11 quarterbacks have thrown at least 2,000 passes since the beginning of the 2013 season.
Only one quarterback averaged fewer than 7.04 yards per attempt, Joe Flacco at 6.66. Only one had a touchdown percentage lower than 4.4, Joe Flacco at 3.6. Eli Manning threw interceptions more often than Flacco, but only Eli Manning threw interceptions more often than Flacco. Only Philip Rivers had a worse win-loss record.
From the beginning of Flacco’s career until his Baltimore Ravens team won the Super Bowl in 2012, he was an adequate starter. He competently complemented a run-first offense on a team where the defense was the foundation for success. The Delaware prospect was forced to start at the very beginning of his career but rarely ever looked flustered. He quickly established himself as the Ravens’ long-term starter.
That Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season wasn’t just the peak of Flacco’s career. It was a turning point.
Flacco’s touchdown-to-interception ratio, his touchdown percentage, his interception percentage, his yards per attempt and his quarterback rating have all fallen significantly since the Super Bowl. If one was so inclined, you might suggest that the league figured Flacco out and that he failed to adjust.
We typically don’t say that about the Flaccos of the league though. We typically don’t say anything about the Flaccos of the league.
Whether it’s apathy, wilful ignorance or the sheer inability to look past a Super Bowl ring, Flacco has been given a pass for being a bad quarterback over recent years. There are no national radio segments built around his inability to play from the pocket. Nobody is questioning if the Ravens should try to find a way out of his contract. Nobody is asking if the team would have been better off with Tyrod Taylor.
That brings us to this week when Flacco was ruled out for the short term with a back injury. He took to the podium to discuss his injury and what the team will do without him. Flacco spoke truth when he said his job wasn’t under threat and he was comfortable knowing that he would be guaranteed his starting spot regardless of who the team brought in. The Ravens aren’t replacing him. That’s not the way the NFL works.
That’s the way it should work.
In a true meritocracy where every team prioritized winning, Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t have hit the free agent market. But now that the situation is in front of us, it’s clear that the smart move for the Ravens would be to sign Kaepernick as true competition for Flacco, not just as a camp arm or third-string backup.
Kaepernick is a better quarterback than Flacco.
Let’s start with raw numbers. Raw numbers can be misleading. They are attributed to the individual player but they are created by the whole offense and they don’t account for the quality of opponent. In spite of that, we’ll start with raw numbers because they are what most people use to craft their opinions.
Over the past two seasons, Kaepernick and Flacco have both suffered major, season-ending injuries while playing for multiple coordinators with limited supporting casts. Kaepernick has thrown touchdowns more often, interceptions less often and averaged significantly more yards per attempt than Flacco over the past two years. He has done that while also adding in 643 more rushing yards.
The raw numbers are clearly on Kaepernick’s side, which is reflected in his quarterback rating. Flacco has an 83.4 rating whereas Kaepernick’s is 85.5.
But like I said, raw numbers aren’t the way to evaluate quarterback play. They just highlight how the relative perceptions of each player is not being established the way it traditionally has been. So let’s look pas the raw numbers and focus exclusively on each quarterback’s performances from this past year.
Over the course of his career, Flacco has never been a top-tier passer. Prior to the Super Bowl, he was a worthy, consistent starter. He was never asked to carry an offense—his first 4,000 yard season came last year—but carried enough responsibility to consistently show off his poise and toughness to stand and deliver the ball in the pocket. Flacco kept his offenses moving by prioritizing the deliver of his passes over protecting his body. He exposed his legs so he could establish a strong base, absorbing big hits while standing tall.
That version of Flacco was more than good enough for the Ravens to win. That version of Flacco hasn’t existed for a while.
Since winning the Super Bowl and signing his long-term deal, Flacco’s footwork has gradually gotten worse. Before his ACL tear in 2016 it had completely fallen apart. Flacco now regularly falls backwards, points both feet in the wrong direction or leaps into the air as he releases the ball. Despite his 64.9 completion percentage in 2016, Flacco’s accuracy suffered massively because of his footwork.
It’s easier to complete short passes than it is to complete deep passes. Obvious, right? Yet, we are generally reluctant to acknowledge the different ways quarterbacks in the NFL throw the ball when discussing accuracy and completion percentage. Flacco’s completion percentage was only so high because of how often he threw the ball short.
Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue revealed that the 32-year old threw 56.87 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage last year.
Only Sam Bradford threw passes short at a higher rate. Flacco was almost 10 percent above the league average. Because he was throwing the ball to slants, curls and checkdowns behind the line of scrimmage rather than repeatedly trying to hit post routes between two defenders 20 yards downfield, Flacco’s 64.9 completion percentage is not actually impressive.
Furthermore, Flacco had the eighth-best failed reception rate last year. He lost a completion on an accurate pass once every 17.23 attempts.
Playing with receivers who aren’t dropping the ball and throwing the ball short almost 60 percent of the time means you should have a bloated completion percentage. The league average accuracy on passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage was well above 80 percent. The least-accurate passer to that yard range was Matt Barkley and he was above 70 percent.
That means even if you are the worst short passer in the league, you would still have the best completion percentage if you never pushed the ball deeper than that range.
When you only consider the placement of the ball and take the result of the play (whether the receiver caught or dropped the ball) out of the equation, Flacco is a subpar passer. His accuracy to five yards was 85.3 percent last year, 22nd best in the league. His accuracy past five yards was 62.26 percent, 19th in the league. By throwing the second-highest percentage of passes within five yards he warped his completion percentage.
Breaking Flacco’s accuracy down further only makes things worse. He ranked 23rd on passes to the line of scrimmage, 19th in the 1-5 yard range, eighth in the 6-10 range, 11th in the 11-15 range, 19th in the 16-20 range and 27th out of 33 passers on throws that travelled further than 20 yards downfield.
Colin Kaepernick had a sub-60 completion percentage last year. He was a much more accurate passer than Flacco though.
Kaepernick had the fifth best accuracy on throws behind the line of scrimmage, fifth best in the 1-5 yard range, 13th in the 6-10 range, 21st in the 11-15 range, 17th in the 16-20 range and 25th on deep passes. Kaepernick was more accurate in four of the six yard ranges and, crucially, ranked in the top five on both short yard ranges. Had Kaepernick thrown as many passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage as Flacco did, he would have had a much better completion percentage.
A massive 55.12 percent of Kaepernick’s passes travelled past the five-yard line. That’s 12 percent higher than Flacco’s. 12 percent of Flacco’s attempts would be 80. That’s two games worth!
Being top five in accuracy to two areas of the field and having those areas next to each other offers the coaching staff a specific area of the field to attack. Being below average in accuracy to every level of the field and being awful on deep throws means the quarterback is always handicapping his coaching staff and forcing them to work around his glaring flaws.
The depth of Kaepernick’s throws wasn’t the only reason he had a lower completion percentage last year. While Flacco lost a reception to receiver error once every 17 attempts, Kaepernick lost one once every 8.49 attempts. Nobody in the league lost completions on accurate passes because of receiver error as often as the San Francisco 49ers quarterback did.
Poor footwork is something strong-armed quarterbacks are more prone to. They trust their arms too much because they get away with more throws than weaker-armed quarterbacks. Flacco’ reluctance to set his feet ruins simple throws and makes tougher throws impossible.
In the below gif he has an opportunity to hit his receiver’s backshoulder down the seam in the endzone for a touchdown. He fears the defender arriving so much that he is falling backwards, releasing the ball off his back foot, even when the defender is a couple of yards away. He could easily have got the ball out before being hit. He probably would have been hit after the release. Reacting like this is the quintessential example of prioritizing your body over your delivery. It’s understandable, the violence in this game is monumental, but it’s not good quarterbacking.
Flacco’s inaccuracy is bad enough to be a fatal flaw on its own. Being a quality starting quarterback in the modern NFL without being efficient is almost impossible. Yet it’s not even his most damaging trait.
Interceptions have been a huge problem for Flacco over the past two seasons. He has thrown 27 in his last 26 games. He threw 12 in 10 games before his ACL tear in 2015 and 15 in 16 games last year. Because NFL seasons are so short and sample sizes of plays are so small, it’s possible to carry bad luck through multiple seasons. Take Philip Rivers for example.
Rivers is not actually a turnover prone quarterback but he’s thrown a lot of interceptions over the past two years. The Chargers have put Rivers in situations where he’s had to force plays behind an awful offensive line over and over again. He can’t take the safe play or the offense won’t function. Furthermore, he has had abnormal misfortune with defenders not dropping his interceptable passes. Rivers threw 26 interceptable passes and had 15 caught last year. 57.69 percent of his interceptable passes were caught last year, only Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck had worse fortune.
The first problem Flacco has is that he throws interceptable passes too often. He threw an interceptable pass once every 21.68 attempts last year. 4.61 percent of his passes were opportunities for defenders to catch the ball. 21 quarterbacks in the league were better at avoiding those plays. Kaepernick was one of them. In fact, Kaepernick threw an interceptable pass once every 47.29 attempts, the second best ratio in the league.
Secondly, Flacco can’t blame anyone but himself for his interceptions. He’s not being asked to make difficult throws. His mistakes aren’t coming when he’s chasing a big lead. His receivers aren’t constantly creating turnovers and pressure isn’t the primary problem. No, Flacco’s interceptions are egregiously his own.
Maybe only Blake Bortles throws more consistently ugly interceptable passes out of all the returning starting quarterbacks for the 2017 season. Despite his experience, Flacco constantly misreads underneath coverage to throw the ball straight to linebackers or defensive backs who are baiting him.
None of these plays came when he was chasing a game and made a good decision based on the situation. None of these plays where him giving his receiver an opportunity to make a play that he didn’t take advantage of. None of these plays were a result of great defensive play design or fast pressure. These are flat-out missed coverage reads. They are mistakes a rookie would be crucified for. Mistakes a 10 year veteran shouldn’t be making.
Yet, most of Flacco’s interceptable passes are as ugly.
These are plays that suggest the quarterback is incapable of executing his offense or reading NFL coverages. If Kaepernick made these types of plays they’d be on a loop everywhere and we’d use them to say he can’t read defenses and needs a specific system to function. Hell, Kaepernick doesn’t make these plays and we still say he can’t read defenses and needs a specific system to function.
We don’t say that about Flacco.
Kaepernick is 29 years old, fully healthy and coming off his best season. He has shown development, growing from a quarterback with a narrow skill set who was reliant on his scheme into someone with a wider skill set who has now shown functional ability in multiple schemes. The criticisms of Kaepernick are outdated. He used to run out of clean pockets, stare down his first read and panic if he had to hold the ball in the pocket. That’s no longer who he is.
In 2016, Kaepernick showed off an ability to make subtle movements in the pocket while keeping his eyes up to diagnose coverages downfield. He showed off poise and precision with his movement in the pocket, he got off his first reads in a timely manner and kept his eyes up at all times. He developed an ability to throw from the left flat, something he never had as a rookie, and made better decisions both in terms of attacking coverages and picking his spots for when to scramble.
The cruel irony is Kaepernick was called a superstar when he wasn’t close to a superstar because of his team’s success. Now the same inability to see the context of his performances is allowing people to argue that he’s a bad quarterback. Allowing people to pit him against second-string and third-string players when he’s a superior player to many starting quarterbacks in this league.
One of these players has performed competently in a run-first, deep shot offense where he lined up under center in heavy packages all the time to execute different handoffs. One of these players has performed competently in a shotgun-heavy offense that spread the field and required that he get rid of the ball quickly. One of these players offers an explosive, wide skill set that he plays to consistently. One of these players was still showing signs of growth when he was last on the field.
The other is trapped in the midst of a Matt Schaub impression and will start for the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.