Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco vs. Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers & Eli Manning

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Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco vs. Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers & Eli Manning
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Joe Flacco has been the most scrutinized player this offseason. Everyone has an opinion, but there doesn’t really seem to be a moderate opinion. Flacco is a polarizing player. People either see him as an elite quarterback or a big disappointment.

ESPN’s John Clayton emphatically calls Flacco an “elite quarterback,” and Derrick Mason says Flacco’s the Ravens’ “Michael Jordan.”

Lamaar Woodley has said that Flacco would not win a Super Bowl “in this lifetime,” and Dhani Jones said that Flacco is a “capable quarterback [but] if you put a lot of pressure on him, he makes bad decisions.”

It’s not really surprising that the two biggest public criticisms of Flacco have come from players on the Steelers and the Bengals. Flacco has struggle more versus those two teams than any others in the league. Obviously, players from those teams are likely to have the lowest opinion of him.

Players from Miami or Houston, teams that Flacco has historically played well against, are less likely to feel the same way, and this goes for the fans as well. There hasn’t been a fan base more critical of Flacco than that of the Steelers, and again, this is not surprising.

Unluckily for Flacco, Woodley and Jones don’t seem to be in the minority lately, and many critics would agree with them. While there haven’t been many other NFL players or coaches to come out and publicly criticize Flacco, his public opinion has been on the decline. Nothing has hurt it worse than consistently losing to the Steelers since he entered the league three seasons ago.

Spinning off of the last article analyzing Flacco, the point of this article is not to beat the drums for Joe Flacco but only to bring some perspective to this polarizing argument. We’re gong to use the same statistical analysis method from last article to compare the statistics from Flacco’s first three seasons in the league to the first three seasons of other comparable quarterbacks in an effort to discover just how good Flacco is and where he is in his development by comparison.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would not be good comparisons for this analysis since not many people think Flacco is or ever has been on their level in his first three seasons.

Instead, we’re going to look at quarterbacks who’ve shared some career similarities with Flacco. Starting from a young age, especially as a rookie, should be the biggest criteria for any comparable quarterback. The second biggest should be a first round quarterback who the team has drafted as their franchise quarterback.

By those criteria, the two best comparable quarterbacks are Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Both of those quarterbacks were drafted in the first round as their team’s future franchise quarterback, and both started for the majority of their rookie year.

Another quarterback that we’re going to analyze is Philip Rivers. Rivers didn’t start in his rookie year and had the luxury of learning from a Pro Bowl quarterback, Drew Brees, in his first two seasons. This obviously gives Rivers an edge, but we’re still going to compare Flacco to him since there have been recent comparisons between the two quarterbacks.

Joe Flacco has played in 48 games as over his first three seasons. Doing the math, that means that he’s started every game of every season, 16 games for three seasons, since he’s been in the league. That says a lot about his durability, but unfortunately for this analysis, Roethlisberger and Manning did not start every game for their team over their first three seasons. Both players missed games for various reasons.

For that reason, we are going to analyze the first 48 games for all the quarterbacks. This gives Roethlisberger and Manning a distinct advantage in the analysis since their last games in the analysis will run over into their fourth season.

Although Rivers' statistics will be exclusively from his first three starting seasons, he also has an advantage because his first starting season didn’t come until his third year in the league, as we’ve already said. We’re just going to have to live with these advantages and try to interpret their effects on the analysis though extrapolation.

The first sets of data we’re going to look at are the quarterback ratings. From the graph, we can see that every quarterback showed improvement in their rating trend except Roethlisberger, who had a surprisingly negative rate of minus-0.21 but the highest starting value of 99.0.

Flacco had a rate of increase of 0.48, which was the highest, but had the second lowest starting value of 77.1. Manning and Rivers had rates of 0.24 and 0.33 respectively and starting values of 67.1 for Manning and 87.0 for Rivers.

Quarterback Rating [Click Here to Enlarge]

Before we go on, let’s talk about what these trend numbers mean. The starting values are simply the starting point, floor or ceiling, of the trend line value, and the rates are the amount which the line increases or decreases in each increment, which is a game in this case.

For example, Roethlisberger’s trend started with a value of 99.0, which was the highest, and decrease by 0.21 for every game he played over 48 games. Therefore, his trend starts with a value of 99.0 and ends with a value of approximately 88.9. This obviously means that his passer rating has been decreasing throughout his career.

The other quarterbacks showed a positive increase in passer rating throughout their careers. This doesn’t mean that the others are better than Roethlisberger since his trend started at the highest value. It only means that Roethlisberger was very good from the beginning of his career. There are many factors that could lead to a negative decrease in rating including a slump in the middle and/or end of his first three seasons. A negative decline doesn’t mean he’ll continue to decline.

Flacco’s rating shows the highest rate of increase of the rating trends but the lowest starting value. This means that Flacco struggled at the beginning of his career but is showing progress. This is what you’d expect from a talented quarterback coming out of a smaller school especially if they were forced to start from day one in the NFL.

Flacco’s high rate is probably skewed by the extremely low value with which he started. That is, he’s probably not going to see that same rate of change continue. He will probably continue to improve, but the rate of increase is likely to decrease.

Passing Yards [Click Here to Enlarge]

Flacco’s rating trend by comparison to the other quarterbacks is very good. Over his first three seasons, his trend is better than Manning’s or Roethlisberger’s because he ends at a high value, 100.14, by this analysis. Again, this is slightly skewed since his starting level was so low.

At the very least, Flacco’s trend is comparable to Roethlisberger’s and better than Manning’s. Flacco’s overall trend is not as good as River’s, which started and ended slightly higher, but that’s what you’d expect since Rivers was more prepared. Flacco’s rate was slightly better which could indicate a similar level of talent.

The yardage trends for the quarterbacks will tell us how much their team’s offense was flowing through them. Looking at the graphs, every quarterback’s yardage trend increased over their first three seasons.

Flacco’s rate was 0.76, and his starting value was 194.0. Roethlisberger’s rate was 1.18, and his starting value was 180.4. Rivers’ rate was 0.90, and his starting value was 198.0. Manning’s rate was 0.35, and his starting value was 192.2.

These values show that Roethlisberger’s trend starts lower than any other quarterback’s but finishes second only to Rivers’, which starts at the highest value and ends at the highest value. The Steelers offense was clearly flowing through Roethlisberger more and more throughout his first three seasons.

This indicates a low dependence on him at the beginning of his career and a high dependence on him towards the end. Keep in mind that these statistics include part of Roethlisberger’s fourth season, his breakout year, and are obviously skewed in his favor as a result.

Passing Touchdowns [Click Here to Enlarge]

Again, Flacco’s trend by comparison is actually very good. It shows that the Ravens offense was dependant on him from the very beginning…even more than Roethlisberger and Manning's teams. It doesn’t show the same dramatic increase that Roethlisberger’s did but did finish very close.

All things considered, Flacco’s yardage trend is probably better than Roethlisberger’s after considering the skewed data and the higher starting value and is definitely better than Manning’s because it started higher and increased at a much greater rate.

Flacco’s trend, or any of the others for that matter, did not match River’s trend, which started higher and ended higher. River’s rate was much better, so again, that could indicate comparable talent but a lower floor.

The touchdown and interception trends will tell us how each quarterback improved in efficiency over their first three seasons and really need to be analyzed in light of each other due to the interdependent nature of the two statistics.

Flacco’s touchdown rate was 0.02, and his starting value was 0.76. Roethlisberger’s touchdown rate was 0.01, and his starting value was 1.13. Rivers’ touchdown rate was 0.02, and his starting value was 1.08. Manning’s touchdown rate was 0.01, and his starting value was 1.17.

Flacco’s interception rate was -0.01, and his starting value was 0.91. Roethlisberger’s interception rate was 0.01, and his starting value was 0.71. Rivers’ interception rate was 0.001, and his starting value was 0.71. Manning’s interception rate was 0.001, and his starting value was 1.09.

Interceptions [Click Here to Enlarge]

The touchdown trends are all relatively good with Rivers' trend being the best by far, but they are most meaningful when analyzed with the interception trends. Every quarterback’s touchdown trend increases, but only Flacco’s interception trend decreases.

This is partly because his trend started at the second highest value, but it’s also worth noting that his touchdown trend increased at the same rate as Rivers'. This is remarkable because an increase in touchdowns usually goes hand-in-hand with and increase in interceptions.

When you consider that Flacco’s touchdown trend ends higher than every quarterback’s except Rivers and his interception trend ends at the lowest value, the conclusion has to be that Flacco was clearly the second most efficient quarterback, and considering that Rivers had a head start on Flacco, it could even be argued that Flacco’s trend is even more impressive than Rivers'.

Obviously, statistics will never tell the whole story, and there isn’t a number, equation or analysis that could definitively tell you which quarterback is better. Each quarterback plays in different offenses with different weapons and opportunities, and even the best analysis is inherently flawed for those types of reasons.

That being said, we can still look at the numbers to bring all the arguments into perspective and give us an indication of what’s going on in reality. At worst, this analysis shows that Joe Flacco’s progress is at least similar to the quarterbacks we compared him to. His progress seems to be clearly better than Eli Manning, at least equivalent to Ben Roethlisberger and slightly inferior to Philip Rivers, who had a definite advantage in the analysis.

If Roethlisberger, Manning and Rivers are considered franchise quarterbacks, there can be no doubt that Flacco is progressing according to what we’d expect from a franchise quarterback.

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