Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was never elite, and I really don’t think anyone actually believed he was an elite quarterback. I have a feeling it was simply a manufactured headline stuffed down our throats so much that it actually became a legitimate argument. There’s no point in debating the merits of his contract, but there is plenty of reason to wonder what 2014 holds for one of the league’s better quarterbacks. He probably isn’t even a top ten QB, but he’s close and could have another top ten year if things go well for him next season.
According to the Pro Football Focus, Flacco threw 11 touchdowns and no interceptions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards through the air, and his success that year was largely derived from his ability to burn defenses. He wasn’t the most accurate deep passer in the NFL (middle of the pack), but he made up for average accuracy on deep passes with big plays and very few mistakes. The exact opposite happened in 2013, though, as Flacco went from having the best TD:INT ratio on deep passes to having an unsightly TD:INT ratio of 1:9.
That sort of one-year regression is pretty rare. There’s little doubt that an 11:0 ratio is a tad inflated, but there’s even less doubt that throwing one touchdown and nine interceptions in a season on deep throws is even more fluky. Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and I don’t think anyone can dispute his ability to throw long bombs. His accuracy to all parts of the field is inconsistent and can definitely be put into question, so it helps make this debate worth having.
So what can we realistically expect out of Flacco as a deep passer. He’s never going to have the highest completion percentage on deep throws since he doesn’t have the highest completion percentage overall, but we should expect him to complete roughly 35-40% of his deep passes. Some of those will be dropped and some will be the result of Flacco simply making a bad throw, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Flacco has consistently been about a decently accurate deep passer when compared to the rest of the league. But how will his TD:INT ratio look?
I decided to run through the numbers on PFF, and he posted TD:INT ratios of 8:3 and 12:4 in 2011 and 2010 respectively, so I think it’s safe to say that a 3:1 ratio makes the most sense. There’s a method to not using his 2009 total, since I want to keep things as recent as possible and only use the past four seasons of data, considering Flacco has improved as a passer since then (he still had a 7:5 ratio in 2009).
Flacco’s TD:INT ratios are interesting to look at, because he’s actually consistently been above-average at avoiding interceptions. According to Pro-Football Reference, he had a higher rate of interceptions thrown than the league average in 2013, and that was the first and only time in his career in which this happened. His TD:INT ratios are usually skewed due to a low number of touchdowns thrown, but his career 11.5 yards per completion shows that it’s more about usage than anything else.
Looking at the numbers, it really seems like Flacco lives and dies by the deep ball, and it makes sense since he usually has a slightly below-average completion percentage. Per Advanced NFL Stats, Flacco has attempted a pass at least 15 yards in the air a total of 23.6% of the time in his career, which would rank as the eighth-highest rate in the NFL last season.
Because Flacco’s game is predicated so much on being able to efficiently throw the ball downfield, it’s important for the Baltimore Ravens to find a reliable No. 2 receiver who can move the chains. That may seem counter-intuitive, since some people would say, “Oh, they could just add another deep threat to help ol’ Joe out on those kinds of passes,” but the fact of the matter is that the Ravens need a guy who is consistent. They already have guys who can go deep downfield, and Torrey Smith is easily one of the league’s best deep threats. However, they need a reliable No. 2 receiver opposite of Smith who can alleviate pressure off of Flacco by consistently getting open for safer throws. Dennis Pitta fills that role and clearly helped Flacco significantly when healthy, but the Ravens could still use a guy with that Anquan Boldin kind of “safeness”.
This has as much to do with Smith as it does Flacco, since Smith needs to have someone formidable across from him in order to help draw off double teams. There are some people who still don’t view Smith as a true No. 1 receiver in this league, but I view him as a No. 1 receiver who works best with a strong No. 2. Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones can do some nice stuff, but they aren’t good enough route-runners to be more than steady No. 3 options at this point. One reason why Flacco threw so many interceptions is all the help coverage on Smith, as it left little margin for error for Flacco on those deep throws that he will always try to attempt (especially when the team needs a big play in a pinch).
Flacco still managed to engineer four game-winning drives this season despite subpar numbers across the board, and he easily had the worst season of his career. To me, the most interesting thing to note on the simple stat sheet is his interceptions total, as he threw 22 picks and had by far the worst INT% of his carer. That’s telling, because sudden increases in interception rates of that magnitude indicate something more than the fault of the quarterback. A 28-year-old QB doesn’t suddenly become that interception-prone in one season. But a combination of inconsistent blocking and, more importantly, mindbogglingly inconsistent pass-catching and route-running lead to that kind of an increase in INTs. Per PFF, Flacco had the lowest accuracy percentage on deep passes in his career (it’s not even close), and the lack of a reliable guy taking pressure off of Torrey Smith helped to contribute to those issues.
So for those of you who think that the Baltimore Ravens don’t need a wide receiver, I would argue that the numbers paint a different picture. A quarterback with great arm strength but inconsistent accuracy and decision-making like Flacco needs another safety net, possession receiver in addition to Pitta, and pretty much any QB needs to have guys he can count on being open and helping him avoid trouble. I’ve never been a big Flacco fan and view him as being closer to the 15th-best QB than the 10th-best QB, but there’s no doubt that’s pretty good, and he proved that he’s someone you can win with if surrounded by talent. Thanks to Pitta’s injury, Smith was his only truly legit receiver last year, and he was obviously much better off in 2012 with Boldin at his side as well.
Part of this mess is of his own doing for snagging the huge contract he received last offseason, but the Ravens will have to draft the right guy (I doubt they invest the money to sign someone) in order to do it. The need is big enough (again, look at Flacco’s numbers closely), and there are plenty of receivers who could fit the bill. Reliability is difficult to find in the first despite all the talent there, and it’s possible the Ravens could wait and hope Jordan Matthews falls to them later on. This wide receiver class is loaded, so the Ravens aren’t short of options.