Home > Game Tape, NFL > Matt Ryan vs Joe Flacco Four Years Later

Matt Ryan vs Joe Flacco Four Years Later

ESPN’s Ron Jaworski has drawn a bit of criticism for his objective ranking of NFL quarterbacks, a list to be completed within the next two weeks.  While plenty of the criticism is of the “you think Tony Romo is actually good?” variety, there are some really interesting rankings.

Jaws’ top ten, in some order, will include the usuals such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers.  People are pretty aware that those are the best six quarterbacks in the league (although we’re all maybe higher on Manning than we should be on any 36 year old who hasn’t played since 2010), although Rivers and often even Eli Manning seem to get forgotten when talking about the best quarterbacks.

The other four QBs in the top ten are pretty interesting.  With the order still to be revealed, they are: Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo.  That means that Jaworski’s list opted to leave Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Matt Schaub, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan out of the top ten.  That’s a lot of pro bowl quarterback talent that the Jaws/Greg Cosell clan feels isn’t among the ten best quarterbacks in football.

None of this is to say I agree entirely with their rankings, which can be legitimately criticized for overvaluing tools.  If you really look at the list with a critical spirit, there are a couple flaws of commonality, meaning the correlation between arm strength, ball velocity, and conventional “looking like a pocket passer” correlate with this list a lot better than things like QB efficiency numbers, team success, and effect on team win probability does.  Cosell and Jaworski (who played 15 more NFL seasons than I did, which is one more season than any player on his list) have been adamant and unwavering that conventional tools correlate better to NFL success than any other measure.  Then again, people who support QB wins as the holy grail of quarterback evaluation have a similar mentality.  I disagree with both approaches and am also smart enough to know that I’m wasting time trying to change the mind of either perspective.

Point is — although I feel like I could make a more accurate rankings list — the guys responsible for the Jaws-Sportscenter QB list get football.  They know what they are watching.  They watch a lot.  They qualify as experts.

And they want you to know that Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco are better quarterbacks than Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Cam Newton.

I think I agree with the logic process.

I would not rank either Cutler or Flacco on my top ten quarterbacks list.  Flacco is coming off a very difficult season, where he completed only 57.6% of his passes.  Cutler, who is coming off his best season as a Chicago Bear — one shortened by injury — still leaves a lot to be desired on game tape that either gets consistently overlooked or thrown out for whatever reason by Jaworski.  Cutler has not had a great statistical season through 2008, and as long as we’re making allowances for quarterbacks who had season’s shortened by injury, Cutler’s 2011 season was statistically and objectively weaker than the 2011 season of Jason Campbell, who signed on as Cutler’s backup this offseason.  If you trust the numbers or the game tape, Cutler should be closer to a QB controversy than to a top 10 list of pro quarterbacks.  If you trust only tools, then what you see on the tape — in terms of concept knowledge and specific outcomes — wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter.  Cutler’s elite tools will always be there if he is healthy.

Like Cutler, Flacco’s results weren’t consistently there last year.  He was a prime performer in the team’s three biggest games last year: beating Pittsburgh twice, and doing everything necessary to beat New England in the AFC Championship game.  But the team also took three losses where Flacco was awful and stalled the Baltimore offense when they needed mere adequacy.  Overall, Flacco’s 2011 numbers suggest that he was highly protected by structure in the offense in his first three seasons, and given the reigns to the offense last season exposed weaknesses for the defense.

Unlike Cutler though, where we’re working off a limited 2011 sample, Flacco clearly showed improvement late in the season.  The level of performance still wasn’t consistent, but Flacco completed 64% of his 50 passes over a two week stretch against top defenses in Cincinnati and San Francisco.  After a four week stretch where Flacco combined poor performances with a game against the Colts, he finished the season very strong against Cincinnati, Houston, and New England, the final two performances coming in the playoffs.  Flacco completed 51 of 82 (62.2%) passes over this stretch, throwing just one interception (in the AFC Championship) and for better than 7.0 yards per attempt in inclement weather.

In fact, beyond some early stinkers against Tennessee and against Jacksonville, Flacco’s 2012 season ends up looking a lot like his 2009 and 2010 regular seasons.  This would suggest that Flacco made an adjustment after some early struggles with increased responsibility.

And even though nothing here really screams “one of the 10 best quarterbacks in football,” it would seem to me that for the first time in their respective careers, Flacco has fewer questions to answer going forward than Matt Ryan does.  Ryan has consistently been better than Flacco in his early career, and you could at least argue that if they had switched places, the Ravens likely find a way to make the super bowl between 2008 and 2011.  But could the Ravens actually be in better hands with Flacco going forward, as the Jaws list alledges?

If there’s one thing you can say conclusively about Matt Ryan’s three playoff starts, it is that he has played conservatively.  I think Ryan was somewhat vindicated this past year when the New York Giants went through to win the Super Bowl — in fact, Ryan has now lost to the NFC representitive in the super bowl every time.  But while he gets a total pass for the Packers loss, Ryan played two teams in the 2008 Cardinals and 2011 Giants that weren’t exactly regular season juggernauts, and one of the common links of the season narratives of those two teams is that they played the Falcons in the playoffs and the defense played it’s best game in a long while.  Far too much is going to be written about Ryan’s lack of playoff success, but its true that he has been really conservative and the Falcons have had some bad losses in the postseason in the Ryan era.

Ryan and Flacco are now both 27.  They are entering the prime years of a quarterback’s career, a period expected to last about five or six years for the ones who make it.  And while the statistical record would favor Ryan going forward, at least one statistical measure would suggest that Ryan has been more reliant on his supporting cast than most: yards per attempt

  • 2008 – 7.9
  • 2009 – 6.5
  • 2010 – 6.5
  • 2011 – 7.4

In years where the offense worked through Tony Gonzalez primarily, Ryan wasn’t among the highly productive down to down players in the NFL.  In years where the offense targeted either Roddy White/Michael Jenkins/Harry Douglas, or Roddy White/Julio Jones/Harry Douglas primarily, Ryan has trended near the top of most passing categories.

Flacco has had the opposite trend:

  • 2008 – 6.9
  • 2009 – 7.2
  • 2010 – 7.4
  • 2011 – 6.7

This makes sense because of how much of the passing game the Ravens changed in 2011.  They lost their QB coach (Jim Zorn), and their top two receivers (Derrick Mason, Todd Heap).  The Ravens’ passing game was incredibly young in 2011, where the Falcons attempted to inject some youth (Julio Jones, Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers) into a pretty aging operation.  Now the Falcons have to develop that operation without their offensive coordinator from the entire Matt Ryan era, Mike Mularkey.

I would fear a return to the mid-six level of YPA with Ryan, who offers a veteran, stabilizing force in any offense, but has a maddening tendency to trend away from aggressiveness when things are not going well.  Flacco, though, may finally be past his early career struggles.  If he can replicate the production that Ben Roethlisberger is giving the Steelers, the Ravens could be in for another strong decade of playoff football.  Ryan’s conservative play may not fly at all in 2012, when you consider that every one of Ryan’s conference games will be played against a potential franchise quarterback with a lone exception against the Cardinals.  The Falcons defense is going to have to get leaps and bounds better to keep Matt Ryan in games late, and if Ryan has to change the way he plays, it’s possible that 11th on the Jaws list will appear high in a year.

Flacco is pretty high right now as he hasn’t done anything to justify being a top ten quarterback, but he’s very likely to survive the season and receive the big money extension he is looking for.  Ryan is still on his rookie contract and the conversation in a year might instead center around how much he’s really worth to the Falcons.

  1. July 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Hating much on Ben ? Two rings biatch

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