I’ve been trying to write a post about Joe Flacco and whether he qualifies as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (let alone, one of the “elite”) for over a week now, with no success. I’ve done all kinds of research, tallying, calculating and clicking around on pro-football-reference.com and wikipedia to find out not just about Flacco, but also about how he compares to most every other long-term starting QB in the NFL since the year 2000. It’s to the point where my thoughts are so disorganized and the information I’ve compiled is so unwieldy that I just need to throw it all (well, not all of it) out there.
Here’s what it boils down to: since at least the start of the 2011 season (or earlier) there has been some discussion about whether Joe Flacco is an “elite” quarterback. Now he’s playing in the Super Bowl and it sounds like he’ll be demanding “Drew Brees money” when he gets a new contract in the off-season. Throughout all of this, and even up to this point, I’ve personally been skeptical of this praise of Flacco and the desire to rank him among the best QBs in today’s NFL. However, maybe there is something to all of these stories and arguments. Maybe Flacco is actually better than I give him credit for. In an effort to see if Flacco is indeed one of today’s best, I’ve compiled a list of criteria for what I think makes an NFL quarterback one of the best. Please be aware that this is a personal, non-professional/expert analysis. It’s just one fan doing amateur statistical and career comparisons in order to convince himself that he’s right, or find out that he’s wrong.
Here are the 5 criteria by which I’ve decided to judge active NFL QBs (in order for them to be considered among the best in the league, or, if you want to go that far, the ELITE):
1. Since becoming a starting QB, the QB must have started a majority of games over his career, including the most recent season.
2. The QB must have put up consistently good (read: top 10) numbers throughout his career
3. The QB must get his team to the postseason
4. The QB should have won (or at least appeared in) a Super Bowl during his tenure as a starter
5. Perhaps slightly less important, the QB should have won the league MVP and/or been voted/invited to the Pro Bowl
A couple of notes about each of the criteria.
1. It can be difficult to decide who qualifies as a long-term starting QB in certain cases because players can lose entire seasons due to being injured (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady), going to prison (Michael Vick), being a bench warmer (Aaron Rodgers) or suffering a lapse in playing ability (Kurt Warner). I’ve considered any active QB who has been a starter for the majority of his time in the league. From there, I mostly considered statistics from seasons where a QB started at least 8-9 games (“eligible” seasons). If they started fewer games than that, I left those particular seasons out of my calculations.
2. Numbers. I’m married to a statistician, but I hardly consider myself statistically skilled or even mathematically inclined. I just like to take a look at lists and numbers and spot trends, or perhaps just create them myself. I decided top 10 was a good cutoff because if you’re not in the top 10 very often, you’re probably not one of the elite and also because that’s how seasonal statistics are listed. I chose the first four categories listed above (yards, TDs, passer rating, completion %) because they’re the major passing categories that the media seems most interested in. I chose the fifth, adjusted yards/attempt, (or adj y/a) because it’s apparently the statistic with the closest correlation to wins in the NFL (which is why I’ll try to list it separately below). I then looked back at the past 15-or-so years of top 10 lists to see how many times any particular QBs name appeared on any one of the seasonal lists in these categories in “eligible” seasons. I turned this into a percentage, an amateur/inexpert calculation which I’ve taken to calling the “top 10 score.”
For example, if a QB has five eligible seasons, they have five lists each season in which they can potentially place in the top 10. Multiply that by five eligible seasons and you have 25. Divide their actual number of appearances on those lists by 25 and you have their top 10 score, OR, a number that tells you how often you should expect to see that particular QBs name on a top 10 list in any of these categories during an eligible season. Basically, the higher, the better. Like I said, inexpert, clunky and wanting for much (including weighting based on number of eligible seasons and actual rank on the lists). Also, none of this analysis really takes into account the reality of good QBs on bad teams and bad QBs with good defenses, plus, none of it even acknowledges the existence of Brett Favre. Still, I think it can at least show us a little something and hey, it’s just for fun.
3 & 4. Getting to the postseason means a QB is a winner. Getting to the Super Bowl means a QB can win big games. Winning the Super Bowl means that a QB can win the biggest game (and join the select few who have accomplished that feat).
5. An MVP award is slightly less important in that only one person wins it each year and that person is not necessarily a QB. A Pro Bowl selection/invitation is perhaps even less important given how much people seem to care about the Pro Bowl nowadays and how many QBs could end up going (see: 6 NFC QBs in 2012).
With that over-explanation behind us, I want to turn to the QBs themselves. Before measuring the individual QBs against my criteria, I’ll just go ahead and briefly list those whom I consider to be at the top. I think it’s safe to say that there are really only about 3-4 obvious choices for the NFL’s elite QB club right now, followed by 2-3 others who are more debatable, then maybe 3-4 more who are certain second-tier guys, followed by everyone else. I think the top four quarterbacks in the NFL right now, whether based on my criteria or not, are Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Very controversial choices indeed, huh? Next, I’d rank Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, probably in that order. Then there’s a level featuring Flacco, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan. I know there are some first and second year guys who might deserve consideration as part of this last group, but they haven’t been around long enough to prove themselves, yet.
When we take a closer look at the top four QBs, we see that they meet all 5 of my criteria, to varying degrees.
Since taking over as starter in the 3rd game of the 2001 season (his second season in the league), the only games Tom Brady has missed came in his “lost” 2008 season (leg injury). Leaving out that season as “ineligible,” Brady has ranked in the seasonal top 10 in the five statistical categories listed above 48 times, out of 55 “opportunities.” That gives him an 87.2% chance of appearing on any given top 10 list from those categories. Or, put simply, he has a top 10 score of 87.2% (tied for #3 among active QBs in adj y/a at 7.71). He’s only missed the postseason one year (2002) as a non-injured starter, winning at least one playoff game in eight of those 10 seasons and posting an overall postseason record of 17-7 (70.8%). In that time, he’s appeared in five Super Bowls, winning three (notably in his first, third and fourth seasons as a starter). He was named Super Bowl MVP twice, league MVP twice and he has been voted/invited to eight Pro Bowls (a 72.7% success rate) including the last five (not counting 2008).
In the same number of seasons as Brady, Drew Brees has never missed a game due to injury. He was pulled for five games in 2003 due to poor play and he sat out the 2004 and 2009 season finales, missing a total of seven games since he became the starter in 2002 (his second season). Brees’ top 10 score is 70.9% over his career (#9 on adj y/a at 7.31). He’s gone to the postseason five times (out of 11) and has a playoff record of 4-4 (50%). He won his only Super Bowl appearance (2009) and was named MVP of that game. He has never won a league MVP award, but he has been voted/invited to seven Pro Bowls (63.6%), including the last five.
Peyton Manning has started every game of his NFL career with the exception of the 2011 season which he missed entirely due to injury. Manning’s top 10 score is 91.4% (#6 on adj y/a at 7.55). This is a remarkably consistent level of quality considering how long he’s played. He has taken his team(s) to the playoffs in all but two (1998, 2001) of his 14 active seasons, posting a playoff record of 9-11. Winning just 45% of his playoff games is probably the biggest black mark on his record. Still, he has appeared in two Super Bowls, winning in 2006 (game MVP) and losing in 2009. He has been named league MVP 4 times (in a 7 year span) and has been voted/invited to twelve Pro Bowls (85.7%), missing only 1998 (his rookie season), 2001 and 2011 (his injured season).
After sitting on the bench as a backup for his first three years in the league, Aaron Rodgers has been a starting QB for the past five years, missing only one game due to injury and sitting out the 2011 finale. Rodgers has yet to rank outside of the top 10 in any of the five noted statistical categories, meaning he has a top 10 score of 100% (ranking #1 in adj y/a with 8.63, which is .86 higher than #2). He has gone to the postseason in four of his five seasons as a starter (all but 2008, his first), posting a record of 5-3 (62.5%). He won the only Super Bowl he has appeared in (2010) and was named MVP of the game. He was named league MVP the following year and has been voted/invited to three Pro Bowls (60%).
Ranking just behind these four, in my opinion, are the only two other active starting QBs (until today, at least) to win a Super Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger has been a starting QB since the third game of his rookie season. He has missed ten games in nine years due to injury, four games in 2010 due to a suspension and he sat out the 2007 finale. His top 10 score is 55.6% (#5 in adj y/a with 7.66). He has gone to the playoffs in six of nine seasons, with a record of 10-4 (71.4%). He has appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two (2005-his second season, and 2008) and losing one (2010). He has never been Super Bowl MVP or league MVP, but he has been voted/invited to two Pro Bowls (22.2%).
Eli Manning has started every game since he gained the starting job in game 10 of his rookie season (2004). Not counting that first season (as he only started 7 games), he has a top 10 score of 35% (#15 in adj y/a with 6.57). He’s gone to the playoffs in five seasons with a record of 8-3 (72.7%). Manning won both Super Bowls in which he appeared (2007 and 2011) also winning MVP of both. He has not won the league MVP, but has been voted/invited to three Pro Bowls (including the last two) (37.5%).
As you can see, Roethlisberger and Eli keep good pace with the top four, particularly when it comes to playoff records. They don’t quite have the top 10 scores, MVPs or Pro Bowl appearances, but they each have two Super Bowl wins, second only to Brady among active QBs.
Before getting to Flacco, there are a some other guys who deserve some consideration. First, two guys who put up consistently good numbers and who are actually #2 and #3 on the list of active QBs in Adjusted yards/attempt (again, the stat most closely associated with wins).
Since becoming the starter in game seven of his third season, Tony Romo has missed 13 games, all due to injury. His top 10 score is 80% (#2 in adj y/a with 7.77). He has taken his team to the playoffs in three seasons (out of six as a regular starter) posting a playoff record of 1-3 (25%). He has never won a league MVP and has been voted/invited to the Pro Bowl three times (2006, 2007, 2009).
Philip Rivers has started every game since week one of his third year. His top 10 score is 71.4% (tied with Brady for #3 in adj y/a with 7.71). Rivers has taken his team to the playoffs in four of his seven years as a starter, posting a record of 3-4 (42.9%). He has never won a league MVP and has been voted/invited to the Pro Bowl four times, including three straight from 2009-2011.
I include these guys because, despite their moderate-to-poor postseason records, they consistently put up good numbers, kind of like Peyton Manning. Unlike Peyton, neither has been to, or won, a Super Bowl. Before looking at the QB who prompted this post, Joe Flacco, and his draft classmate Matt Ryan, I’m going to do my due diligence and look at four other long-ish-tenured QBs.
After backing up Michael Vick for three seasons in Atlanta, Matt Schaub was traded to the Houston Texans (ending the great David Carr Experiment), where he has been a fairly consistent starter. In his six seasons he has missed 16 games, all due to injury/illness. His top 10 score is 56.7% (#7 in adj y/a with 7.51). His team went to the postseason in 2011 and 2012, however, due to injury he did not play in either 2011 game, going 1-1 as the starter in 2012 (50%). He has never been league MVP but has been voted/invited to two Pro Bowls.
Carson Palmer didn’t play a single snap in his rookie season. He has missed 23 starts over the nine years since then including 16 games due to injury, and seven games in 2011 (because he did not report for Bengals training camp for weeks 1-6, and he came off the bench for Oakland in week seven). His top 10 score is 37.5% (#12 in adj y/a with 6.67). He has posted only two winning seasons in eight as a regular starter, losing a postseason game in each (0-2 playoff record). In his defense, he was knocked out of the 2005 postseason game after throwing only one pass (a 66 yard completion). He has not won a league MVP but was voted/invited to the Pro Bowl twice (2005, 2006).
Jay Cutler has missed eight games in his six seasons as a starting QB. He has a top 10 score of just 13.3% (#13 in adj y/a with 6.61). He has two winning seasons and played two postseason games in 2010, going 1-1. He has never been league MVP and has one Pro Bowl appearance (2008).
In the seven seasons in which he has started at least eight games, Michael Vick has missed 17 total starts. He has a top 10 score of only 8.6% (#14 in adj y/a with 6.59). He has been a regular starter in three winning seasons and has a 2-3 record in the postseason (40%). He has never been league MVP but has gone to four Pro Bowls (2002, 2004, 2005, 2010).
None of the four guys directly above have a great postseason record, nor do they have stellar passing numbers (though Schaub isn’t bad). I’ve only included them because they’re still legitimate starting QBs and (apart from seasons lost to prison time) have been around for quite a while.
As an aside, I’ve left QBs like Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Matt Cassel, Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez etc… off of the list for various reasons, but mostly because they lack the seasonal statistical achievements, the postseason prowess or the longevity in the league that would justify the space it would take to write up a bit about each of them (though Sanchez had a surprisingly good postseason record of 4-2 (66.7%), losing consecutive AFC Championship games in his first two seasons). I’ve also left off first and second year QBs because they haven’t really had much chance to prove themselves (though Andy Dalton has an 0-2 postseason record and a Pro Bowl appearance, and Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson all went to the playoffs and were voted/invited to the Pro Bowl in their rookie seasons). Also, as much as I’d love to heap praise upon Colin Kaepernick, the Super Bowl is only the kid’s 10th NFL start. Notably, he had the highest adj y/a in the league this season, at 8.62 in his eight games played (seven starts). Man, is he exciting to watch!
Now let’s (finally, though not quite finally) take a look at Joe Flacco.
But first, his draft classmate Matt Ryan. Ryan was the unquestioned starter from week one of his rookie year. Since then he has missed just two games (injury) in his five seasons. His top 10 score is 48% (#10 in adj y/a at 7.13). He has posted winning seasons every year, going to the postseason in four of five seasons and posting a playoff record of 1-4 (20%). He has never won the league MVP but has been voted/invited to the Pro Bowl twice (2010, 2012).
Joe Flacco has never missed a start in his five years in the NFL. His top 10 score is 16% (#11 in adj y/a at 6.89). He has a winning record in every season and has gone to the playoffs in each one of his first five seasons, a record for a QB to start his career. He has an overall playoff record of 8-4 (66.7%, not counting the Super Bowl yet, obviously). He has never been league MVP and has never been voted/invited to a Pro Bowl.
So, is Flacco elite? Is he one of the best in the league? Does he deserve Drew Brees money? His perfect attendance record speaks for itself, but he’s lacking in steady top 10-worthy passing production. Clearly, numbers aren’t everything, but compared to everyone above he’s ranking below all but Cutler and Vick (and Manning in adj y/a), at least on my scale. On paper, Matt Ryan is arguably the better 2008-draftee, or is at least no worse than Flacco. However, what really works in Flacco’s favor is his postseason success. The guy hasn’t lost in the first round of the playoffs, ever. Plus, he’s been to three AFC Championship games, finally winning this year. The guy gets enough done during the regular season to give him an opportunity to get it done in the postseason. I wouldn’t ever call him a “game manager,” though his middling stats could suggest otherwise, but instead, I think he’s probably just the perfect fit for his team, and that’s the best argument he has for getting a big paycheck. Flacco wins games. He often wins big games. The Ravens can’t threaten to go with someone else because they’ve built the team around him and they’re not going anywhere without him. Keep in mind, I’m saying all of this even before he even sets foot onto the field for the Super Bowl. If he wins today, he can probably name his price (also, a Ravens win thankfully almost guarantees that Ray Lewis retires, so they won’t have to pay him next year, freeing up some dough for Flacco). Even if I don’t think Flacco is as good as Brady, Brees or Peyton, what do I care how much they pay him? It isn’t my money.
Maybe this is kind of a letdown after making you read a bunch of boring stuff about other starting QBs, but personally, I’m not ready to call Flacco one of the elite. A Super Bowl win will definitely help his case, and anoint him as the seventh active starting QB with a ring. Should that happen, I’d still hesitate to rank him above any of the other Super Bowl winning QBs in the league. However, along with is postseason success, a ring would give him a definite edge over Romo and Rivers, though they’ve never even been to a Super Bowl. Oh yeah, and he’s only been in the league five years. If the Ravens continue fielding a good defense, Flacco’s postseason streak could continue until he retires.
Before closing out this epic, I want to take a quick look at two other QBs who might be comparable to Flacco, but who didn’t fit the above list because they’re not really starters anymore.
First, Matt Hasselbeck. Since becoming a starter for the Seahawks in 2001, Hasselbeck has missed 29 starts. There was a bit of a QB competition between him and Trent Dilfer in 2002 and Hasselbeck missed nine starts in 2008 due to injury. His top 10 score is 34% (#19 in adj y/a with 6.36). He went to the playoffs five seasons in a row from 2003-2005, and again in 2010, posting a record of 5-6 (45.5%). Still, he got the Super Bowl in 2005 (but lost to the Steelers) and was voted/invited to the Pro Bowl three times (2003, 2005, 2007). He has since lost his starting job (with the Titans) to Jake Locker.
Perhaps Flacco and Hasselbeck don’t have that much in common, but they both are pretty good about getting to the postseason (with five consecutive seasons each), and have both been to a Super Bowl. Hasselbeck’s top 10 score isn’t much better than Flacco’s, though Hasselbeck has only posted one top 10 appearance (in the selected categories) since 2007 (and that was #10 in comp. % in 2011). This suggests that in his prime he was probably better than Flacco is right now and has just dropped off in his past few seasons.
The other, perhaps better, QB comparison to Joe Flacco (though certainly not in overall style of play) is Donovan McNabb. McNabb started six games of his rookie season. Over each of the following five seasons he posted winning records (though he missed six games in 2002 due to injury and sat out the 2004 finale). His top 10 score is 30.9% (his career adj y/a is 6.83, which would rank him at #12 among active QBs, just .06 behind Flacco). He made the playoffs in seven seasons (out of 11 as starter), including five in a row from 2000-2004 (then in 2008 and 2009). His overall postseason record is 9-7 (56.3%). McNabb made the Pro Bowl every year 2000-2004 and also in 2009, though he never won league MVP.
I don’t know that anyone would call McNabb and Flacco similar when watching them play, but their early records are somewhat alike. If we leave out McNabb’s rookie season, but instead look at the next five years, they compare reasonably well with Flacco. McNabb has 91.25% games started vs. Flacco’s 100%. 40% top 10 score vs. Flacco’s 16% (maybe that’s not so close, but if we leave out McNabb’s stellar 2004 season his rate drops to 25%). Here’s where things get a bit closer. Both Flacco and McNabb went to the playoffs every year during the five year spans in question. McNabb posted a 7-5 playoff record vs. Flacco’s 8-4 (which will become either 8-5 or 9-4 tonight). McNabb took his team to four straight NFC Championship games culminating in a Super Bowl appearance (and loss) in 2004 vs. Flacco’s three total AFC Championship games culminating in a Super Bowl.
Of course, Flacco is a bit less mobile than McNabb (which may improve his longevity), running for 430 yards and seven TDs in his five seasons. By comparison, McNabb ran for 460 yards and six TDs in his 2002 season alone (amassing 2146 yards and 20 TDs from 2000-2004). So they’re not all that similar, but there are some interesting points of comparison. McNabb started as strong as Flacco (if not stronger, as my criteria would suggest). McNabb’s only losing season as the Eagles starter was in 2005, the year after the Super Bowl loss, when they went 6-10 (though McNabb was only 4-5 as a starter that year). It will really be interesting to see how Flacco progresses from here, especially after a Super Bowl appearance. Win or lose tonight, Flacco’s amazing postseason run this year may just be the spark that sets him off for several more years of even better play.
If you’ve come this far, I hope this has been as interesting for you to read as it was for me to research. I know it’s amateur, particularly with my creation of the “top 10 score” stat, but I never claimed to be an expert, just a fan. I planned to put some of this into an easy-to-read and compare table, but since the Super Bowl is today, I wanted to get this posted before I have to rethink everything I’ve said about Joe Flacco. If you’re so inclined you can revisit in the future to see if I’ve done it. Also, if you’re reading this anytime after the start of the 2013 season, many of the stats and calculations listed above will be (even more) wrong. I welcome any comments, questions, arguments, recommendations, corrections, rankings or better examples of research (provided you’ve already done it). If you’re interested in NFL stats, I highly recommend this site. I hope to write more on the topic of the NFL and QBs in general, though in more concise and less sprawling posts. We’ll see if I can rein myself in.
Enjoy the Super Bowl!