Why it doesn’t matter if Joe Flacco is ‘elite’

This article was originally conceived and co-written by our longtime friend Ray McCreavy.

Note: This post is not intended to further any argument, whether it be positive or negative, concerning Joe Flacco’s status as an elite NFL QB. Instead, it is meant to be a comment on the conversation that produces those opposing arguments, and more specifically, what that ongoing dialogue says about how instantaneous reactions affect the way sports fans think about professional football.

Photo by Will Brinson

During ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcast on the morning of February 5th, 2013, NFL correspondent Merril Hoge was asked to name and rank the league’s current top 5 quarterbacks now that the dust is finally settling on the 2012-13 season.

He ranked Joe Flacco as #1.

This nonevent is actually notable, but for reasons other than ESPN presenting a painfully obvious decision as a bold one by naming the Super Bowl MVP as the current number one player at his position just two days after he became a world champion.

It is notable because a) it seems to reflect that the 2013 playoffs are now definitively seen as a turning point in the relentless, obnoxious debate over Joe Flacco’s true talent level at the quarterback position, and b) Merril’s downright confounding list was a fleeting attempt at creating a season ending summary based on unspecified (or nonexistent?) metrics. I, for one, believe that these two points are intrinsically related.

It is not exactly breaking news to declare that the quarterback is the most important position in American football. Everyone who follows football knows that the last decade has seen quarterbacks who led offenses that threw more than ever before, broke nearly every passing record in the books, and succeeded at winning championships in the process. Possessing a QB who can perform at a championship level is undoubtedly the largest competitive advantage a team can have in the modern NFL, and thus it is rightly the most desired. In short, there are sound reasons for our cultural obsession with the best of the best, the “elite tier” of NFL QBs.

But when does an obsession become a problem? In this case, the elite QB discussion has become an issue because it undermines other essential aspects of the sport. Quick reminder: Those other aspects include the other 21 players on the field every down. Oh, and coaches seem to have some kind of effect on the outcomes of football games as well.

The debate over Joe Flacco’s status is perhaps the best example of the ‘elite quarterback’ narrative cheapening the entire dialogue about the sport, even among the most intelligent and informed fans.

Admit it. The endless discussion about the good and bad games that Joe Flacco has had since entering the league has enhanced your understanding of neither the Baltimore Ravens nor the methods employed by head coach John Harbaugh.

In the realm of political journalism, “getting caught up in the horse race” is a colloquial phrase for overreacting to and overestimating the significance of every new poll or headline that shows up on Google News over the course of a campaign. The daily debates over which players are now or might one day be anointed as new members of the “elite tier” of QBs seems to be the NFL’s version of horse race politics.

Over the course of a campaign, those who practice horse race politics attempt to create narratives by cherry picking the newest data that reaffirms their goals. Similarly, every new game can “prove” that Joe Flacco is “elite” or that he is a pretender. In other words, the analysis is constantly focused on the latest developments and never the big picture.

“Squeaking by the Chiefs 9-6 while completing 13 of 27 for a 180 yards and a pick? Pssh, Flacco’s not elite.”

“Out-dueling Eli late in the season, tossing for 309 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers? That’s a mark of an elite quarterback.”

Clearly we know which horse is ahead this week, but that doesn’t really tell us much about Flacco’s future performance, nor that of the team.

It is troubling that prior to Ray Lewis’ deer antler spray sideshow (a media criticism for another day), the most-discussed aspect of a superbly balanced Ravens team was consistently the hypothetical ranking of Flacco among the league’s QBs, and not any of the other keys to the Raven’s Superbowl run: a veteran defense stepping up and an offensive line providing amazing protection, just for starters. Shouldn’t Bryant McKinnie get some attention for keeping all-world pass rusher Aldon Smith away from Flacco for the entire game? Doesn’t Anquan Boldin deserve more praise for making some extraordinarily difficult catches that saved drives? How about unheralded linebacker Dannell Ellerbe? He stood up just about every run attempt in his direction, and finished the game with as many tackles as Ray Lewis.

When we focus so much on the elite quarterback discussion, we are willingly discounting the people upon whose shoulders these quarterbacks sit. Just because the quarterback influences the outcome more than any other individual doesn’t mean he dictates it. There are too many other factors involved for it to be that simple.

If, however, one still insists that the elite quarterback discourse is important, there are yet more obstacles to surpass. A major part of the problem is that the notion of an ‘elite quarterback’ remains very poorly-defined despite its prevalent use.

It is not generally tied to any specific statistical measure, because every metric provides a counterpoint. If it’s throwing for 5000 yards, then Matt Stafford must be elite. Scoring twice as many touchdowns as interceptions? That would make Donovan McNabb elite. Is it completing 65% of your passes? Then Alex Smith would be elite. But (rightfully) these names usually aren’t included in the conversation.

Conversely, Joe Flacco was not in the top 12 for any one of the following statistical categories last year: total yards, touchdowns, QB rating, yards per attempt, completion percentage. You know… all the things that quarterbacks are supposed to be good at. And yet…

This list is as imprecise as it is pointless. For shame Merril.

Of course there are those who shun statistics, believing that any argument about elite quarterbacks should begin and end with “Does he win?” This argument is not without its own merit, so it deserves a short examination. In the last 10 years, there have been 7 Superbowl-winning quarterbacks. All of them are still playing. If this classifies each of them as elite, that would mean that nearly a quarter of the teams in the league have an elite QB. Can being in the top-25% of anything be considered elite?

Yet even winning the Superbowl, supposedly the end-all, be-all of football heroics, does not automatically designate the winning quarterback as elite. Ask 30 drunks at a bar whether Trent Dilfer was elite, and they’ll all agree that the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong, Joe Flacco is due credit for winning the championship. But let’s not get carried away, and pretend that Joe somehow caused a defensive back fall down on Jacoby Jones go-routes two games in a row. Joe Flacco didn’t execute the goal-line stand in the final seconds of the Superbowl. By centering the narrative solely on his performance, we don’t do justice to the defense’s phenomenal late-game heroics or the massive mistakes made by the opposing teams. Mistakes that could have happened against any quarterback in any week, but happened to come at the perfect time for the Ravens.

It’s this simple: If the referee had thrown a flag for holding or pass interference against Jimmy Smith at the end of the game – not the right call, but a distinct possibility nonetheless – the 49ers would have had 1st and goal from the 1 yard line and time to run multiple plays. A touchdown there puts San Francisco ahead, probably for good. Would Flacco still be elite then? Can the margin between ‘elite’ and just ‘good’ really be so slim?

The truth is that there might just not be that big of a difference in effectivness between the top players and the very good ones. It may seem counterintuitive on its face, but in many ways the proliferation of the pass as the league’s primary offensive tool might have made the elite tier of quarterbacks less important. Now that so many colleges have moved to pass-heavy spread-style schemes, the NCAA is churning out more quarterback prospects than ever before. Likewise, the recent success of the read-option has opened up a whole realm of possibilities for offensive innovation that was simply not available with the classic stand-up pocket passer archetype (a la Flacco).

Despite playing the same position, how well can you really compare Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan? That would be like comparing Chad Greenway and DeMarcus Ware because they both play “outside linebacker.” Sure, their positions have the same name but vastly different responsibilities. So, too, has the quarterback position begun to divide, further muddling attempts to identify the truly elite quarterbacks.

It’s likely that the best quarterbacks in the league will always garner a special degree of attention. But it is important to recognize that it is not a topic worth obsessing over. In doing so, we cheat ourselves out of recognizing the importance of the other talented individuals on the field. And by failing to include them, we are willingly imposing limitations to our own understanding of the sport that captivates us.



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Posted on February 8, 2013, in Contributors and Guest Articles, Eagles, Hank Mushinski, Posts, Sports Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Really interesting idea in the 3rd to last paragraph about the rise of the spread making elite qbs less important. I never thought about it that way, but it makes sense. Interesting point about the increased NCAA qb prospects too. It seems to me that there are a lot of college qbs who use the spread to put up ridiculous numbers (Texas Tech, Hawaii) but generally aren’t highly regarded coming out of college and don’t make an impact in the pros.

  1. Pingback: Eagles Will Not Draft Geno Smith for All of the Right Reasons | The Wooder Cooler

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