It would be disingenuous for any Ravens fan to claim to be disappointed by Joe Flacco’s career in Baltimore thus far. Each season Flacco has improved his yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and interception rate. Furthermore advanced algorithms, such as those developed by Football Outsiders, offer up the following list of similar quarterbacks for Flacco’s 2008-2010 career span: Tom Brady (2001-2003), Brett Farve (1992-1994) and Jim Kelly (1986-88).

In 2010 a large part of Flacco’s success was his ability on deep passing plays. Flacco didn’t perform better as each pass that traveled farther but when he threw really deep (25 yards or more) the Ravens were at their best. According to Football Outsiders if we take out passes thrown away on purpose, the Ravens averaged 9.8 yards on 16 to 25 yards passes in the air, which is below the NFL average of 11.2. However, when Flacco threw passes 25 yards or longer the Ravens were at their best. The Ravens threw 40 passes longer than 25 yards, and gained an average of 16.9 yards on these plays, compared to the NFL average of 13.4 yards.

Joe Flacco Throwing Deep
A large portion of Joe Flacco's 2010 success occurred on passes that traveled 25 yds. or more in the air.

Given these statistics the solution to improve the passing game seems straight forward: throw more passes of 25 yards or more and less passes of 16 to 25 yards. Unfortunately, implementing that solution in 2010 was problematic. Last year, the Ravens had three receivers (Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) who had never excelled in their career at vertically stretching the field. Making matters worse was the fact that each of these possession receivers was in their thirties – far past their prime downfield-speed age. Between elderly possession receivers running deep routes and a still developing quarterback, Flacco ended up holding the ball too long. In his study of timing of every sack in the NFL in 2010, JJ Cooper found that Flacco’s 25 sacks of 3.1 seconds or more were five more than anyone else in the league. Cooper chose a cutoff of 3.1 seconds because the median sack time in the NFL in 2009 and 2010 was 2.7 seconds, making three seconds the point where a quarterback should generally know that he has to get rid of the ball. Qualitative evidence from the Game Charts at Football Outsiders supports Cooper’s conclusion that Flacco was the king of holding the ball in 2010. These comments included:

  • [Flacco] gets out to the sidelines, then inexplicably decides not to throw it away despite the defender coming right into his face.
  • Flacco rolls when no one’s open, then just runs out of bounds instead of throwing it away.
  • Flacco will pump fake in the face of pressure without actually getting rid of the ball, or he’ll start to scramble when there’s no room to run.
Joe Flacco sacked.
Flacco led the NFL in sacks caused by holding on to the ball too long.

Ay, there’s the rub. The Ravens knew that they were successful when throwing the ball 25 yards or more, however, when they ran those plays Flacco often held onto the ball. Presumably, he chose to do so because the receivers weren’t open. However, its important to note that we haven’t presented any data here that supports this covered receivers theory. It seems like a rational conclusion from the data we have but it could just be a rationalization of one of Flacco’s flaws.

Joe Flacco stars as Hamlet
Like Hamlet, Joe Flacco could be a flawed hero.

But if we accept the covered receiver theory then there are reasons to be optimistic about the passing game in 2011. The Ravens replaced the veteran possession receivers with players known for running deeper routes. Note: The new receiving options are presented in depth by BSR’s own Edgar Walker here. Former Terrapin Torrey Smith is a raw receiving talent but posses elite straight-line speed. Tight end Todd Heap will be replaced by Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta who block less but offer more frequent receiving options than Heap. However, the best fit for a deep passing offense is Lee Evans who Ravens acquired from Buffalo for a fourth-round pick. According to Football Outsiders in 2010, 70% of passes to Evans went at least 15 yards in the air and a third of those went further than 25 yards. Given the health of Evans and some further development of Dickson, Pitta and Smith this season will be an excellent test for the covered receivers theory. If Flacco is unable to get rid of the ball with these legitimate deep receiving options then he will remain an above average and not take the next step to becoming the top five quarterback he purports to be.