Lamar Jackson vs. Joe Flacco . . . It’s Lamar.
For some god-forsaken reason, there is a pocket of Ravens fans that are upset that the team moved on from long-time franchise QB Joe Flacco in favor of Lamar Jackson. On the surface, this makes some amount of sense, as Flacco had made a reputation of being extremely good in the playoffs, including a Super Bowl run in 2012 where Flacco put up over 1000 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions for a passer rating of 117.2, the best QB postseason statline of the entire 21st century, and if I were to dig, likely the best QB postseason statline since Joe Montana put up the same 11TD-0INT line in the 80's.
Here’s the problem. “January Joe” hasn’t played in January since 2014. Regardless of whether the next QB we put in his place was going to be his long-term replacement, there were a number of factors indicating that it was time to move on, too many to really numerate here. While I will insist again and again that Wins Are Not A QB Stat, it really isn’t a coincidence that after Flacco went down with an injury in 2018, the Ravens got significantly better after putting in current starter Lamar Jackson given that Jackson was younger, healthier, and more athletic. With Jackson at QB, a Ravens team that was on its way to once again missing the playoffs instead actually made it in the Wild Card round.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the Ravens lost in the Wild Card round to the Chargers, failing to replicate the success that Flacco had as a rookie where the Ravens went from missing the playoffs to being in the AFC Championship game against the eventual champion Steelers. The Baltimore Ravens have been wildly successful for an expansion franchise, winning their first Super Bowl in 2000 in only their fifth season, winning another in 2012, and having 13 total playoff appearances and only 7 losing seasons out of 26 years of operation. There’s an argument to be made that the fanbase has been somewhat spoiled by the level of success experienced even though the team can be up and down from year to year. As such, having a rookie QB play half a season, take the team to the playoffs, and losing in the first playoff game is regarded as a disappointment rather than what it would objectively be for almost any other team: a wild success.
What nobody seems to remember of course, is that Flacco was very bad in his 2008 playoff run, particularly in the AFC Championship Game where he put up 141 yards on 30 attempts (4.7 yards per attempt,) 0 touchdowns, rushed for negative yardage, and threw a walk-off interception to Troy Polamalu to end the year, ending with an unfathomably bad passer rating of 18.2. In fairness, Troy Polamalu is a Hall of Fame safety, and the Steelers defense was extremely good in this era, but Flacco was also surrounded by competent offensive talent, though not at the level of the years to come. By contrast, in Lamar Jackson’s debut playoff game he threw 2 touchdowns, 1INT, threw 197 yards on 29 attempts (6.7 yards per attempt), rushed 54 yards on 9 carries (6 yards a carry,) with one lost fumble, featuring a supporting cast of Mark Andrews at tight end and Gus Edwards at runningback. Notice that I didn’t mention a wide receiver, because we didn’t have one, and most people would say we still don’t. By contrast, in 2008 the Ravens had wide receiver Derrick Mason who had two 1000-yard seasons catching balls from notable draft bust The Kyle Boller Experiment and had similar levels of production in Flacco’s earlier years, and levels of talent at runningback (Willis McGahee) and tight end (Todd Heap) not significantly worse than what the Ravens have now. (Todd Heap is especially notable here since he put up solid numbers at the TE position without ever benefiting from elite QB.)
I think it’s more than fair to say that comparing each QB’s final postseason game of their rookie year, Jackson outplayed Flacco. (He certainly outplayed Flacco’s doughnut of a playoff debut where the QB threw 0–0, very few yards, and a bad completion percentage.)
What the numbers bear out is that, especially when considering the level of support each man has had in their receiving corps, Lamar Jackson is far and away the better player at QB, not just because of his overall production that includes his ability to carry the football, but even just in pure comparisons of passing stats. Lamar Jackson is essentially already proven as a better passer than Flacco, year by year, in both the regular and postseason.
I hold this belief largely because I value efficiency significantly more than volume. We’ll get into that in the next paragraph, but for now, it should be noted that Lamar Jackson is better as a volume scorer in the passing game alone than Flacco ever was. In his worst full year as a starter so far, this past season, Jackson threw 26 touchdowns in the regular season, a number that Joe Flacco eclipsed only once, when in 2014 he threw a career-high of 27 touchdowns. That’s a win for Jackson.
Efficiency though. Lamar doesn’t throw nearly the volume of pass attempts that Flacco does, but he gets so much more on a per-attempt basis. In his worst full season as a starter so far, Lamar threw 7.3 yards per attempt. In nearly ten full seasons as a starter with Baltimore, Flacco matched or eclipsed that number once, in 2010, when he threw 7.4 yards per attempt. In 2010, Flacco threw 489 pass attempts. In 2020, Lamar threw only 376. That’s a win for Jackson. (As a career average, Lamar throws 7.5 yards per attempt, a number that Flacco never eclipsed or even matched in a single year.)
Lamar has thrown more touchdown passes in the regular season, but who throws more touchdowns per pass attempt? The numbers above should already tell you. We’re not even going to bother comparing full seasons for fairness because we don’t have to. In Lamar Jackson’s worst year by far throwing touchdowns, his 7 games as a rookie starter in 2018, he threw a TD% of 3.5. Joe Flacco only ever eclipsed that number in 2011, 2012, and 2014, years where he had much higher quality wide receiver play than Jackson has yet to benefit from. He failed to eclipse that number in 2010 when he had the same receivers he had in 2011 and 2012, and he also failed to eclipse that number in 2013 when he still had two of the three wide receivers he had in 2012. If we were to compare Flacco’s regular season TD% to Lamar’s two full years as a starter, it wouldn’t even be fair. This is another win for Jackson.
The lowest number of interceptions Flacco threw in a regular season with the Ravens? 10. Lamar Jackson’s most interceptions in a regular season so far? 9. The wins keep piling up.
How about percentage? Maybe on a lower volume of passes Lamar throws more interceptions per pass attempt? Nope. For a career, Lamar throws 1.9% of his regular-season pass attempts to the other team. Joe Flacco matched 1.9% interceptions once in a full-season. For those keeping score, that’s another win for Jackson, and it’s also the first time that Lamar hasn’t beaten Flacco’s number with his own career low.
Passer rating? You should already know. Lamar Jackson full-season career low: 99.3. Joe Flacco full-season career high: 91.
I could keep going on this. I could make the argument that in Lamar’s 2nd playoff run, he played better than Flacco’s 2nd playoff run, because he has. Flacco did, admittedly, play better than Jackson when comparing their third playoff runs, but this goes back to the level of support at receiver. In 2010, Flacco had Anquan Boldin, a player with zero equivalent on the modern Ravens. I could make the argument that Flacco has only ever played at a level even comparable to Lamar when surrounded by very good receivers, which is a benefit Lamar has not had, because that is true. Has Lamar played at the level in the playoffs that Flacco played at in his “January Joe” years of 2011, 2012, and 2014? No, but Lamar has yet to be surrounded by that level of offensive talent, and more importantly, Flacco had those runs in years 4, 5, and 7 of his career, which Lamar has yet to reach, entering only his 4th season next year.
But of course, the ace in the sleeve is this: Joe Flacco was never even remotely capable of running the ball. Lamar Jackson is the first QB in the NFL to have over 1000 yards rushing in two consecutive seasons. I used Lamar’s 26 passing TDs in 2020 as a point of comparison for Flacco. What I didn’t mention is that he also rushed for 7 TDs for a season total of 33. Flacco rushed for 7 touchdowns in his first five years combined. Did I mention that Jackson also rushed 7TDs in 2019?
There is absolutely no comparison to be made. Lamar Jackson is a better passer, and by extension a significantly better football player than Joe Flacco, and it isn’t particularly close. By default, even if he were to be injured and fall off a statistical cliff, Lamar Jackson is already the best quarterback to ever play for the Ravens, he the best quarterback to play in Baltimore since the Colts era, and he has already surpassed Bert Jones’ brief peak. Lamar Jackson is already chasing Johnny Unitas, the implications of which are absolutely staggering. This is a comparison that is nearly impossible to make given the vast difference in eras, but something I think is genuinely achievable given what we’ve seen Lamar to be capable of as a passer while also being an accomplished rusher. It’s fairly easy to say that Jackson is already a better pure athlete than Unitas ever was.
Purely as a player, Jackson exceeds Flacco greatly. To match Flacco’s level of success, he’ll need to make two AFC championship games and win a Super Bowl and pepper in a few divisional round appearances as well, all of which have become harder under the NFL’s new playoff structure, giving greater comparative weight to any further playoff success that Lamar has. With the quality of play Jackson has already exhibited in the regular season, any serious amount of playoff success, especially over a sustained period, makes Jackson a likely Hall of Famer. Unitas won two NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, lost in Super Bowl III, and won Super Bowl V, which would basically be the equivalent of a 1–3 Super Bowl record in the modern game, but it should be noted that to achieve all of that, he only needed to lead the Colts to a 6–3 playoff record in his tenure, also that he played terribly in Super Bowl III, and as well that in his only Super Bowl win, he was playing merely well by the standards of the day before being knocked out of the game and replaced by his backup Earl Morall, who had played much of that regular season as well, though all of this can be downplayed somewhat by acknowledging that in a rougher and more physical era of the game, Unitas was past his prime and nearing the end of his career. By comparison, to merely appear in two AFC championship games and win a Super Bowl, Joe Flacco needed to lead the Ravens to a 9–4 playoff record, and had to play better in the postseaseon than Unitas ever did. (By the end of his tenure, his playoff record with the team was 10–5 after a divisional round exit in 2014.) Thus, I set the bar here: if Lamar Jackson wins a Super Bowl, an additional two divisional round games, and manages to do so even with as many as 6 or 7 playoff losses in any round, he would have to be considered the most accomplished career QB to play for the Baltimore Colts or Baltimore Ravens. (We can talk about Peyton Manning a different day.)
Make no mistake, we are watching the player who, barring massive injury or an otherwise inexplicable decline, already has a severely good chance of ending his career as the best quarterback to ever play professional football in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.
Durante Pierpaoli, Lynnwood WA, via Laurel, MD, February 2021