Since the news dropped that Denver will be trading for Joe Flacco once the new league year starts, I have been digging into his numbers and tape to see what kind of quarterback Denver is getting, and what Flacco potentially brings that can help this team.
Before we dive in, I want to caveat the content below. This is merely my thoughts on what Flacco brings as a player after watching him. I’m not endorsing him as the next franchise quarterback, nor am I saying Denver should stay still at the quarterback position. I think Denver will pursue a rookie in the draft this year or next and they absolutely should.
Joe Flacco is far from a perfect quarterback, and is likely a veteran placeholder until Denver can find their quarterback of the future. However, the chances are good that he’ll play at least a season as the starting quarterback, so Denver fans might as well get familiar with what he brings to the table.
With that, let’s get to it.
Deep Passing Game
There’s already been a lot written about Flacco on here since the news was announced. Both the Joe’s from our staff have excellent pieces out, here and here, I would encourage you to give them a read. However, I’m going to respectfully disagree with both of them on this particular point.
The narrative that the deep passing game or stretching the field isn’t a strength of Flacco’s, or he isn’t an upgrade over Case Keenum in this area is crazy-talk.
Looking at raw statistics like completion percentage or quarterback rating aren’t an accurate picture of a quarterback’s ability in that regard; it’s merely a measure of the overall offensive result.
This kind of placement shuffling in the pocket under pressure won't show as more than an incompletion on the stats sheet. pic.twitter.com/uFJqES3Ewf— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) February 17, 2019
This is an important distinction. One, because it takes into account the entire offense’s role in making it work.
Since his big contract, Baltimore has ranked in the top ten of dropped passes on deep throws four out of the past six years. The rankings were as follows:
2013 - #1 (7 drops)
2014 - #2 (7 drops)
2016 - #4 (4 drops)
2018 - #9 (4 drops) Denver tied for this ranking, as well.
This is why looking at historical numbers, particularly Flacco’s career numbers, apart from context isn’t helpful, and actually can lead to incorrect assumptions. Because when you turn on the tape, you see a different story.
Two things can be true at once, #BroncosCountry.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) February 14, 2019
It can be true that Flacco has played poorly, while at the same time can be true that he has had one of the worst supporting casts from an offensive coaching and talent perspective in the league the last four years. Both matter.
While we’re talking about supporting cast, check out this game from 2017. I wasn’t trying to find this, I just popped on a game at random to see how Flacco fared against Fangio’s defense.
Here’s an early 3rd and 4.
Great read of the coverage, and good ball placement squeezing it in the window between the corner and safety. But this will go down as an interception on the books.
Very next series on another 3rd and 4.
But wait, there’s more. Later in the exact same game.
You can't make this stuff up This went for a pick six. This is all from one game! pic.twitter.com/FgZLgXkW0V— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) February 16, 2019
Could you do this kind of exercise with nearly any quarterback? Yes. This doesn’t absolve Flacco of poor play when he’s had it, and all quarterbacks have to overcome drops. However, this demonstrates the kinds of context that raw statistics won’t give you, and helps tell a more complete story. The story in this instance, is that the quarterback did his job, and did it pretty well.
Now, back to the topic at hand. When the tape doesn’t match up with the numbers you’re seeing, you go digging. Here’s what I found from the NFL’s NextGen Stats.
Found some interesting stuff from @NextGenStats on Flacco as it relates to deep passing. Looking at raw completion % or just QB rating is deceiving, especially when comparing next to Keenum.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) February 17, 2019
They're totally different QBs stylistically and in what they're asked to do.
Flacco’s 2018 tape shows an offense and quarterback that like to push the ball down the field and feature at least four or five deep shots per game, often more. This is different than what Keenum was asked to do last year, and what he’s used to stylistically.
Neither styles are inherently right or wrong, just different, and they need to be evaluated as such.
In 2018, Flacco ranked 12th in the league in Air Yards To the Sticks (a metric that measures how often a quarterback on average throws past the sticks on 3rd down), and Keenum ranked 28th. Keenum on average threw 1.5 yards behind the sticks on 3rd down, while Flacco on average 0.3 yards behind them.
Last year, Flacco was 13th in Average Intended Air Yards, while Keenum ranked 28th. Now, as you would expect, the majority of QBs with high completion percentage had a much lower Average Intended Air Yards, while those with higher AIAY had lower completion percentages, due to the difficulty of the throws.
Flacco’s completion percentage last year was poor, but his AIAY was high. Keenum on the other hand, was poor in both, as his completion rate was close to Flacco’s last year, but he ranked 28th in AIAY.
This lines up with what I saw on Flacco’s tape from this year. The offense had a high volume of deep shots. In 2018 he ranked top ten in percentage of targets traveling over 20+ yards.
This context has to be taken into account when lining up raw completion percentage or QB rating on deep throws next to each other. It’s just not apples to apples.
Here are some examples of how Flacco excels in the deep passing game.
His ability to drop it in the bucket on the boundary is impressive, and he frequently will take shots like this whenever he gets a single high safety look, or the safety bites down.
Stretching the seams
It’s not just the boundary where he excels in the deep passing game. Flacco also shows excellent placement up the seams, which is an area of the passing game Denver has struggled for years.
Case Keenum was intercepted three times this year attempting this exact pass.
Talked to a well connected source said this:— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) February 13, 2019
"In terms of efficiency, their numbers are going to boil down similar, but Flacco forces you to defend every blade of grass on the field, Keenum doesn't."#Broncos
The ability to challenge the defense all over the field, especially down the field is a great strength that Flacco brings to Denver, despite what some completion stats would have you believe. Flacco is a clear upgrade for an offense that wants to push the ball vertically.
An offense that asks you to make these types of tight window throws routinely is going to produce different numbers than a quick passing/short throws offense.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) February 17, 2019
Again, it won't show up on the stat sheet, but on this incompletion, the ball placement is good, too. pic.twitter.com/c9n4MJlnjc
Notice I listed this in a separate category from deep passing. Often these two things are used synonymously when discussing quarterbacks, but they aren’t the same. Having a big arm potentially helps with a deep ball, but Paxton Lynch had a strong arm, and Peyton Manning threw a perfect deep ball with little arm strength.
Arm strength, and using it correctly I should add, is more about the ability to drive the ball into tight windows, stretch the defense up the seam like we saw above, and hit out breaking routes from either side of the field.
Flacco has that in spades on tape. He makes throws like these look routine when they are far from it.
Now, his arm strength is also his curse as he has a tendency to want to muscle balls into places they shouldn’t go. He definitely exhibits that gunslinger mentality, and has the arm to back it up, but it gets him into trouble as well.
Off-platform throws/escaping pressure
One of the other things things having a strong arm brings is the ability to make throws from different platforms, and escape pressure. Despite being billed as an immobile QB, Flacco has shown good ability to escape pressure and keep his eyes downfield.
This one was in a tweet above but I want to highlight it here as it is a great example of Flacco hanging in there against pressure, and delivering an absolute dime 40 yards downfield while off-platform.
It winds up being incomplete because of a great play by the corner, but these are the kind of throws that should get Denver fans excited, as this is a clear upgrade over Case Keenum in this department.
This last throw is my favorite one. This is the kind of thing you see Patrick Mahomes doing. Yet, you don’t hear the media talking about it when Flacco makes one of these on Sunday.
I alluded to it earlier, but the downside to Flacco’s play style is that he often take unnecessary risks with the ball or leaves easier plays out on the field while trying for the big throw.
Here’s an example.
Baltimore is running a crosser and deep over, and the defense is in man coverage, save for the one linebacker circled below.
Flacco needs to avoid him to hit the crosser.
When he checks the crosser, the linebacker is right in the throwing lane, but he moves on too quickly through his progression.
If he is a little more patient and hangs on the crosser, he comes open underneath for a first down throw on 3rd down. Now the deep over is technically open, but the tight end is fading down the field and it’s a more difficult throw.
Flacco tries to muscle it into a tight window, and while a valiant effort, left a wide open crosser on the field coming underneath.
This is something I saw several times from Flacco. He’s fearless/hard headed about throwing into tight windows or sometimes downright covered receivers. While giving your guy a chance to make a play is a good thing, he had way too many near interceptions or actual interceptions from these kind of throws, when he shouldn’t always be looking to make the hero throw.
One other thing I noticed about Flacco is that he seems like more of a “see it, throw it” type of QB, as opposed to a rhythm/timing thrower which at times makes him a hair late on throws. Most the time, he’s able to compensate for it with his arm, but it has come back to bite him on some plays.
That’s another reason he is more tailored for a play action/boot, vertical passing game than a quick passing/timing offense.
Fit with Denver
Which leads us to the last topic of fit within Denver’s scheme. Now, we’re not sure exactly what Rich Scangarello’s offense will look like, but he’s indicated that it will incorporate concepts from Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which just so happens to be a branch or two away from Kubiak’s offense, which just so happens to be the offense in which Flacco enjoyed the most success as a passer.
“I see an offense that’s willing to take shots. [One] that’s aggressive but is detailed in every way. That takes care of the football, that empowers its players to be the best that they can be by putting them in a position to be successful”, Scangarello said. “I think our offense empowers the quarterback to have success and can adapt to his skill set. As we build this as a group, as a staff, I’m looking forward to doing that. I think we can make that happen.”
Flacco fits what it sounds like Scangarello wants to do on offense.
Here’s one play in particular that I liked when looking at the Ravens this year, that I imagine could fit nicely within Denver’s playbook.
This is a great play action based setup that has a lot of different options. The jet motion and the running back draw the eyes of the second level defenders, while the tight ends slip behind them.
The inside tight end heading straight up the field creates natural interference for the underneath route.
The tight end has slipped behind the linebacker stepping down from the play action, and Flacco does a nice job dropping this in.
This play has a myriad of options you could explore, and stresses the defense both horizontally and vertically.
Another fun one that I liked from Baltimore.
They ran this one several times last year in short yardage situations, and it gets them a touchdown here on the goal line.
The tight, heavy formation forces every up into the box, and creates space on the edges. It’s essentially a sprint out here. I’ve seen them run this where there’s a more intentional play fake to the running back as well, but the result is the same.
These are some concepts I would love to see Scangarello explore, and I’m sure he has plenty up his sleeve that would fit Flacco’s skillset.
Lastly, Flacco brings you schematic flexibility that Keenum didn’t. Keenum was drastically worse from shotgun than under center both in 2018 and 2017. Denver learned this the hard way as they underutilized Keenum under center and off of play action until it was too late.
However, while Flacco fits well into an under center, play action passing game, he is also adept at being in the shotgun and marching down the field in a no huddle if necessary. His statistical splits from shotgun are not that different, both in 2018 and for his whole career, than they are under center.
This allows Scangarello an added flexibility. Here is what he said on the topic of shotgun vs. under center in his introductory press conference.
“It’s interesting you say that because I think the offense requires both. No question. The way we do in our play pass, in our keeper. How we tie things together and what we do the first and second down offense. That’s generated under center, predominantly. And then again, you have to adapt to the type of quarterback that you have. Sometimes that puts you in the shotgun more. [49ers QB] Jimmy [Garoppolo], it was early in his career, he wasn’t under center a lot. So, early on, we felt it was easier to maybe put him in the gun. That’s our job, to put players in the situation to do what they do best. But I’d hope that it would be balanced.”
So I hope, if nothing else, this sheds some light on what Flacco brings to the table. I’m personally excited to see what he can do under Scangarello, and when paired with a big jump ball guy like Courtland Sutton, or a healthy Emmanuel Sanders.
I wrote a few weeks ago that Denver needed to take more risks at quarterback and not just stay status quo. This isn’t a sexy move, but it sure beats just another year of watching Keenum prove once again that he’s not the guy.
Again, this should not (and will not) preclude Denver from taking a quarterback in the draft, and the search for a franchise quarterback doesn’t end with Joe Flacco. But anytime you can get better at the quarterback position, I consider that a good thing, and Denver definitely has upgraded at quarterback with this addition.