Quarter-Back Again: Elite-ness Revisited

So, Joe Flacco got himself a Super Bowl ring (and a Super Bowl MVP award, despite any arguments in favor of Jacoby Jones). Does that make him an elite quarterback? I expressed some of my thoughts at length earlier and I more or less declared that, prior to the Super Bowl at least, Flacco was not an elite QB. Now that he’s won, I’m prepared to reevaluate and modify my original ideas, if needed. The criteria I laid out in my previous post was meant to be a measurement of who the best active QBs in the NFL are, whether you want to call them “the elite,” as I basically did, or not. “Elite” has been a troublesome word for me as I struggled to write that post, and now this one.

Here’s a bit taken from an earlier draft of my previous post:

The term “elite” is kind of vague. I believe that elite QBs are a smaller group than the “top 10,” perhaps numbering anywhere between 4-8 in a given season. Of course, by saying “in a given season,” I am suggesting that elite status can be temporary. A QB can be really good for 3 years and then wind up playing for another 10 that aren’t so notable. OR, another more likely prospect is that a QB might start slowly and build to elite status. However you try to slice it, the term is kind of hazy. Even if the term isn’t hazy, everyone’s opinion on who fits the term’s definition is different as well.

I left that part out for one reason or another, but now I’m more inclined to embrace it and its suggestion of the potentially fleeting nature of being an elite QB. Rather than being just the top 4-8 QBs in any given year, perhaps the elite are those whom you would want to lead your team, based on recent performance. Obviously, there can be perennial elites, like the 4 gentlemen I mentioned in my last post (Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning, Rodgers). However, maybe it would be more appropriate to call these perennial elites future Hall of Famers (with the possible exception of Rodgers, who just needs to keep it up for a few more years). That would then suggest that the elite status should be extended beyond just the top four.

“In the Elite Conversation”

The next tier of QBs, Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, are mostly above average year to year, make the playoffs more often than not and have won 2 Super Bowls each. I’m still somewhat hesitant to call either one a future HoF QB, but they’ve been good enough (in certain areas) over their careers to be at least “in the elite conversation.” I think Flacco is up there now too. In fact, I think he fits pretty well with Manning and Roethlisberger. Among the three, Flacco has the “worst” regular season stats, but his team still managed to make the playoffs every year. His postseason record is now 9-4 (5/5 seasons in the playoffs). Roethlisberger’s is 10-4 (6/9 seasons) and Eli’s is 8-3 (5/8 seasons). Let’s take a look at postseason performance.

Eli Manning vs. Joe Flacco

Everyone is crowing about Flacco’s amazing postseason play this year. 11 TDs and 0 INTs is something to be praised, for sure, but when compared to Eli Manning’s performance from just one year earlier, it’s not that much more amazing (Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl winning playoff performances don’t really rate here).

In 2011, Manning went 106/163 (65.0%) for 1219 yards, 9 TDs and 1 INT.

In 2012, Flacco went 73/126 (57.9%) for 1140 yards, 11 TDs and 0 INT.

Flacco also lost a fumble against Denver (which ended in a DEN punt). Manning fumbled (not lost) on a 3rd down against San Fran, leading to an NYG punt. Also, Manning’s INT in the endzone (with his team on the Green Bay 34) resulted in Green Bay driving out to their own 38 and then fumbling the ball back to the Giants (on the Green Bay 34, no less), which then led to a Giants FG.

Given that, I’d say their stats are fairly comparable, with Manning holding the edge in percentage and Flacco holding it in TDs. One stat not listed, however, is yards/attempt. Manning had 7.48. Flacco had 9.05. How important this actually is, I have no idea (can anyone help me out?), but when a guy almost notches a first down every time he throws the ball (theoretically, anyway), that’s saying something.

[NOTE: Manning’s regular season Y/A in 2011 was actually 8.4, showing a dropoff in the playoffs, Flacco’s was 7.2 in 2012, showing a significant increase. Flacco and Manning are currently tied in 13th place among active QBs with 7.1 Y/A (career). Rodgers is #1 with 8.1]

Of course, everything is situational, including who these guys had to beat to get to the big game, where they had to play and what kind of talent surrounds them on both offense and defense (and special teams). I don’t have the patience to try to figure all of that out now, so considering the passing stats, I’d give Flacco’s 2012 run a slight edge over Manning in 2011. Those two extra TDs (as silly as it sounds) could’ve been the difference makers against the Broncos or the 49ers. Plus, that yards/attempt stat is pretty good. Even so, if Manning and Flacco perform comparably in the postseason (based just on the past two years), but Manning (statistically) outplays Flacco during the regular season, in what order do you rank the two QBs?

Based on their entire careers, among active QBs I’d probably rank Flacco behind Manning.  Of course, that (and playoff statistics) calls into question where I’d rank Roethlisberger, given that I was ready to put him just ahead of Manning in my last post, but I don’t want to get into that here. Even if I think Manning is better all-time, Flacco was unquestionably better (overall) than Manning this year. You might even call him elite (though I’m still not sure I would).

[NOTE: I still struggle with Romo and Rivers, but given their postseason records, and subsequent lack of Super Bowl rings/appearances, they fade out of the conversation a little bit. As a Peyton Manning fan, I know the Super Bowl isn’t everything (more on this later), but like it or not, it does have a lot of significance in several areas including how a player is viewed.]

Here’s where the discussion about the nature of elite-ness comes in. One could argue that Flacco achieved elite status through his Super Bowl win this year. In five years as a starting QB, he (or perhaps more specifically, his team) hasn’t had a “bad” season. They’ve gone to the playoffs, they’ve achieved a great postseason record and they just won the Super Bowl. Flacco’s never been a dud, and now, with his spectacular 4-game stretch, maybe he’s put himself over the hump.

I originally had a caveat in my five criteria from my previous post that said the QB had to meet the criteria in a span of no shorter than 2-3 years in order to be considered among the best. Basically, they had to prove that they were good over a longer period of time and not just be some one-season-wonder. If we look retroactively at Flacco, I think the argument could be made that at least his past two seasons (2011 and 2012) were elite seasons. Where he goes from here makes all of the difference (for me anyway). His performance during the 2013 season will either further strengthen his case (and perhaps retroactively make 2012 and even 2011 elite seasons), or it will call this argument into question.

Let’s go back to Eli Manning for a second. If Flacco had a better 2012 then the 2011 Super Bowl MVP, who didn’t even make the playoffs this year, does that mean Eli isn’t elite? Is Eli Manning elite to begin with? I’d argue that Manning got himself over the elite hump when the Giants defeated the 18-0 Patriots in the 2007 Super Bowl. It was Manning’s third of four consecutive playoff seasons. Although he went 0-1 in the other three years, he put up better regular season numbers than Flacco did/has (and managed one Pro Bowl, for what it’s worth). In 2009 the Giants went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. In 2010 they went 10-6 and still missed the playoffs (the Eagles won the East at 10-6, then Green Bay won the 3-way 10-6 tiebreak between themselves, NYG and TB). Is it possible that Manning fell off of the elite wagon somewhere in 2010? Maybe. But with another Super Bowl win in 2011 (over the Patriots again), and with Flacco-esque playoff numbers that year, Manning was back to elite status, and perhaps he erased any potential non-elite gap between Super Bowl victories. It’s all opinion and it’s all debatable, but that’s the fun of topics like this.

Kiss…KISS!

Pre-Super Bowl Elites

I’ve been talking a lot about Super Bowls getting a QB “over the hump” to elite status, but I’d say that Peyton Manning was probably already there before winning the big one. Manning had 8 full seasons in the league before his Super Bowl year. He made the playoffs in six of those years, but had a 3-6 record and reputation as a playoff choker who couldn’t win a postseason game. When he finally did win, the story changed to say Peyton couldn’t beat the Tom Brady-led Patriots in the playoffs. However, before his Super Bowl season, Manning had already set (now broken) records for single-season TDs (49) and passer rating (121.1). After just 8 seasons (never missing a start), he was already 19th all-time in completions (2769), 20th all-time in yardage (33,189) and tied for 13th all time in TDs (244). That’s better on all counts than the individual careers of Super Bowl winners and Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath and Steve Young (just to name a few). Manning also made six Pro Bowl rosters and won the league MVP award two times. I don’t think I have to say much more to convince you that Manning was elite and well on his way to the Hall of Fame even before he finally defeated Brady and then won the Super Bowl in 2006. Keep in mind, this says nothing of his career since winning the Super Bowl which, apart from his lost 2011 season, has been almost as remarkable.

Drew Brees sort of fits this same mold. He won the Super Bowl in his 8th season as a starter, having started all but six games in the seven seasons prior. Only three of those seasons were above .500 in win percentage, but Brees still put up pretty good numbers. Between 2004 and 2008, Brees hit top 10 in the categories of yards, TDs, rating, comp % and adjusted yards/attempt 20 out of 25 times (80%), including all five categories in 2008, a non-playoff year for him. His numbers weren’t quite as big as Manning’s, but by the time the two met in the Super Bowl in 2009, there was no doubt that we were looking at two of the best QBs in the league (along with Brady and Favre).

Where Manning’s production appears to be just as steady after his 2006 Super Bowl season as before it (I haven’t really done any research there), Brees’ 2009 Super Bowl season marked the beginning of significant increases/improvement in his passing numbers. In the seven seasons (plus one game in 2001) before his Super Bowl year, Brees had 2334 completions for 26,258 yards and 168 TDs. Over the past four years, Brees had 1701 completions (an increase of around 90 completions/season) for 19,661 yards (an increase of over 1150 yards/season) and 156 TDs (an increase of around 15 TDs/season). Compared to his first eight years, he’s also appeared in one more Pro Bowl and three more playoff games since the start of the 2009 season.

Fleeting Elites

This is starting to get into epic territory, again, so I’ll finish soon. Before I do, I want to bring up a couple examples of potential fleeting elites that I researched for my last post, but then didn’t include because these guys aren’t playing anymore.

Kurt Warner 1999-2001. He started all but five games for the Rams during this three year stretch, missing the middle of the 2000 season with a broken hand. Notably Trent Green took over and the two combined for 5492 yards, the highest team passing total in a season, ever. Brees single-person record is 5476. In those three seasons, Warner placed in the top 10 in my “top 10 score” categories (yards, TDs, rating, comp. % and adjusted yards/attempt) 14 times (93.34%). In 1999 he finished first in all five categories save yardage, where he was second to Steve Beuerlein by only 83 yards. In 2000, his 11 game season, he still managed to rank seventh in TDs, first in completion %, third in passer rating and second (to Green) in adjusted yards/attempt. In 2001, Warner accomplished what he couldn’t in 1999 and finished first in all five categories. He went to the playoffs all three years, posting a 5-2 record, winning a Super Bowl (and SB MVP) and losing another. He also won the league MVP in 1999 and 2001 and went to the Pro Bowl all 3 years. Warner then fell off the radar due to injury and poor performance, starting only 31 games (for three different teams) over the next five seasons (2002-2006).

Then, in 2007, Warner began another three-season stretch that, though perhaps not quite as impressive as 1999-2001, is still worth consideration. He started all but six games for the Cardinals during this span, playing in all but three (he was backup to Leinart to start the 2007 season, but played in games 3-5 that year before Leinart went on IR, he also sat out a 2009 game due to concussion). During this stretch he became the only QB to throw for over 14,000 yards for two different teams and the second QB to throw for over 100 TDs for 2 different teams (Tarkenton was first MIN/NYG). He hit top 10 in the five categories 11 of 15 times (73.34%), hitting 2, 3 or 4 in every category in 2008 (the Super Bowl season). After missing the playoffs in 2007, Warner managed a postseason record of 4-2, the first loss coming in the Super Bowl against the Steelers, the second coming against the bounty-seeking Saints, who essentially knocked him out of the game, and out of the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl roster once (2008).

Warner also holds the following notable records (among others):

  • 3 highest passing totals in Super Bowl history (414 in 1999 with no INT, 377 in 2008, 365 in 2001)
  • Highest completion % in a single (regular season) game 24/26 (92.31%)
  • Tied with the Joes (Montana and Flacco) for most postseason TDs in a single year (11 in 2008)
  • One of two QBs to go to the Super Bowl with two different teams (the other is Craig Morton who, as a Dallas Cowboy, lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts in 1970 and then, as the last Bronco not named John Elway to wear #7, lost Super Bowl XII to his former team in 1977)

Along with the amazing Kurt Warner 1999-2001, this is another one of my favorites: Rich Gannon 1999-2002. He started every game for the Raiders during this 4-year span. He hit top 10 18 times out of 20 in the five “top 10 score” categories (90%), though he was only #1 once (yards in 2002). He went to the playoffs 3 times, posting a 4-3 record (though he didn’t play the entire game of a 2000 loss in the AFC Championship game). He also lost the 2001 divisional game to the Patriots, the infamous “Tuck Rule” game. He notched a Super Bowl appearance in 2002 where his Raiders lost to the Bucs, behind his 5 INTs. Gannon went to the Pro Bowl all four of these years and won the league MVP in 2002. Most notable about all of this is the fact that Gannon did it from age 34-37. He was drafted by the Patriots in 1987, the same year Testaverde went #1 overall (Testaverde only made the Pro Bowl twice and posted a 1-3 playoff record, including a 2001 loss to Gannon). Gannon’s only notable record is the most completions in a non-overtime game, 43 (of 64) against Pittsburgh in 2002.

Now, would you consider these QBs elite during any of the three spans described above? Gannon and Warner’s second stretch are debatable, though good stories, but I don’t think you can argue with Warner from 1999-2001. Warner never quite reached those same highs again, though he did get to a third Super Bowl and another Pro Bowl, plus he put up pretty good numbers doing it.

I think examination of Fleeting Elites like Warner is worthwhile. Clearly, perennial elites like my undisputed top four are easy to pick out. However, if my two posts on the topic have taught you (or me) anything, it is that after those four, the next few become a hard to define mess. By the end of this post, I will have said my piece on Flacco (for the time being), but I think the longer careers of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, the statistically up but post-seasonally down careers of Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, and the varied successes of long-term QBs like Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, and Steve McNair (plus however-many other retired QBs) will be calling me to write about this topic again soon.

***

There you have it, some more ruminations on Elite-ness. Did Flacco get over the hump with the Super Bowl win? Hard to tell. If you consider Eli Manning to be an elite QB, then I’d say Flacco’s (nearly) there. I’m amazed by his 2012 playoff numbers, even though I was cheering for the 49ers, and I’m excited to see what Flacco might do in the future. As far as his postseason play is concerned, there’s nowhere to go but down (or sideways, I suppose). However, his regular season stats have a lot of room for improvement, and I don’t think I’m the only one who wants to see if he can close the gap in 2013 and quiet any lingering doubts.

[as with my last post, almost all research was done using pro-football-reference.com and wikipedia. If you read this at any point during/after the 2013 NFL season, all stats and opinions are subject to change.]

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