While we were still wondering if there would be a NFL season, there was a contingent of people pre-crapping on Joe Flacco’s 2011. Another entity that takes a lot of flack, and sometimes rightly so, is ESPN. However, I find their NFL divisional blogs to be excellent. Especially the AFC North blog, currently edited by familiar face and Baltimorean Jameson Hensley.

Back in early July, before Hensley came to the blog, there was a short but excellent post by James Walker on “Five ways Joe Flacco can silence critics.” It seems like nobody ever revisits these summer football articles. How does the reality of October match up to what we thought in July? I thought I’d take a trip back and find out.

“No. 1 Flacco must beat Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger”
Flacco has thrown up two bona fide duds of games (Tennessee and the Jets) but the opener against Pittsburgh was certainly not one of them. As a leader of the team, Flacco beat the Steelers 35-7 and started the year in great form at 1-0. As a quarterback, Flacco won the duel against Roethlisberger as well. While Big Ben racked up more yards (due in part to the Steelers playing from behind), Flacco hit his receivers for three touchdowns and zero interceptions, compared to one touchdown and three INTs on Big Ben’s end. Flacco posted a higher completion percentage (58.6%) than Roethlisberger (53.6%). Throw in the fact that Roethlisberger lost two fumbles (bringing his personal turnover count to 5 on the day), and you can easily chalk this one up as a win for Flacco. Obviously, a lot of Roethlisberger’s struggles can be attributed to a great performance by the Raven defense, but if you insist on comparing quarterbacks head to head, you will never be able to isolate them from their defenses. Until November 6th in Pittsburgh, the critics are silenced in this regard.

No. 2: Flacco must perform well in the playoffs”

Joe Flacco has completely failed in this regard in 2011. That underachiever hasn’t even completed a single pass in the playoffs this season. I kid, of course. However, in order to succeed as a playoff quarterback, you actually need to get your team into the playoffs. Leading the Ravens to a 4-1 start certainly couldn’t have hurt in addressing this criticism.

“No. 3: Thrive against the AFC North”

I was very curious about this point, because it seems as though this is the type of criticism in the NFL that gets bandied about without anything to back it up. Perception guides the fact that certain teams or players own others because of a few memorable clashes, when in reality, the numbers tell a different story. So, I wanted to know for sure where Flacco stacks up in terms of performance against divisional opponents. I took Flacco and his two peers’ (Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer) game logs since Flacco entered the league in 2008. I cleared out everything that wasn’t a divisional regular season game. What we are left with is largely a confirmation of perception. Take a look at the four quarterbacks and their average performances in division (and a version of Flacco that only plays non-division games, for comparison):

It’s clear that Roethlisberger owns divisional opponents on a statistical basis and, of course, in the win-loss tallies. You can account for a lot when it comes to divisional winning against non-divisional winning, so it would be unfair to attribute wins and losses just to Flacco, Palmer or Roethlisberger. From 2008 to present, once could argue that the AFC North has been a better than average  division. Flacco completing more passes, turning the ball over less, and winning more games out of division should make sense. Still, this brings home to roost argument number one against Flacco. To answer the criticism that he’s not as good as Roethlisberger, he simply needs to approach Big Ben’s numbers against common opponents.

“No. 4: Bring back the deep ball”

I took a long, statistical look at Flacco’s numbers to assess criticism number three above. For number four, I’m going to keep it very simple: Joe Flacco leads the NFL in yards per completion with 14.2. Until that changes, Flacco has a solid argument in his favor on this one.

“No. 5: Win a Super Bowl”
The most tired argument about quarterbacking one can make is The Dan Marino Corollary (known in some circles as The Jim Kelly Principle). The idea that a quarterback can be great without winning the last game of the season is debated year in and year out. I view number five on this list as more of an automatic A than a requirement for a “passing” grade. Winning a Super Bowl would certainly be an automatic mute button for the likes of LaMarr Woodley, at least for the immediate future. Still, this thinking seems to fade in the long term. Just ask Eli Manning. Or Dan Marino. Ultimately, reason does win out. Nobody is going to argue that Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino. When his career is done, Flacco will have a much stronger case in any argument if he has a ring. Consider this a work in progress.

Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report.  He is currently working on a novel about college football.  Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com