Joe Flacco is the highest-paid player in NFL history.
No matter how many times you say it, the fact is still hard to comprehend. Flacco believes even without Baltimore’s Super Bowl win that he is still worth the six-year, $120.6 million contract he just received.
We know that is not true and that Denver’s Rahim Moore is personally responsible for several million of those dollars when he inexplicably misplayed the ball in the AFC Divisional Game.
Have the Ravens gone mad with this contract?
One play has changed many player perceptions, but that slim margin between game-tying touchdown pass and second-round elimination may have never brought a player more money and life-changing circumstances than it has for Flacco.
We also know football fans are absolutely obsessed with ranking everything, as the whole “is Flacco elite?” debate has been raging ever since he said he was the best quarterback last offseason.
Now that Flacco is being paid like the best, let’s examine where he ranks all-time among quarterbacks in NFL history.
Flacco’s case through five seasons
Before we can rank him, we need to establish a base for understanding what Flacco has accomplished in his five seasons as Baltimore’s starting quarterback. The Ravens may actually appreciate the context following what many feel is a maddening contract.
Flacco is the 30th quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. He is the 14th quarterback to win at least nine playoff games. His 86.3 passer rating is the 17th-highest in NFL history.
If one stuck to only these facts, you would think Flacco easily belongs in the top 30.
But that argument would deserve an “F” if you presented it for NFL History 101. Judging a quarterback goes much deeper than that, and any of those stats can easily mislead. Trent Dilfer also won a Super Bowl. Jim Plunkett won two and was 8-2 in the playoffs. Tony Romo (95.6) and Philip Rivers (94.5) continue to rank in the top six for passer rating.
Tim Couch (75.1) has a higher passer rating than Sid Luckman (75.0) and Sammy Baugh (72.2), but that doesn’t mean a thing. We need more of the full picture and changes to the game have created statistics that have no value in a straight-up comparison between players from different eras.
Regardless of era or experience, one of the most important things a quarterback can do for his team is be there every week. Flacco has done that historically well, starting all 80 regular-season and 13 playoff games in his career. Only Peyton Manning had started his first 80 games through five seasons.
The Ravens’ PR staff may want to borrow some of this since glorifying Flacco has jumped to the top of this year’s to-do list.
Stats are all regular season unless noted otherwise. All AAFC stats excluded. A minimum of 1,500 pass attempts required to quality for rate stats (150 for the postseason). Fumble rates and turnover rates based on my formula used here. Sack percentage is ranked only for quarterbacks with complete career sack data.
Despite his reputation and love for the deep ball, Flacco has done an excellent job of protecting the ball. He has thrown 10-to-12 interceptions in each of his five seasons. With a minimum of 400 passes per season, that is actually the best streak in NFL history, and only three quarterbacks have more overall seasons like that in their career.
Detractors will have a field day pointing out Flacco has never thrown for 4,000 yards, never exceeded 25 touchdown passes, never made the Pro Bowl and has gone over 90.0 in passer rating once.
Advanced stats from websites like Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats and ESPN’s QBR do not treat any of Flacco’s five seasons kindly.
But other active Super Bowl winners like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger did not pass for 4,000 yards until their sixth season in the league. Flacco, who will be going into his sixth season, came up 183 yards short of 4,000 this past season. But remember he sat out the Week 17 game in Cincinnati after just two drives.
It also took Brady eight years to have a passer rating better than the 93.6 Flacco had in 2010. The younger Manning brother has yet to exceed that after nine seasons. The Pro Bowl is downright irrelevant since the moment Vince Young was credited with his second.
Some of Flacco’s efficiency stats are impressive, some are poor, and some speak more about the era he plays in. While many of the numbers are underwhelming on an all-time scale, remember we are talking about a five-year player.
Flacco’s 80 regular-season starts only rank roughly 119th all-time (an estimate due to pre-1950 uncertainties). So Flacco has plenty of time to ascend the volume lists and become more efficient.
Even John Elway had a lousy 73.8 passer rating with 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions after his 10th season (1992). Flacco is off to a better start than the revered Elway had in his career.
If you want a strange Flacco stat, look no further than Flacco’s 5-2 (.714) record in games where he attempts at least 45 passes. That is the best record in NFL history (minimum five games) and speaks to an underrated ability to take over the offense in a way a more risk-averse player like Kansas City’s latest signal-caller, Alex Smith, has not shown.
But many of “Flacco’s achievements” relate to his better-than-expected clutch moments, and his team’s consistent success at making and winning in the playoffs:
- Combining regular season and playoffs, Flacco’s 63 wins are the most ever in a quarterback’s first five seasons.
- Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to start and win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
- Flacco has the most road playoff wins (six) in NFL history, surpassing Eli Manning’s record of five.
- Flacco is the first rookie quarterback (2008) to ever win two playoff games.
- Flacco tied Tom Brady for the most playoff wins (nine) in a player’s first five seasons.
- Flacco is one of 39 quarterbacks to start in five different postseasons.
- Flacco is the sixth quarterback to win a playoff game in five consecutive seasons (Ken Stabler, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady all did five straight as well).
- Flacco’s 11 touchdown passes in the 2012 playoffs tied Joe Montana (1989) and Kurt Warner (2008) for the single-postseason record.
- Flacco’s 126 attempts without an interception in the 2012 playoffs is a new single-postseason record, breaking Drew Brees’ mark of 102 attempts in 2009.
- Flacco is the only quarterback to ever have four games in the same postseason with a passer rating over 100.0.
While Flacco’s passer rating in the regular season (86.3) is nearly identical to his playoff rating (86.2), which is a good rarity, it has only been in recent seasons where he has earned a reputation as a “big-game performer.”
Here you can see Flacco’s year-by-year career against playoff teams, followed by a summary of how he has done against non-playoff (“NON-PO”) teams:
The fact that he has played almost as many playoff teams as he has non-playoff teams is impressive. It has not been an easy schedule for Baltimore the last five years.
After struggling as a young player, since 2010 Flacco is 17-9 against playoff teams with 46 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 97.3 passer rating. He was 7-1 in 2011 with the only loss coming in the AFC Championship Game in New England, which of course ended in unbelievable fashion.
“The Moore Complex” (Sterling and Rahim) aside, Flacco followed that near-trip with a historic Super Bowl run for 2012, winning Super Bowl MVP honors.
In summary, over five years Flacco has been very durable, not a liability in the clutch, protects the ball well and has increasingly strung together big-game performances against the best competition in the league.
The grueling method to rank Flacco among the NFL’s all-time quarterbacks
Now that we understand Flacco, let’s start the ranking process. The goal is to find a legitimate range for Flacco and his current career worth. Obviously a lot of the following is subjective, but it is still going to be rooted in facts and logic, hopefully eliminating much of the debate on many players.
Ranking quarterbacks from all eras is no easy task. You have to factor in era-weighted statistics, individual ability, team success, the playoffs, signature moments, supporting cast, longevity, peak performance, injuries, All-Pro selections, awards, etc.
There is no magical formula, and if there was, we probably would not be able to apply it to all quarterbacks in NFL history due to a lack of data and resources.
Fortunately I have done this before. Ranking Ben Roethlisberger after a similar point in his career (summer of 2009 following his fifth season) was actually the starting point for the method and research presented here.
Frankly it was much easier to rank Roethlisberger given his extra Super Bowl win and all-around superior statistics to what Flacco has done so far. But let’s see if he can crack the top 64 or not.
Step No. 1: Start from an esteemed list
First let’s start with a helping hand from NFL Films. Before the 1998 season they did an hour-long special on the 50 greatest quarterbacks of all time. You may be able to watch this on NFL Network some day when they play NFL Films material.
I have included their list. Names in red are members of the Hall of Fame.
The highlighted yellow names are those that not only should be removed from the top 50, but should definitely be put behind Flacco right now.
Ace Parker played only 56 NFL games in the era of two-way players. Parker only played for two teams with a winning record (no championship games). There’s a better pre-1950 selection to be named later.
Jack Kemp was a NFL castoff who had a lot of team success in the AFL, but was very turnover prone, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in every season of his career. Even in the smaller, less efficient AFL, Kemp routinely ranked in the bottom half of the league’s quarterbacks.
Jim Hart (1966-84) was a long-time stat compiler for the Cardinals, who enjoyed brief success in the 1973-77 seasons. Other than that period, you are basically looking at the old-school version of Kerry Collins. Good for an undrafted player, but not top 64 material.
Doug Williams made the list for one game: Super Bowl XXII. Great game, but a subpar career overall.
Speaking of subpar, Joe Ferguson was another player with a long career (1973-90) with little value to speak of. He was 79-92 as a starter and his only playoff win saw him throw four interceptions. He won because the opposing quarterback, New York’s Richard Todd, also threw four picks.
Ron Jaworski may be better known for his post-career work with ESPN than his playing days. In the 1977-82 period “Jaws” was a good quarterback who did lead the Eagles to their first Super Bowl in a career season in 1980, but his overall resume leaves something to be desired.
Archie Manning might have been a heck of a quarterback if he was drafted somewhere other than downtrodden New Orleans. But even after that the original Manning went 0-10 as a starter, playing on a non-winning team every year of his career. His 35-101-3 (.263) record as starter is the worst in NFL history (min. 100 starts). Maybe Olivia had the right DNA to complement the passing skills.
Finally there is Steve Grogan at No. 50. A 16-year veteran for the Patriots, Grogan only had six seasons with at least seven starts. He was 0-3 as a playoff starter and basically served as a backup or part-time starter after his sixth season due to injury and replacement situations.
So those eight players do not have to go home, but they can’t stay here. This leaves 42 players ranked ahead of Flacco. A few could be considered borderline picks.
Bert Jones was a MVP with an incredible 1976 season, while Daryle Lamonica was the mad bomber who won 78.4 percent of his starts (66-16-6 record).
You know how Flacco has that “he outplayed and beat Tom Brady in a championship game” reputation? Well Frank Ryan was that guy in the 1960s, and Johnny Unitas was his Brady in the 1964 championship game, won 27-0 by the Browns. Ryan led the league with 25 touchdowns that year and was quite good from 1963-67.
Then there’s Don Meredith. Starting from the basement with the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960, Meredith grew into a big-play passer, leading the Cowboys to two straight NFL Championship Games (1966-67). But he could never get past Vince Lombardi’s Packers and retired after 85 starts (48-33-4 record).
I would not object to putting Flacco ahead of Meredith, but they should be close together as of March 6, 2013.
Step No. 2: Add the post-1998 players
As seen on the list above, to the right is a list of the quarterbacks since 1998 that should be included in the top 50 or at least for consideration in the top 64.
There are the six active quarterbacks clearly ahead of Flacco in Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.
Before this season Tony Romo and Philip Rivers really were having better careers than Flacco, though 2012 obviously changes things. Romo is still unfairly criticized for being a choker, but the real choker has been Rivers.
Despite producing better stats than Flacco the last three years, it has resulted in no playoff appearances for San Diego as Rivers continues to turn the ball over with unbelievable frequency in clutch situations.
Still, the three should not have much separation from each other on an all-time list, and the same is true for Flacco’s 2008 draft mate Matt Ryan, who beat out Flacco for the most regular-season wins (56) in a player’s first five seasons. Ryan also has the best record ever at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities (16-14; .533).
If not for a red-zone stop in the NFC Championship Game, we could be doing this for Ryan right now instead of Flacco. That’s just how the NFL works sometimes.
I also added Randall Cunningham, who had one of the best seasons ever in 1998 in addition to several strong years in Philadelphia. He brought a new style to the running quarterback in the NFL.
Steve McNair and Rich Gannon both won a MVP, both started a Super Bowl, and were also solid runners in addition to being good passers. Donovan McNabb never won a MVP, but he was right there with these players and sustained a longer window of success. The same can be said for Matt Hasselbeck’s time in Seattle.
Kurt Warner should speak for himself with two MVP awards and three Super Bowl starts. He deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback.
With these selections and respect to Flacco being a 12th addition, that would put 53 quarterbacks ahead of him.
Step No. 3: Work backwards
Now we start to work from the opposite direction to complete the list of 64 all-time quarterbacks with respect to where Flacco deserves to rank.
A good starting point is to use a minimum of 1,000 passes. It is hard to consider anyone as one of the all-time great quarterbacks if they cannot even muster that number. We are talking an average of 200 passes a season for a five-year career (or 24 games if you are Drew Brees).
Not like there is any point looking at the career of Chad Hutchinson and considering it for this list. Does anyone even remember this guy? Dallas fans should be careful when bashing Romo. The alternative will likely be worse as quarterbacks do not grow on trees.
The best players with less than 1,000 passes will always be the latest rookie successes such as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Their time will come, but right now one season is not enough to enter this discussion.
Other than that, Benny Friedman (1927-34) was an old-time Hall of Fame quarterback. Stats were not kept in his first five seasons, but he is credited with 66 touchdown passes. It is curious to see why he did not make NFL Films’ list and Ace Parker did.
Besides Friedman and the 2012 rookies, the only other name worth mentioning is Greg Cook, who was outstanding as a rookie for the 1969 Bengals. But a shoulder injury ruined what could have been a bright career.
Now we have a list of 214 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 NFL attempts. You can see the full list at Pro-Football-Reference, but be weary of AAFC stats included for Y.A. Tittle, Otto Graham, Frankie Albert and George Ratterman.
The correct number is 214. The last two players to cross it are 2011 rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Neither is ready for this yet though.
To rank Flacco, you simply make your way up the list deciding which players you would rank ahead of him. Using 1,500 attempts as the next cutoff point, the only player I would pick is Arnie Herber, who is in the Hall of Fame and was No. 40 on the NFL Films list.
Herber won four championships and was a member of the 1930s All-Decade Team. He did get to play with Don Hutson, but he was really the first prolific passer in the NFL, even before Sammy Baugh.
Cecil Isbell also had success in Green Bay with Hutson, but his career was very short.
Other than that, make note of the career Tommy Thompson had (1940-50). I'm not going to put him on the list, but he had very prolific numbers in 1947-49 for the Eagles, who made the playoffs each season and won two NFL Championship Games.
Herber was already on the list, so Flacco remains 54th all-time for now.
Step No. 4: Getting into the meat of history (1,500-plus attempts)
Now you are left with a list of the 171 quarterbacks with at least 1,500 pass attempts, which is the minimum the NFL uses for players to qualify for career rate statistics.
Otto Graham is an easy choice over Flacco. Two more Hall of Fame quarterbacks with multiple championships, Bob Waterfield and Sid Luckman, are close by and each was already on the list.
But other than these players, the only other two that jump out are the aforementioned Frank Ryan and Meredith, both of whom were already on the list.
At this point we have hit 2,500 attempts, which is right above where Flacco (2,489) ranks all-time in attempts at No. 113. Good luck making an argument for any of these 53 players (active players in bold).
Chad Pennington had some nice stats, but could not push the ball down the field, was injured every other season and generally played poorly in the playoffs.
Milt Plum was actually the highest-rated passer in NFL history at one point in the 1960s, but most quarterbacks shined under coach Paul Brown in Cleveland. The fact that the Browns traded this 27-year-old “stud” to the Lions speaks volumes about how good he really was, as did the poor results after leaving Cleveland:
- In Cleveland, Plum was 33-16-2 (.667) as a starter with 66 TD, 39 INT and an 89.9 passer rating.
- In Detroit, Plum was 23-24-4 (.490) as a starter with 55 TD, 87 INT and a 58.0 passer rating.
Plum is the anti-LeBron, if you will, and he could not even score a point in his single postseason start. Not worthy of the top 64.
The only other name worth highlighting is Jeff Hostetler. After winning Super Bowl XXV for the Giants as Phil Simms’ backup, Hostetler consistently played solid football the next six years, but only started every game one time. Another player who was not flashy, Flacco has already surpassed him in nearly every category.
Step No. 5: The 112 quarterbacks with more pass attempts than Flacco
As the title says, we are left with only quarterbacks who have thrown more passes than Flacco. In some cases that means a lot when you are talking about all-time greats like Brett Favre and Dan Marino.
But then there are the compilers who hung around long enough to finish with big career numbers, but ultimately have little to show for it in the way of strong seasons or success.
Steve Beuerlein had a great season in 1999 for Carolina (4,436 yards and 36 touchdowns), but it means so little in the grand scheme of things when it is one of only four seasons in his career where he had double-digit starts.
Only 32 quarterbacks have thrown more passes than Jon Kitna (4,442 attempts). Chew on that for a second. We will sort them out, Kitna and all here.
First, let’s look at the 64 players who were Flacco’d (ranked behind him):
Jim McMahon was 67-30 (.691) as a starter, won a Super Bowl with the Bears, but he is not making this list due to his inability to stay healthy or be a dominant quarterback. McMahon thrived on an elite defense and running game. He never threw for more than 15 touchdowns or 2,392 yards in any of his 15 seasons.
Mark Rypien’s 1991 Super Bowl-winning season for Washington was better than any season Flacco has had, but it looks like a bigger fluke as well. Afterwards Rypien was just 14-18 as a starter (1-1 in the playoffs), 31 touchdowns, 40 interceptions and a 67.7 passer rating. It does not feel comfortable to say his four seasons (1988-91) were enough to put him ahead of Flacco or many other players.
Earl Morrall was the greatest backup quarterback ever, even winning league MVP in Johnny Unitas’ absence for the 1968 Colts. Often successful when given a chance, he just did not have enough years of being a franchise quarterback to deserve a higher ranking.
Danny White was in a similar window of success as Flacco (1980-85), but never could get talented Dallas over the hump to a Super Bowl. He lost three straight NFC Championship Games, followed by a pair of playoff losses to the Rams. White threw three interceptions in each game.
Brian Sipe was league MVP in 1980, but his only playoff game is best remembered for “Red Right 88.” That was a game-losing interception thrown by Sipe against the Raiders. Sipe only had four (or five) quality seasons in his career.
Sipe’s mistake, which is also a Cleveland coaching mistake as they should have just kicked the field goal, enabled Jim Plunkett to continue on his first Super Bowl run. Plunkett would add a second ring with the 1983 Raiders (his best season), but he really strung together a lot of bad-to-mediocre seasons despite being a No. 1 pick.
(Note: After starting in step one with Plunkett ahead of Flacco, I have changed my mind and put him below. These things are fluid indeed.)
Trent Green played with amazing offensive talent circa 2000-06, but never could win a playoff game or even routinely make it there. Jeff Garcia made the playoffs four times, but had a short peak (2000-02) and was lost without the West Coast offense.
Craig Morton made it to the Super Bowl twice with different teams (Dallas and Denver), but played horrifically both times. He did have some sneaky-good seasons in a long career though.
Jim Harbaugh was practically a one-year wonder with the 1995 Indianapolis Colts, coming up a Hail Mary short of the Super Bowl. Three years later Chris Chandler did get to the Super Bowl with a career season under Atlanta’s Dan Reeves, but it ended in misery and no further success.
Brad Johnson deserves more credit than he gets for the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ success, but he only had about four quality seasons in a long career.
Players like Jim Everett and Carson Palmer were all stats, no substance. So was Norm Snead in his day, which is similar to the Hart’s and DeBerg’s, who fathered in (no, not literally) the Collins’ and Kitna’s of recent times.
Then you have Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe. Both were No. 1 overall picks. Both started a lot of games. Both led a lot of impressive game-winning drives. But they both had ample opportunities to compile numbers. Neither was overly efficient save for a season or two. Bledsoe was horrible in the postseason, while Testaverde rarely made it that far.
There is something to be said for their long careers, and they are a cut above Hart/Collins/DeBerg/Kitna, but still not worthy of ranking ahead of someone who has shown a more consistent value to his team like Flacco.
Finally the last player I wavered on was Bernie Kosar, who like Flacco, had a lot of early playoff success his first five seasons. Kosar started three AFC Championship Games, but could never get past the Denver Broncos.
In the regular season Kosar was not dominant, but he was more efficient and ranked higher to his peers than Flacco has. The ultimate difference comes in that Flacco has his “Moore Complex,” which is Sterling Moore preventing him from one Super Bowl, but Rahim Moore allowing his next chance to continue.
Kosar never could catch a break. His defense allowed “The Drive” at home in the 1986 AFC Championship, which of course was Elway’s 98-yard touchdown march to tie the game. Then a year later in the rematch in Denver, Earnest Byner suffers “The Fumble” as Kosar was looking to tie the game late.
The quality of the AFC Kosar competed in leaves a lot to be desired, and he was never relevant in the 90s, so for those reasons and Flacco’s ring, he gets the tie-breaker over Kosar. But let’s make sure they stand side-by-side for now.
Step No. 6: Compile the remaining names into a final list
So who is left? In concluding the process, here is my final look at the top 64 quarterbacks in NFL history:
Flacco is the last man on the team at No. 53. Again, Meredith is probably too high, but just roll with it. Flacco is in the tournament, and while it did take some heavy weights placed on the postseason, you can see he legitimately is in this range.
The “play-in game” was between Testaverde and Daunte Culpepper. Ultimately it came down to three (two all-time) great seasons (2000, 2003 and 2004) and the rare talent of pre-injury Culpepper. Hopefully it will only be a few years before he is knocked out by someone like Luck or Wilson (or both, plus Griffin and Colin Kaepernick).
But the bottom of the list along with the process to get here should shed some light on how hard it is to find a good quarterback. They just do not come off an assembly line. String together a handful of good seasons and you could be in the top 64 of all time.
In a league with 32 teams, it is no wonder why everyone is trying desperately to find a quarterback. Those who don’t have one don’t really compete.
Like him or put him on your top 10 active list or not, the Ravens have found their franchise quarterback in Flacco.
Conclusion: Ravens basically had no other options
Baltimore paid a heavy price for the 53rd-best quarterback in NFL history, hoping his playoff run will carry over into future success as he will only be 28 this season.
It was a big risk, but it almost had to be done this way. The Ravens already got rid of the last quarterback to win them a Super Bowl (Trent Dilfer), but this situation was much different, and the PR implications were bigger.
Flacco did have an all-time great playoff run and has several impressive physical tools. He fits John Harbaugh’s team very well.
Baltimore could have used the franchise tag, allowing Flacco to prove he can sustain an increased level of play in 2013. But that would have made the salary cap situation daunting to re-sign any other player, and Baltimore has a long list of free agents.
This Washington Post article by Mark Maske on Peyton Manning’s record-setting deal in 2004 sounds very similar to Baltimore’s Flacco situation. A team sets a record with an amount in their quarterback’s contract. It frees up immediate cap space due to a low salary with large signing bonus. But how will they stay competitive in the future with the quarterback taking up so much money?
Well the Colts did, winning at least 12 games in the next six seasons and making two Super Bowl appearances. It worked because the quarterback lived up to the money. Now Baltimore is hoping for Flacco to take on more responsibility.
Flacco not getting a long-term deal done before the 2012 season has worked out incredibly for him. Fluke or not, the timing of his actions could not have been any better. However, the distinction of “highest-paid player” is another way of saying “latest top 10 quarterback to get a new deal.”
The price for the position is ridiculously steep, and when a player like Aaron Rodgers gets his new deal, you can bet it will exceed Flacco’s, though perhaps not by as much as expected (or deserved).
Both starters for five years, Rodgers continues to ascend the all-time list of great quarterbacks with eye-popping numbers, while Flacco needs a lot of caveats and postseason posturing to crack the top 64.
But as this exercise should have proven, it is hard to find a quarterback who can dependably and successfully be a starter for five or more years. Even though he has not been flashy or dominant, Flacco has already given five solid years to the Ravens.
Now they just hope he continues to give them at least six more years, and with better results than he has delivered thus far. If he does, then you may see Flacco’s name in the top 20 quarterbacks of all time one day.
Would that really be any stranger than seeing his name attached to the highest-paid player in NFL history?
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.