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Joe Flacco is Elite by Association... The Tom Brady Comparison
Steve Gallo
February 19, 2013
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One of the most polarizing things in all of sports over the past couple of years has been the use of the word “elite” as it pertains to NFL quarterbacks, namely Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.

It was August 2011 and Manning was being interviewed on ESPN New York 1050 by Michael Kay, “Is Eli Manning an elite quarterback? Are you a top-five, top-ten quarterback?” is what Kay asked Manning.

Manning answered, “Yeah, I think I am.”, and it created quite the furor among both fans and the media. Eli’s eliteness was debated ad-nauseum for much of the 2011 season — a season that ended with Peyton’s little brother hoisting not only the Lombardi Trophy but also the Pete Rozelle Trophy as Super Bowl XLVI MVP.

Then approximately nine months after Manning was asked if he was elite, Flacco was posed pretty much the same question when Drew Forrester of WSNT.NET said, “Here’s the $100 million dollar question.  So your agent Joe Linta says, “if winning matters Joe Flacco is one of the top-five quarterbacks in the NFL.”, Forrester then asked, ” So I say to you Joe Flacco, Is Joe Flacco one of the top-five quarterbacks in the NFL? (Skip to 15:17)” Unlike Kay, Forrester didn’t exactly use the word elite, but when Flacco responded by saying, “Without a doubt. What do you expect me to say?”, you just knew that a fan and media frenzy about the topic would ensue. Flacco then clarified what he meant by saying, “I would assume everybody thinks they’re a top-five quarterback. I mean I think I’m the best.  I don’t think I’m top-five, I mean I think I’m the best. I mean I don’t think I’d be very successful at my job if I didn’t feel that way.”  It didn’t take long for fans and the media to once again end up consumed in a debate about a quarterback’s eliteness.  A debate that still rages on, fueled by the fire of Flacco’s terrific postseason run — a run that ended with Flacco hoisting both the Lombardi and Pete Rozelle Trophies, just like Manning did one year prior.

With the debate about Flacco being elite or not still raging on it seemed that finding a barometer to see if Flacco measures up on the elite scale would be the wise thing to do.  It probably seems crazy to use Tom Brady — a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer — as that barometer, but comparing what Brady accomplished in his first five seasons as a starter (his entire body of work wouldn’t be a fair comparison) should prove to be a very good way to gauge if Flacco is indeed elite.  That means for the sake of comparison Brady’s seasons from 2001-2005 (14 games started in 2001) will be utilized, and for Flacco it will be 2008-2012.
At this point you are probably retracing Brady’s career to try to figure out if he was considered elite after just five years as a starter. He was.  Look no further than the July 2006 USA TODAY article, “Among NFL QBs, Brady at head of the class“, where Tom Weir wrote, “It also finally proved Brady can be mortal on a huge stage but did absolutely nothing to diminish his status as the NFL’s most esteemed quarterback. Our panel of experts made Brady a unanimous selection as the game’s best at directing an offense.”

After just five years as a starter, Brady was the golden boy of the NFL.  Was that only because of his three Super Bowl wins and two Super Bowl MVP awards? Or was it that plus his overall production as a quarterback?  Again, looking at what Tom Weir wrote, “Our panel of experts made Brady a unanimous selection as the game’s best at directing an offense.” it is safe to say that there was more to Brady than his Super Bowl wins and those two MVP awards.

If you are in the camp that overly values Super Bowl wins and Super Bowl MVP awards then you will have an easy time dismissing the argument that Joe Flacco is elite.  However, if you realize that there is more to it than just postseason success you should find the following interesting, to say the least.

Since we aren’t far removed from Super Bowl XLVII we might as well take a look at how Flacco and Brady compare postseason wise.  Brady boasts a 10-1 record with three of those wins coming in the Super Bowl.  While Flacco’s record may not be as gaudy, 9-4 with a win in each of his first five seasons and a Super Bowl win to boot isn’t anything to sneeze at.

Another thing worth noting is that during the postseason Brady has played five of his eight games or 62.5%, in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, while Flacco has played just two of his 12 games, or 16.7%, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.  In addition to that, the Patriots held opponents to 17 or fewer points in seven of Brady’s 11 postseason games.  The Ravens on the other hand allowed more than 17 points in six of Flacco’s 13 postseason games.  The old adage of “defense wins championships”, may or may not hold water in today’s NFL, but you can bet your bottom dollar it sure can make things easier.

One thing that Flacco does have over Brady in the playoffs is that he not only made the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, but that he also has a win in each of those five seasons — an NFL record to start a career. Brady and the Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002.  With that said, it is easy to see it was during his third thru fifth years as a starter that Brady elevated himself to one of, if not the best, quarterback in the NFL.
Therefore, if it was 2003-2005 that really cemented Brady as the best quarterback in the NFL we should take a look at how he and Flacco compare in years three through five during the playoffs.  Wins and losses Brady still comes out on top with a 7-1 record — including two more Super Bowls — but Flacco’s 6-2 record — with a Super Bowl win — isn’t exactly chopped liver.  Does that one additional Super Bowl win in that three-year period really set Brady all that far apart from Flacco?  Maybe it does, then again, maybe it doesn’t.

Maybe the answer lies in the statistics that we have all come to love as a way of defining just how good or bad a quarterback is.  Passer rating is a good starting point and Brady’s comes in at 89.4 — Flacco’s, a few points less at 86.2.  Safe to say that those passer ratings are in the same ballpark, but wait, we didn’t look at their passer rating in years three through five.  With that as the criteria Flacco comes in with a passer rating of 105 to Brady’s 93.8.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Remember, it was years three through five that really cemented Brady as the best the NFL had to offer at quarterback.

Of course there are other statistics worth looking at.  Completion percentage is one you must be thinking Brady will own Flacco in, and depending on how you look at it you would be correct.  Brady’s overall completion percentage is 61.42, and Flacco’s is a bit lower at 55.50 percent.  However, if you look at years three through five, Brady’s completion percentage is 61.11, and Flacco’s is 59.29 percent – making Flacco just five drops from being dead even – looks like Flacco is back in the same ballpark.  Take a look at touchdowns and interceptions and you find that both players are again close.  Over each players first five years Brady has 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and Flacco has 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. If you look at years three through five, Flacco’s touchdowns (18) to interceptions (2) are both better than Brady’s total of 14 and 4.  Feel free to look at the rest of their playoff stats in the following tables.

QB Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Passer Rating
Brady 2001 32 52 61.50% 312 0 1 70.4
Brady 2001 12 18 66.70% 115 0 0 84.3
Brady 2001 16 27 59.30% 145 1 0 86.2
  TOTAL 2001 60 97 61.86% 572 1 1 77.34
Brady 2003 21 41 51.20% 201 1 0 73.3
Brady 2003 22 37 59.50% 237 1 1 76.1
Brady 2003 32 48 66.70% 354 3 1 100.5
Brady 2004 18 27 66.70% 144 1 0 92.2
Brady 2004 14 21 66.70% 207 2 0 130.5
Brady 2004 23 33 69.70% 236 2 0 110.2
Brady 2005 15 27 55.60% 201 3 0 116.4
Brady 2005 20 36 55.60% 341 1 2 74
  Total 03-05 165 270 61.11% 1921 14 4 93.76
  Total 01-05 285 464 61.42% 3065 16 6 89.42

QB Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Passer Rating
Flacco 2008 9 23 39.10% 135 0 0 59.1
Flacco 2008 11 22 50.00% 161 1 0 89.4
Flacco 2008 13 30 43.30% 141 0 3 18.2
Flacco 2009 4 10 40.00% 34 0 1 10
Flacco 2009 20 35 57.10% 189 0 2 48.4
  TOTAL 08-09 57 120 47.50% 660 1 6 46.52
Flacco 2010 25 34 73.50% 265 2 0 115.4
Flacco 2010 16 30 53.30% 125 1 1 61.1
Flacco 2011 14 27 51.90% 176 2 0 97.1
Flacco 2011 22 36 61.10% 306 2 1 95.4
Flacco 2012 12 23 52.20% 282 2 0 125.6
Flacco 2012 18 34 52.90% 331 3 0 116.2
Flacco 2012 21 36 58.30% 240 3 0 106.2
Flacco 2012 22 33 66.70% 287 3 0 124.2
  Total 10-12 150 253 59.29% 2012 18 2 105.00
  Total 08-12 207 373 55.50% 2672 19 8 86.20

At this point it is safe to say that Flacco’s postseason numbers — Super Bowl wins notwithstanding — are very comparable to Brady’s.  However, there is more to a career than just the postseason.

Surely, Brady’s regular season statistics will clearly separate him from Flacco, or will they?

If you want to hang your hat on wins then Brady’s 58 wins tops Flacco’s 54.  Game over?  Of course not.  Touchdowns is another statistic where Brady’s 121 outpaces Flacco’s 102. A 19 touchdown difference in Brady’s favor might seem like a big number but when you break it down to a per game average you get a slight .276 difference.  We like to look at touchdowns because touchdowns lead to scoring and scoring leads to wins — team wins that are usually attributed to the quarterback – which is a discussion for another time.  While we are talking about scoring, it should be pointed out that Brady’s Patriots averaged 24.31 points/game, a mere 1.7 points/game more than the 22.61 averaged by Flacco’s Ravens.  Ballpark?  Sure looks that way.

If wins and touchdowns did not create separation then surely passing yards will.  No not really, while Brady does have more passing yards the total is just 396 yards or a difference of 10.73 yards/game. Is the equivalent of three Michael Turner rushing attempts difference enough to separate Brady and Flacco?

What about red zone efficiency? Surely, this is where Brady drives the stake in that creates the divide, and keeps Flacco from matching his eliteness.  Or like everything else up to this point, will it?  With Brady at the helm the Patriots had a red zone efficiency of 54.31 percent, and the Ravens with Flacco under center come in at 51.36 percent — another advantage (2.95 percent) for Brady.

If it weren’t for kickers both teams would have been better in the red zone.  If Brady’s kicker — Super Bowl savior — Adam Vinatieri had not missed four regular season red zone field goals, Brady’s red zone efficiency would have been 55.80 percent.  Four missed field goals for Vinatieri might seem like a lot, but compared to how many field goals Ravens kickers missed it isn’t nearly as bad.  The kicking trio of Matt Stover, Steven Haushka and Billy Cundiff combined to miss nine regular season red zone field goals.  Had those nine field goal attempts been successful, Flacco’s red zone efficiency would sit at 54.9 percent.  If not for kickers, Flacco and the Ravens would have been right in the old ballpark with Brady and the Patriots regarding red-zone efficiency. The following table shows the above mentioned regular season statistics as well as some others that show both Brady and Flacco are very comparable.

QB Year Wins Losses Pass Yds Comp% Pass TDs INTS Passer Rating
Flacco 2008 11 5 2971 60.0 14 12 80.2
Flacco 2009 9 7 3613 63.1 21 12 88.9
Flacco 2010 12 4 3622 62.6 25 10 93.6
Flacco 2011 12 4 3610 57.6 20 12 80.9
Flacco 2012 10 6 3817 59.7 22 10 87.8
  TOTAL 54 26 17633 60.5 102 56 86.3
Brady 2001 11 3 2843 63.9 18 12 86.5
Brady 2002 9 7 3764 62.1 28 14 85.7
Brady 2003 14 2 3620 60.2 23 12 85.9
Brady 2004 14 2 3692 60.8 28 14 92.6
Brady 2005 10 6 4110 63.0 24 12 92.3
  TOTAL 58 20 18029 61.9 121 64 88.6

QB Year Points Pts/Game 1st Downs Passing 1st Downs Passing/Game RZ% 3rd Down %
Flacco 2008 385 24.06 147 9.19 47.06 40.95
Flacco 2009 391 24.44 187 11.69 52.63 41.59
Flacco 2010 257 16.06 175 10.94 49.02 39.05
Flacco 2011 378 23.63 181 11.31 51.02 42.36
Flacco 2012 398 24.88 182 11.38 57.14 36.87
  TOTAL 1809 22.61 872 10.90 51.36 40.20
Brady 2001 351 25.07 145 10.36 48.94 43.01
Brady 2002 381 23.81 184 11.50 53.06 42.73
Brady 2003 348 21.75 177 11.06 44.00 37.00
Brady 2004 437 27.31 193 12.06 58.73 45.15
Brady 2005 379 23.69 204 12.75 63.79 42.08
  TOTAL 1896 24.31 903 11.58 54.31 41.89

By analyzing all the presented numbers it should be very apparent that Flacco, at least number wise, is right there with Brady.

Over the past seven seasons, Brady’s production has really soared.  Helping to solidify him as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time — even with a postseason record of 7-6 with no Super Bowl wins.  It remains to be seen if Flacco’s production follows the same path, and quite honestly, for this exercise it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Flacco’s statistics in his first five seasons do hold up against Brady’s statistics from his first five seasons as a starter, and he is indeed worthy of being looked at as an elite quarterback.

Which by the way, my money is on him getting paid like one too.

That leaves me wondering one last thing.  Are Falcons’ fans hoping that this offseason someone asks Matt Ryan if he thinks he is elite?

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