuances of the position (mentioned above) to gain a competitive edge. Joe is a bit like a MLB pitcher with really good stuff but for whatever reason struggles to find consistency. He reminds me of Jake Arrieta as an Oriole. I only hope the Ravens can refine Joe and help him make the leap that Jake made as a Cub.
But after 9 seasons, I have my doubts.
I hope I’m wrong, for the Ravens sake.