The overriding question of Joe Flacco’s career has been repeated again and again: is Joe Flacco elite? During his prime, was he among the best quarterbacks in the NFL? Aside from a glorious four-game run in 2012, the answer is pretty clearly no.
Ravens fans seem to feel obligated to respect or defend Joe Flacco because of his legendary Super Bowl run in 2012 that brought the Baltimore Ravens their second championship in only 16 years of existence, making them probably the greatest expansion franchise in NFL history. I, frankly, do not. Joe Flacco was consistently a good, not great starter whose flaws at least once prevented the Ravens from reaching a Super Bowl. He will not make the Hall of Fame, and it would be ludicrous if he did based on the quality of his play, even at his peak when his team was having its greatest success.
While Flacco’s contribution to that 2012 postseason cannot be denied, I think it’s also fair to say a few years out from Flacco’s run as the Ravens starter that the real truth is this: the Ravens had consistently existed with awful quarterback play, and had attained about as much success as you could get without having quality play at the most important position in the game, and because the quarterback has such an overwhelming influence on a team’s capability to succeed, merely having a good quarterback allowed Baltimore to ascend to consecutive years of playoff wins. But to attribute the success the Ravens had in 2008, 2011, and 2012 mostly to Flacco rings as absurd, and shows that, for as important as the QB is, it is still significantly overvalued in comparison to the surrounding players on offense that allow the QB to find success, which is what we’re going to find in 2013 and 2014.
To this effect, we are going to review every season of Flacco’s run in Baltimore, looking largely at statistics and play-by-play data. Let’s begin.
2008 Preseason: HARBAUGH and FLACCO enter from stage left
At the end of the 2007 season, head coach Brian Billick was released as a consequence of the Ravens’ epic collapse that prior season. Billick has been mighty fine since, he took a job with the NFL network and still does spots as an analyst on TV and radio, he seems to be enjoying his retirement, and still has a good relationship with the Ravens.
To replace him, the Ravens had intended to hire Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator and future head coach Jason “8–8” Garrett, and I can really only say as somebody who also happens to be a Cowboys fan (my dad’s from Arkansas, Woo Pig) that the Ravens dodged a massive bullet on that one. Garrett frequently had higher caliber talent on offense than the man the Ravens picked in his stead, and ended up coming short of the playoffs year after year with the Cowboys as their head coach. As a result, the team went with their second choice, long time Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh. The hire surprised many given that the long-time Eagles special teams coordinator had only spent a year as a position coach with the Eagles and that conventional wisdom held that a special teams coach was not qualified as an NFL head coach.
The results speak for themselves. Harbaugh is the winningest coach in Ravens history by a long shot, having now coached 13 seasons with only one losing season to his name, two .500 seasons, ten winning seasons, 9 playoff appearances, two seasons ending at the AFC championship game, and a Super Bowl victory for a total playoff record of 11–8 (as of the end of the 2020 season) with an NFL record 6 road playoff wins, and already a fairly strong chance of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a significant portion of his coaching career still in front of him.
One of Harbaugh’s first major moves heading into the 2008 NFL draft was knowing he would need to select a quarterback, and though there was major interest from the Ravens in Matt Ryan, he was taken #3 by Atlanta and that never transpired, still, Harbaugh had already entered the draft confident in his desire to take Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, and thus our story today begins.
If somebody asked you to describe the stereotype of an NFL quarterback, you’d give them Joe Flacco. 6’4, absolutely massive human being, not particularly athletic or mobile, but with a rocket arm that could fire bullets into tight spaces and more importantly could throw the ball absolutely absurd distances down the field, setting a number of records at Delaware, plus a cavalier attitude that later earned him the nickname “Joe Cool,” for his ability to be unphased by the ups and downs of a game.
Somehow, someway, Flacco actually did not beat out Boller in training camp. The Kyle Boller Experiment only came to its inglorious end with a season-ending injury during the preseason, and as such, Flacco was named the week 1 starter against Cincinnati, and the Ravens never looked back.
2008 was a great year for the Ravens where all of the talent they’d been accumulating plus a a new face of leadership both on the field and on the sidelines invigorated the team to new heights. Flacco was not their only significant draft pick. Though the Ravens didn’t hit on many picks between 02–05, in 2006 things really started picking up when they drafted defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and punter Sam Koch, the latter of whom is still with the team today. In 2007 they added tackle Marshal Yanda, a future Hall of Famer, and supplemented Willis McGahee with fullback and absolutely awesome football name Le’Ron McClain. Then in 2008 they drafted not only Flacco, but the runningback who would become synonymous with this era of Ravens football Ray Rice. (Who deservedly would become anonymous after 2013, but we can talk about that more later.)
With a three-headed rushing beast of the established McGahee plus McClain and Rice, the Ravens had a fearsome rushing attack that resulted in the 4th highest rushing yards per game in the 2008 regular season, in spite of the fact that the Ravens actually threw the ball significantly more often than they ran it. The Ravens also ranked 3rd in total defense, being third in both points and yards allowed, a complete turnaround from 2007 and harkening back to glory years like 2006 and 2000.
In the passing game, Flacco was . . . good. He was pretty good. He ranked at 20th in almost every good category, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, but he had a tendency to throw interceptions. With only the 19th most attempts passing in the league he didn’t put up the volume of interceptions that Brett Favre did that year, but he was tied for 6th in int% (the amount of interceptions thrown per pass attempt) at 2.8%, still, each of these categories was a massive improvement from what Kyle Boller had done in 2007 and thus it was worth it to stick with Flacco. Still, of the 16 games he started that year, only 5 of them were seriously impressive passing performances, and those were in games where both the rushing attack and passing attack were firing on all cylinders, which to me indicates that we were playing against poor defenses on those days. Conversely, he also had five games where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and in four of those he didn’t have a touchdown rushing or passing. As a result, he ended the regular season with 14 touchdowns, a low but acceptable number given how many rushing touchdowns the team had, but also 12 interceptions, a number that was simply higher than it needed to be. Still, with the running game firing on all cylinders, the Ravens ended the season 11–5 and made it back the playoffs in absolutely shocking fashion given how the 2007 season had went.
Big problem though. For a guy who later earned the nickname “January Joe,” Flacco was absolutely horrendous in the 2008 playoffs. In the regular season, Flacco ended with a passer rating of about 80, completion percentage near 60, and about 185 yards per game. In the playoffs, he fell off of a cliff.
The Ravens went 2–1 in the 2008 playoffs, going all the way to the AFC championship game against the Steelers, and because the quarterback matters so much in football, many would assume that it was Joe Flacco’s quality of play that lead the team to this point, and that idea would seem to be bolstered by the fact that, at the time, Flacco was the first rookie to lead his team to the AFC championship game in NFL history, and also the youngest QB to do it. As I think I’ve demonstrated already, this is simply not the case: in the playoffs, Flacco was carried to those two playoff wins and the AFC championship game appearance by his stellar defensive support and running game.
Wild Card vs. Miami Dolphins
The defense especially showed out in the Wild Card game where they held the Miami Dolphins, one of the better yardage-accumulation offenses in the NFL, to a mere 9 points, meaning they kept them out of the endzone entirely. Of particular note, they intercepted Dolphins QB Chad Pennington four times, including an epic 64-yard interception return by Ed Reed for a touchdown. The running game accumulated 151 yards on the ground between McClain and McGahee, including an 8-yard touchdown run from McGahee.
The Ravens ran the ball 33 times and passed only 23, but they would have been nuts to throw the ball more because Flacco completed only 9 passes for a measly 135 yards. He avoided throwing an interception, but that should be a given since Miami ranked in the bottom 25% of passing defenses that year. He also didn’t throw a touchdown, with his only contribution to scoring being a 5-yard touchdown run to make the game 27–9 at 3:53 of the fourth quarter when the game had basically already been won, in other words, Flacco got a rushing touchdown in garbage time. If not for that, he would’ve put up a doughnut (0–0) on an absolutely abysmal completion rate of 39%. Running and defense won the Ravens this game.
Divisional Round vs. Tennessee Titans
While running and defense won the game against Miami, it was the defense and the passing game that won the divisional round against the Titans, but I think it’s fair to say that the defense did much more than Flacco. After allowing 7 points from the Titans in the first quarter, the Ravens defense put the clamps on Tennessee and held them scoreless for the entirety of the second and third quarters, only giving up a field goal deep into the fourth quarter.
After the Titans scored early, Flacco threw a massive 48-yard touchdown to Derrick Mason to tie the game up at 7, but then the Titans defense similarly clamped down on the Ravens, allowing Joe Flacco to accumulate 161 yards on 11–22 passing by the end of the game, but keeping the Ravens out of the endzone for the rest of the game as well. At the end of the third quarter Flacco completed a 37-yard pass to Mark Clayton to eventually set up a 21-yard field goal by Matt Stover to take the lead, but the Titans eventually tied the game with a field goal of their own as well.
To win the game, the Ravens put together a drive in the fourth where Flacco completed a 23-yard pass to Todd Heap in between smaller chunks of yardage by Willis McGahee totaling 20 yards to give Matt Stover a 43-yard attempt, which he made because he’s Matt Stover. The Ravens now lead 13–10, but the defense still had to put together one more stop to prevent overtime or a game-winning touchdown, which they did, forcing a turnover on downs to allow the offense to kneel for the victory.
Flacco played exactly as well as he needed to for the Ravens to win, but when you actually look at the play by play here, not only did he only complete eleven passes, but truthfully only three plays he made really contributed to the victory. The Titans were a solid rushing offense that averaged over 137 yards a game in the regular season but were held to only 111 on this day. The truly crucial factor is that both the rushing and passing offense of the Ravens got lucky to have a kicker like Matt Stover for whom a 43-yard field goal in a clutch situation is no issue, otherwise the game could have gone very differently. Flacco played well but he did not play exceptionally, and the Titans defense held Flacco to well below their regular season average of passing yards allowed, meaning Flacco in no way outperformed his direct competition. This was mostly a defensive battle, and the superior defense, Baltimore, won the game, not to mention Stover made both of his field goal attempts while Titans kicker Rob Bironas only made one of his, missing from 51 yards in the 3rd quarter. The Ravens outplayed their competition, but Flacco largely got lucky.
The God Damn Motherfucking 2008 AFC Championship Game
Flacco’s luck ran out in the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a game that I will never, ever forget, a game that has scarred my soul for more than a decade. Now, before I tear into this, it should be noted that the Steelers were simply the better team. They were a much better passing offense, and they were the #1 defense, just about as good at stopping the run as halting the pass, when the Ravens were the #3 defense. In reality, the Ravens may have simply had no chance of winning this game, especially given that after the Steelers won this game, they went on to win the Super Bowl against a very good Arizona Cardinals team.
But the reality is that, in the way this game played out, Joe Flacco lost this game for the Ravens, meaning the Ravens accomplished the exceptionally rare feat of losing to the same team three times in the same season, a statistic that has scarred my soul for a decade, and he managed to do so in pretty embarrassing fashion. While the Ravens may have been severe underdogs in this matchup, it serves no purpose to act as though there is no fault to lay at Flacco’s feet. There is plenty.
The tone was set early in the first quarter when on only the Ravens second possession, down 3–0 after a Steeler field goal, Joe Flacco made a completely unnecessary throw on third down to Derrick Mason that resulted in an interception by Deshea Townshend. While the offensive line was collapsing around Flacco, necessitating a quick decision, down only three points in the first quarter and still inside his own territory, Flacco did not need to throw this pass and simply should’ve thrown it away, or even maybe accepted the sack. The interception was on the Baltimore 37, and thanks to the defense, Pittsburgh was only able to capitalize with a field goal, but it’s impossible to deny that this interception gave the Steelers more or less free points, given that the Steelers were already within fringe field goal range where the ball was recovered. (It would have been a 51-yard field goal from where Pittsburgh started their drive.)
(This Fucking Play Where The Refs Jobbed The Ravens)
A few possessions later, the Ravens go for it on a 4th and 1, which I think was a good decision since they were only down 6 and they were in Steeler territory. The commentators criticize Flacco’s execution of the QB sneak, and they are correct, but the fact of the matter is that if the first down marker on this play is reliable, the line judge made an absolutely horrific call and placed the ball well short of where Flacco actually managed to get it to on forward progress. I was going to share in the critique of the play execution (I’m not a huge fan of the play call itself honestly), but the fact of the matter is that the ball made it over the first down line and the refs just put it a yard short and gave the Steelers the ball back. On the following drive, Roethlisberger threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes followed by an extra point, the game was now 13–0.
Further down the clock, the Ravens finally managed to get on the board thanks to what can only be described as luck. A fantastic punt return by Jim Leonhard put the Ravens deep into Steeler territory. After overthrowing a fairly open Derrick Mason in the left side of the end zone, Flacco was about to get destroyed when Willis McGahee’s spider sense went off, he cuts across Flacco to throw an immaculate crossbody block to protect Flacco, giving him enough time to throw the ball to Mason again and draw defensive pass interference against Bryant McFadden who made all kinds of contact on Mason before the ball arrived. The 15-yard penalty set up a Willis McGahee run-in touchdown.
With the clock running down at the end of the half, the Ravens got another possession with a chance to close the gap on the score. After a short rush, Flacco made an extremely ill-advised pass to Mark Clayton that had three different Steelers defenders in coverage that was tipped and could’ve easily been intercepted. The following play he threw deep to Clayton and overthrew him by at least three yards, closer to the Steeler defender than his own man. On the following Steelers possession, the defense very nearly gave up another long touchdown that was dropped. They were lucky to head into the half with the score still at 13–7.
After receiving the ball to start the second half, Flacco suffered a drive where he was personally tormented by Troy Polomalu. After completing a shallow first down pass to Derrick Mason for a first down, Flacco tried to take the ball himself to the left, but was sniffed out by the Steelers strong safety and tackled 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Following another short pass to Ray Rice, he tried to convert third and long with yet another deep pass to Derrick Mason, once again getting tipped by Troy on yet another ill-advised throw. This one was particularly galling as even from the broadcast you can tell that he had a much better shot at 81, Marcus Smith, certainly a guy much further down the depth chart, but an open man is an open man. At this point a graphic shows up showing that Flacco is 5/17 for 62 yards and an interception. Thankfully, the defense kept putting together stop after stop in this game to keep the score close, but that only makes the offenses inability to make things happen all the more frustrating.
The next offensive possession, the Ravens opened with play-action going deep to Mark Clayton. It was massively overthrown, and honestly thank god because there were three different defenders surrounding Clayton and that could’ve gone very badly. As the ball is hurled into the air you can see Le’Ron McClain running parallel to the line of scrimmage, open enough that this waste of a 1st down could’ve turned into at least some offensive yardage. After a short rush on 2nd to set up 3rd and long, Flacco threw a pass to Todd Heap, but the throw was high, Heap tipped the ball, and it was once again almost intercepted as noted by the broadcast. This throw made him 5/19. It was then that the defense finally gave up enough yardage in their own territory that Pittsburgh was able to kick a field goal to widen the score to 16–7.
The Ravens finally caught another break when Flacco threw deep to Marcus Smith on what would have been a very catchable ball in the endzone, but instead the defender blatantly interfered with the pass without looking back towards the ball. This drew another badly needed DPI, this time in the endzone, allowing the Ravens to line up on the one yard line and hand off to Willis McGahee for the touchdown. What had been a desperate situation all game was now up for grabs as the Ravens closed the gap to 16–14, even a field goal could give the Ravens the lead. Even better, the defense came up with yet another great stop as Suggs sacked Roethlisberger on 3rd down to force a 3 and out.
Significant yardage on the punt return was negated by a personal foul penalty, but that was made up when Flacco completed a deep pass to Todd Heap to get the first down. Rice was stuffed on first down to set up 2nd and 9 when Flacco was then sacked to set up third and long. And then it happened. With another receiver gaining separation on his defender downfield, Flacco instead forced it to the right, intended for Derrick Mason, into the coverage of two Steeler defenders, including Troy Polomalu (this game should be named after him, he owned it) who picked off the pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. After the extra point, the score was now 23–14. In theory, the Ravens could have scored 7 and then 3 to take the lead, but with the pace the game had been played, that was entirely theoretical. This play, an unforced error, effectively lost the game for the Ravens.
There’s no need to do the rest with detail. The next possession Flacco completed a pass to Willis McGahee who then fumbled and lost the ball to the Steelers. The defense made yet another stop, but on the next possession, Flacco sailed a ball high to Ray Rice who tipped it into the hands of Tyrone Carter for the interception. Roethlisberger kneeled twice, game over. Steelers 23, Ravens 14.
While both teams had a powerful defense to stop the passing game, one QB was able to overcome that and one was not. Pittsburgh held Flacco under their regular-season per-game average of passing yards, but Roethlisberger, as mediocre a quarterback as he actually is, was able to make a number of big throws of 15 yards or more to get his offense rolling. Still, I find it impossible to blame the defense for this loss giving up the yardage they gave when they still only allowed one touchdown by the Steelers offense, and two field goals which were both past the 40-yard line. The Ravens defense only gave up 13 points, almost half of their regular season per-game average, and 8 points fewer than the Steelers regular season offensive points per game average. Flacco’s two interceptions gave up 10 just by himself, and a game-ending interception when there was theoretically still time to make a comeback, and without those costly mistakes the game would likely have looked very different. For the defense to do their job any better than they did, they would have needed to come up with some turnovers or pitch a shutout, and I don’t consider either of those to be realistic asks. Though they gave up more yards than usual compared to the regular season average, (especially as a pass defense,) they still played very well in this game, coming up with stop after stop and giving the offense chance after chance.
We could also if we wanted to lay more blame at the hands of the runningbacks or perhaps the runningback playcalling, given that the 4th-best rushing offense was held to well under 100 yards, but it really shouldn’t be surprising that they had a hard time running the ball against the second-best running defense in the NFL. There was also a fumble lost in the 4th quarter, but that did not effectively end the game, especially not more so than the pick-six preceding it or the walk-off interception that followed.
I’m not going to sit here and act like I know where Flacco should have thrown the ball, but the fact of the matter is that two of Flacco’s interceptions gave up points and a third one ended the game, and that was on top of a number of other ill-advised and poorly-executed throws that could have made the situation even worse. At this point I return to my original point: the Ravens were going to have an extremely hard time winning this game one way or the other, but the way it played out is that Flacco’s poor decision making cost the Ravens the chance to win even with the defense playing very well. The defense never came up with a big scoring play on their own, but they gave the offense more than enough chances to come up big themselves, and for pretty much the entire game they did not. Both of the Ravens offensive touchdowns came off of DPI calls, the sort of thing that you should never actually rely on.
In the overall, it’s impossible to lay the entire blame on Flacco, especially since in my review I did find at least a few plays where receivers dropped passes that were catchable, but such is the nature of the QB that as the guy who gets most of the offensive production, so do they absorb much of the blame when said production does not occur. What is also true is that great, “transcendent” quarterbacks find ways to overcome the obstacles put in front of them, and Flacco did not. In this game: Joe Flacco was not elite.
When we come back next time we’ll be looking at 2009.
— Durante Pierpaoli, Lynnwood, WA via Laurel, MD, 2021