Is Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?
Literally, the word elite means a member of a superior group, but if you listen, watch or read sports commentary today you will hear nearly a dozen different quarterbacks labeled "elite." That's more than a third of the NFL's starting quarterbacks, which is far from a superior group.
It's unclear precisely when the obsession with the word elite began, but if I had to arbitrarily mark the beginning of the discourse I would date it back to the New England Patriots back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Since this time, the only teams who have won a Super Bowl have possessed quarterbacks who, at the time of their championship, were playing at a very high level.
Due to this paradigm, the notion was born that a prerequisite of a Super Bowl win was the possession of an "elite quarterback," which is the crux of the problem with the label.
Before Flacco can possibly be classified as an elite quarterback, or if it is indeed required to have an elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl, we first must finally and concisely define what an elite quarterback is.
Being an elite quarterback is not determinate solely on winning or statistical accolades, but instead the culmination of various traits of greatness. To illustrate and to minimize the eligibility, here are parameters that act as a rubric to being discussed an elite quarterback:
1. A proven winner in both the regular season and postseason.
This quarterback not only resides on a winning team, but plays at a high level and makes significant contribution to it.
2. Statistical merit is required.
This quarterback must display high efficiency in a heavy majority of his games. The best way to evaluate efficiency is Total QBR.
This quarterback can be fully trusted week to week, and he is not subject to poor performances on a yearly basis. Even Joe Montana had bad games, but it’s imperative for an elite quarterback to limit these mishaps throughout his career. An elite quarterback can’t be the reason his team loses.
4. Superior talent.
This player must demonstrate physical ability that excels beyond most at the quarterback position. That can be arm strength, accuracy, athleticism and awareness.
5. Finally, for it to remain a superior group, a limit is necessary on the total of elite quarterbacks. Never can three quarterbacks be labeled as elite at any one given time.
The case for Flacco is strong, based on his excellent postseason play as well as his high winning percentage. He is 54-26 as a starter in the regular season and an impressive 9-4 is postseason play. But how does he rank statistically?
Total QBR is an advanced metric to statistically evaluate a quarterback. It scores quarterbacks on a scale from 0-100. By that scale, any score under 25 would be considered a very bad game and conversely any score above a 75 would be considered a great game.
During the 2012 regular season, Flacco scored a great game five times and a very bad game four times. His very bad games were among the worst by a quarterback in the entire league, as he twice failed to score a one. However, his great games eclipsed a 93.2 three separate times.
In his 13 playoff games he has only scored above a 75 four times—three during the 2013 playoffs—and has scored below a 25 four times.
In an effort to contrast Flacco’s statistics with other quarterbacks', I went through and tallied up single-game QBR ratings of the seven quarterbacks who qualify based on the above parameters. The results were illuminating:
|Quarterback||Great Games (>75 QBR)||
Very Bad Games(<25 QBR)
|Quarterback||Great Games||Very Bad Games|
To argue that Flacco is an elite quarterback is to bastardize the regular season altogether. Clearly, in this list of players Flacco falls far behind in statistical merit. In fact, Flacco ranked 25th in QBR for the season. Does that sound elite to you?
So with Flacco and Eli Manning statistically disqualified from the equation, why not pursue the exact list of elite quarterbacks. Based on regular-season performance, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady emerge.
Ryan scored two great games during the 2013 postseason, but his past playoffs struggles and lack of a ring disqualify him from the elite.
Brees gets chopped from the list based on having three very bad games this season and his failure to reach the playoffs.
Peyton Manning falls into the grey area. His regular season was sensational, but he has lost three consecutive playoff games, in none of which did he score a 75-plus QBR. Because of this reason, he can't be considered elite.
That leaves us with two. If you compile both 2011 and 2012 together, Aaron Rodgers has 20 great games to just one very bad game and Tom Brady has a 16 great games to an astonishing zero very bad games.
These statistics allow us to formulate the quarterback hierarchy. It shows us that the only elite quarterbacks in the NFL right now are Rodgers and Brady. On their trail are Brees and Peyton Manning.
You don't need an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl. What you need is a very good quarterback, like Eli Manning or Flacco, with the capability of registering great games at any given time.
We need to appreciate the superior accomplishments of Brady and Rodgers, and be cautious to compare others to them. Yes, Flacco emulated an elite quarterback with his recent playoff run, but his below-average regular season and inconsistency throughout his career bar him from the discussion.