Joe Flacco Eyeing an Elite Contract, but Is He an Elite NFL QB?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJanuary 16, 2013

For the third time in five seasons, Joe Flacco is preparing for the biggest game of his career as the Baltimore Ravens are returning to New England for the AFC Championship Game.

Even before this year’s draft Flacco had his Eli Manning-esque moment of proclaiming he is the best quarterback in the NFL. Also similar to Manning, Flacco has a record five road playoff wins, and can at the very least put his name on the list of Super Bowl quarterbacks with another road playoff win over Tom Brady.

Win or lose, Flacco has likely played his way into a big contract as he is a free agent after the season. Flacco’s agent Joe Linta has already told The Baltimore Sun that he’s “been the one putting him on a pedestal saying Joe’s a top-five, elite quarterback, and he’s proving it.”

But is Flacco really proving he’s an elite quarterback?

Playoff wins cannot be everything. Flacco’s lone win in Foxboro featured him complete just four passes for 34 yards in a 2009 AFC Wild Card Game. Before this season Flacco had a lot of shaky postseason stats that suggest his success was much more about other factors on the Ravens.

Two defenders with the last name of Moore keep Flacco in purgatory between postseason greatness and luck. While New England’s Sterling Moore caused Lee Evans to drop the pass that would have sent Flacco to the Super Bowl last year, this season it was Denver safety Rahim Moore committing the greatest defensive mistake in NFL history when he misplayed the ball and allowed Jacoby Jones to reel in a 70-yard touchdown.

Sunday will offer Flacco another shot at redemption as he tries to lead Ray Lewis and the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Lewis is expected to move on after the season, but should the Ravens be ready to break the bank on Flacco as the face of their franchise?

Let’s assess his value to determine what a fair investment would be.

The long-term positives of Flacco behind center in Baltimore

If you do not know who your quarterback is, then you are in trouble in today’s NFL. Ever since the Ravens drafted Flacco No. 18 overall in 2008, he has been very dependable.  

Flacco has started all 80 regular-season games in his career, and including playoffs he has started 91 consecutive games. Peyton Manning is the only other quarterback to start every game in his first five seasons.

Though he can be oblivious to pressure at times, Flacco has often stayed in the pocket and avoided injuries. You can’t have value on the bench, so this is important.

Despite the suspect reputation Flacco carries, his level of play is reasonably consistent. It may not be there weekly, or even quarterly, but by the end of the season, you can expect a lot of the same numbers, and a trip to the playoffs. In each of the last four seasons, Flacco has thrown for around 3,700 yards, 20-to-25 touchdown passes, a solid average, and a respectable passer rating (87.6 since 2009).

Loving the deep ball, Flacco has only thrown 10-to-12 interceptions in each of his five seasons, which is actually the best streak in NFL history, and already puts him high on the list of such seasons. Flacco’s 2.25 interception percentage is the fifth-lowest in NFL history.

Including all fumbles, Flacco’s turnover rate based on a formula I have crafted is 3.63 percent, which currently ranks No. 17 among all QBs in NFL history. Protecting the ball is something he excels at, even if you recall watching him fumble in prime-time games against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But in crunch time Flacco has been underrated and overshadowed by his defense, which has suffered a few too many lapses despite their reputation. Flacco has led 10 fourth-quarter comeback wins and 15 game-winning drives in his career, including a career-best four this season.

Though he may not have as much success with the game on the line as 2008 classmate Matt Ryan (16 comebacks and 23 game-winning drives), Flacco has tried to beat some of the toughest teams in the league, and the vaunted Baltimore defense has failed to protect the lead in several of those games.

In last year’s AFC Championship Game, Flacco was leading the Ravens down the field in New England, only to see that famed pass breakup on Lee Evans when he had the Super Bowl in his hands. Flacco’s pass was perfect. Then Billy Cundiff missed the ensuing 32-yard field-goal attempt, and Flacco walked off the field in defeat.

Flacco caught a break this year when Ray Rice took a dump pass on 4th-and-29 and somehow managed to gain the first down in a comeback win over San Diego. But after three straight losses, many looked to bury the Ravens this season.

Passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns, Flacco led a dominant 33-14 win over the Giants in Week 16 to restore some faith. His success in that game has carried over into the playoffs, and he is enjoying his best postseason with huge plays (20.4 yards per completion) down the field.

Durability, just enough consistency, and the ability to have big moments against tough competition makes Flacco indisputably one of the dozen best quarterbacks in the league, but he is not elite just yet.

Where Flacco needs to improve

Some like to call him “Joe Cool,” but I actually think his demeanor on the field is too relaxed at times. Flacco just never seems to play with any real urgency, which makes it surprising that he has led several impressive game-winning drives in his career.

This calm, lackadaisical approach gets him into trouble, as he takes some bad sacks that result in fumbles. His interceptions are low, but his fumble rate ranks 101st all time.

Flacco has not been able to string together many great performances the last two seasons, which could be part of the reason Cam Cameron was fired as offensive coordinator. Moving Jim Caldwell to that position has appeared to improve things, so it will be interesting to see whether Caldwell can raise Flacco’s consistency if they work together for a full season.

Working in some shorter passes could improve the efficiency of the Baltimore offense, as Flacco forces a lot of deep balls. Even on Saturday in Denver, the Ravens were struggling to sustain drives because of deep passes on third down that were incomplete.

Sometimes you just have to go for the first down instead of the touchdown. Not every week will a safety completely blow the play in your favor. Sustained offense is key.

When the Ravens go on the road, it has been a struggle for Flacco. That is when the turnovers increase and he averages nearly 1.3 yards fewer per pass attempt compared to home where he is 35-7 (.833) as a starter.

This is not a new trend either. Ideally you want someone that’s going to be consistent no matter the situation.

No quarterback has started (91) or won more games (61) including the playoffs since 2008 than Flacco, though when you look at the 32 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts in that span, Flacco does not compare as favorably.

While he deserves to be free of the “game-manager” label, in his fifth season Flacco is still not a quarterback that you can expect to carry your team to the playoffs year after year like an elite player is capable of.

The Ravens are known for their defense, which is about to lose Lewis, its leader, to retirement. Players like Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs cannot be far behind. The window is closing a bit on the Ravens, and a shift toward an offensive team may be necessary, but that will only be a success if Flacco continues to show growth in his game.

What Baltimore should do with Flacco

It feels likely the Ravens are going to sign Flacco, who turns 28 today, to a long-term contract. Even if there was a big quarterback prospect in the upcoming draft, the Ravens will not be realistically able to draft him. Re-signing Flacco is their best chance for success at this crucial position.

Two more impressive wins this season and it is a slam dunk that Flacco is going to get a huge contract. He may get that without the Super Bowl win, but there is no reason the Ravens should break the bank on him like the New Orleans Saints did for Drew Brees (five years, $100M). He is not that kind of player, and likely never will be.

While a few teams would certainly be interested in his services, a good initial offer to Flacco would be in the realm of six years, $90M with a large amount of guaranteed money. The franchise tag is an option should the two sides be unable to work out a deal.

If the going rate for an elite quarterback is $20M per year, then paying Flacco 75 percent of that would be fair. He is more like the eighth- or ninth-best quarterback in the league rather than a top-five option, and that ranking could be dropping fast with some of the dynamic youngsters out there.

But right now the number for Flacco is seven, as he tries to become the seventh active quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Elite or not, that will put him in a class, and millions of dollars in his bank account.

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.


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