Joe Flacco is preparing to play the biggest game of his career, yet you can guarantee he will approach it with the same calm demeanor he always has. Much like Eli Manning, the guy is a flat-liner on game day, and little rattles him except maybe an unblocked safety blitz from his blind side.
Yeah, you have seen him fumble under that pressure before, most notably against the Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time. Those are often big games, too, deciding the AFC North each year. Moments like that, when everyone’s watching, can really define a player’s legacy.
That is why many are surprised by Flacco’s low-turnover postseason, despite the fact he has always done a great job of avoiding turnovers. Call it the “Tony Romo Effect.” A quarterback has most of his worst moments come in nationally televised games, and they do not have the postseason success to overcome them.
So is Flacco a “clutch” quarterback?
He does not excel on third down, and is not even doing so this postseason (just 32.14 percent conversion rate after career-worst 35.59 percent in the regular season).
Flacco is starting to get that label as a “playoff performer,” or a player who plays just okay in the regular season before magically turning it on in the big games. Yeah, Mark Sanchez did that his first two years, and it was just a few years ago that Flacco had one touchdown, six interceptions and a 46.5 passer rating in his first five playoff games.
Now in the last year you have “The Moore Complex.” New England’s Sterling Moore knocked away a pass from Lee Evans that denied Flacco a game-winning touchdown to play in Super Bowl XLVI, but this year Denver’s Rahim Moore played the ultimate fool on a 70-yard touchdown to Jacoby Jones that extended Flacco’s season.
Therefore you can say Flacco’s number of Super Bowl appearances is a deserving total of one, with those situations cancelling each other out. But has he been a clutch player in his career?
The truth is Flacco’s reputation in the clutch has been fairly nonexistent to this point. That is going to change after he starts a Super Bowl, so let’s get the facts out before then.
The blueprint of Eli
Eli Manning showed Flacco the path to legitimacy and acceptance last season, and even five years ago for that matter.
There is no denying the similarities between Manning’s Super Bowl seasons and Flacco’s 2012 season. Both quarterbacks did not shy away in the offseason when claiming they were elite players. Both love to throw the vertical ball. Both played on teams that had inconsistent regular seasons.
Flacco even used the Giants in Week 16 to get ready for this playoff run with a superb game, and he has continued that hot streak, which is the best of his career. Speaking of career, Flacco’s first five seasons actually compare better to Tom Brady’s than they do Manning’s.
But much of the early-career respect for these players was built from delivering in the postseason, which is what Flacco has done to a degree, but not claimed the ultimate prize yet.
Flacco has to finish off his Manning-esque season by grinding out a tough win against the San Francisco defense, just like Manning did in last year’s NFC Championship.
Flacco has already taken care of the “score big points on the road against a No. 1 seed/MVP quarterback” and the “outdueling Tom Brady” parts that Manning also went through.
Winning a lot of games in the clutch was a huge part of the allure of Manning’s 2011 season, and Flacco has also had a career-high in game-winning drives and comeback wins this season.
However, Manning’s comebacks were record-breaking, while Flacco is better known as the guy who dumped a short pass on 4th-and-29 to Ray Rice in San Diego, and who lucked out when Denver’s Rahim Moore made the worst judgment on a ball in NFL history.
But is that a fair assessment of Flacco’s clutch history?
I see your 4th-and-29 and raise you a 4th-and-18 that T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped in the 2010 playoffs in Pittsburgh that ended the game. He let the ball bounce off his chest for what would have been a first down. Then, of course, one play by a defender named Moore cancels out the other.
Here is how the Ravens have essentially ended their last two seasons:
Those are not on the quarterback. Those were quality throws, but no comeback wins for Flacco in those games because his receivers failed to make the plays. While Flacco has these two plays, Manning can point to catches by David Tyree and Mario Manningham in his two Super Bowl wins.
Studying Baltimore’s history in these situations is very telling of Flacco’s value in clutch situations.
Quantifying Flacco’s comebacks and game-winning drives
For his career, Flacco is 10-17 (.370) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, which is defined as having possession in the fourth quarter, trailing by 1-8 points (one-score deficit). Among active players (minimum 15 games), that percentage just puts Flacco in the top 10.
Overall, including game-winning drive opportunities where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime, Flacco is 15-20 (.429). The following table shows the top 10 active leaders, with the left section the fourth-quarter comebacks, and the right side the overall records. Playoffs included.
Most of the names you would expect, but a few surprises as well. Is Flacco a surprise?
When writing about the historic lack of clutch wins for Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay Packers this past summer, I defended Flacco; pointing out how often the vaunted Baltimore defense has let him down when having to protect the lead, or how the receivers dropped critical passes. If Rodgers was unlucky, Flacco had worse luck.
That’s why the record is just a starting point for the games. We can look at the stats Flacco had in these clutch situations compared to the rest of his career.
Not uncommon to see a drop as desperate times call for desperate measures. When your defense blows the lead in the last minute and you have to go 80 yards in 20 seconds (or worse), that is a cheap way to throw up an interception, which Flacco has done before.
Besides, it’s not like Flacco’s statistical decline in the clutch is as bad as Brett Favre, for example.
While a comeback win like the game in San Diego this season would not have been possible without Rice’s effort on 4th-and-29, it is not as if Flacco did not contribute to that win.
There would never be a 4th-and-29 without Flacco leading an 80-yard touchdown drive to make it a 13-10 game. Flacco threw for 86 yards on that drive alone, and made Rice’s effort count with a huge 3rd-and-10 conversion in overtime to set up the winning field goal.
The “4QC/GWD” stats are drive stats only triggered by a successful outcome, but it takes more than one drive to earn those victories. Taking the lead and putting the game away with a few first downs is becoming vital in today’s NFL, and the four-minute offense is still the best way to win a game on your own terms.
Often a quarterback is at the mercy of others to close a game, and Flacco is no stranger to that. When looking at “lost comebacks” or games where the quarterback did everything to earn a comeback except win the game, Flacco stands out above his top peers and a few all-time greats.
Five times, Flacco has led the Ravens back in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but Baltimore still lost the game. Taken as a percentage of total failed comebacks in each player’s career, Flacco has the highest rate of lost comebacks among these dozen players.
Instead of just using the wins, the losses are also included for a 35-game sample. You can use win probability (WP) to gauge how difficult the attempt was.
- WP(4Q): This is the WP the Ravens had to start the fourth quarter, but not necessarily with 15:00 left. Instead it is using the first play of the offense’s first possession in the quarter.
- WP(4QC): This is the WP the Ravens had whenever they started making their comeback (if it was a comeback opportunity). If it was from a multiple-score deficit, then it was at the start of the initial drive.
- WP(GWD): This is the WP the Ravens had to start the drive of the game in which they scored the points that put them ahead for good (the game-winning drive). This is excluded for the losses since there never was a GWD.
- MaxDef: The largest deficit the Ravens faced in the fourth quarter.
Some of the numbers overlap because they are taken from the same moment in the game, but some you will see are much different.
Based on the first offensive play of the fourth quarter for Baltimore’s offense, the Ravens were expected to win 17.4 of these games. They actually won 15, so 2.4 fewer than expected. This is the only calculation that takes every game into account, so a number below expectations is not good news, but that does not necessarily mean the offense was more responsible for the loss.
In the 27 games with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, the Ravens were expected to win 7.2 games. They actually won 10, so a gain of 2.8 wins.
For Flacco’s 15 game-winning drives, at the start of them, the Ravens were only expected to win 8.1 games, so that is a gain of 6.9 wins.
Admittedly this is a metric with great promise, but still needs work to be done to compare quarterbacks with. Perhaps an average of all fourth-quarter drives should be used.
In the Dec. 14, 2008, game against Pittsburgh, Baltimore led 9-3 with 14:51 left in the fourth quarter, and had the ball with a 1st-and-10 at its own 22. At this point, the Ravens had a 78 percent chance of winning the game.
But after Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 92 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, Flacco trailed 13-9, and had just 0:43 left at his own 47. Now the win probability is 0.18, and Flacco’s deep pass was intercepted at the goal line with eight seconds left.
This example shows how a team can be in great position to win a game with about a quarter left, but when it came time for the comeback opportunity, because of how late the defense lost the lead, the situation was bleak.
Flacco’s also lost out on some of his best comebacks.
In 2009 against the Minnesota Vikings, Flacco led the Ravens back from a 27-10 deficit in less than seven minutes. After Minnesota regained a 33-31 lead, Flacco drove the offense to set up Steven Hauschka for a 44-yard field goal to win the game, but the kick was wide left with no time left.
Baltimore’s WP was just 0.02 when the 17-point comeback started, but it would have been a win with a good kick.
The next season the Ravens went to Atlanta in the first meeting between Flacco and draft classmate Matt Ryan. Baltimore trailed 20-7 with 11:29 left (WP was 0.06) before Flacco led the offense on touchdown drives of 75 and 72 yards.
It took Ryan only 0:45 to go 80 yards for the winning touchdown. Flacco had just 0:16 left at his own 9, which is a hopeless opportunity, and Atlanta won 26-21.
These were road games against two of the NFC’s best teams in recent years, and Flacco did his part to put the team in position for the win. But both will have to go down as lost comebacks, which mean no real credit.
The 15 game-winning drives Flacco has led have not often been that improbable, and certainly a step below what Eli Manning has done in his career. But last year in Pittsburgh, he did lead what I called the drive of the year, going 92 yards in the final 2:24 to beat the Steelers.
Even on that drive, the receivers struggled for Flacco. Torrey Smith dropped a 37-yard touchdown in the end zone. Three plays later, Anquan Boldin dropped a pass around the Pittsburgh 10. Finally, Smith made the winning touchdown for 26 yards with just eight seconds to play.
When you factor in the five lost comebacks, the 15 game-winning drives, some of the great throws, the 13 blown leads in the 20 losses, you have to come away pleasantly impressed with how Flacco handles himself in clutch situations.
Looking at the 15-20 record, it does stand out that 11-9 is the mark in the last 20 games (all since 2010). This is a young quarterback who is improving. Flacco is 7-4 in his last 11 games with an opportunity for a clutch win, and led in the fourth quarter or overtime in all 11 games.
Flacco’s still not likely one of your first five choices to lead a team late, but he is definitely not a liability at doing so, either.
Judge Flacco appropriately on Sunday
Is Flacco underrated in the clutch? Fair or not, we will find out exactly how he is rated after Sunday. From there, you have to decipher five years of data, the ups and downs, what’s in Flacco’s control vs. what is not, and how it compares to other quarterbacks.
But we know most will just take the easy way out and base it on this one game result first and foremost.
Yes, Sunday is a much different stage, and it is the toughest to perform on. Some non-great quarterbacks like Doug Williams used it to define their career, while others faltered badly like Craig Morton (twice).
Still, these other Ravens seeking a ring like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, etc. also have to do their part. Not to mention there’s a whole San Francisco franchise hungry for the same prize.
We know Flacco will not be fazed by the moment, but what he does in Super Bowl XLVII will largely define his reputation as a clutch quarterback. A win should not automatically brand him, while a loss is not a guarantee that he was the culprit. The “Moore Complex” defines that logic neatly for his career.
But we know how perception works in the NFL, and Flacco will not get the label of “elite” or “clutch” unless he comes away with the win this week. That’s just as much of a fact as any of the numbers.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.