The Ravens have an offensive strategy, and it is “let Joe Flacco throw the damn ball.” It was on full display Monday night against the Patriots, as he threw a whopping 52 passes — deep balls, dump-offs, passes to wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, and fullbacks. He targeted running backs Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West 15 times; the duo combined for only 13 carries.
It kinda worked. Flacco completed over 70 percent of his 52 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. It also kinda didn’t: The Patriots took away most deep routes, which is part of why so many of Flacco’s passes were to his running backs. Gaining 324 yards on 52 passes isn’t exactly an efficient night, averaging to 6.23 yards per attempt: If that was Flacco’s average for the season, he’d be 31st in that stat, ahead of just Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler. Baltimore lost 30–23, and it was only particularly close because New England gifted the Ravens a pair of touchdowns with baffling special teams errors.
Flacco now leads the NFL in passing attempts. It’s not like Baltimore has much of a choice. Neither Dixon nor West has proved particularly adept at running the ball, with Baltimore ranking 27th in yards per rushing attempt. The Ravens have Flacco, a human catapult capable of heaving the ball massive distances with reasonable accuracy. They have decided to use him as much as possible.
Monday night’s defeat hurt the Ravens’ playoff chances, but it didn’t destroy them. Baltimore is now 7–6 with three winnable games remaining, against the Eagles, Steelers, and Bengals. If the Ravens do win out, they’ll make the playoffs, and even capture the AFC North. They’ll also be 10–6, the same record they had when they went on to win the Super Bowl four seasons ago.
The defense is doing its part. It sounds weird saying this after a night when they got pretty thoroughly torched by Tom Brady, but Baltimore’s defense is arguably the best in the league. They entered Monday night tied for first in points allowed per game and still sit at second in defensive DVOA. It’s a boom-bringing unit befitting the franchise that produced Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
They’ll need the offense to step up, and right now, the offense is Flacco. The running backs likely aren’t going to suddenly emerge as stars, and the team’s best wide receivers, Mike Wallace and Steve Smith Sr., are known commodities on the decline. (Steve, I mean you no harm. I think you are very great and one of my favorite people, but I think it is a matter of incontrovertible fact that you are not as good now as you were 10 years ago. Please do not show up at my house and trash talk me.)
Luckily, many believe that Flacco does have the capability to be better. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will likely go through New England — the Patriots are inching toward a no. 1 seed and home-field advantage. And as Ravens fans are happy to point out, Flacco has won twice in New England in the playoffs. There’s some January juju that fuels Flacco in Foxborough.
So we’ve now come to the inevitable great Flacco debate. Our grandparents fought over Flacco. Our parents fought over Flacco. And here we are, crawling into the trenches, ready to fight over Flacco once more.
Some worship at the altar of Flacco’s clutchness. Only seven active starting quarterbacks have won Super Bowls, and Flacco is one. And he did so heroically. In January and February of 2013, he became a flawless passing machine, tossing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s true that the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in large part because of non-Flacco things, but it’s also true that he was pretty spectacular during that playoff run.
However, that postseason stretch of play is the only time in Flacco’s career that he’s thrown 10 touchdowns without an interception. For most of his regular seasons, he has ranged from slightly above average to well below it. The best season of his career was probably 2014, when he posted career highs in yardage and touchdowns with his second-best yards per attempt of any season and just 12 interceptions. He didn’t crack the top 10 in any major statistical category: He was 16th in yards per attempt, 12th in total yards, 12th in touchdown rate, 15th in interception rate, 16th in QB rating, and 11th in QBR. And that was a pretty good year for him. Why should we value a few excellent games in Flacco’s career over the overwhelming amount of not-so-great ones just based on when they happened?
I refuse to take a side in the Flacco wars. I foresee a future for my children, and my children’s children, and fear that my own decision to say Flacco is either elite or not might prevent them from being able to live the lives I have dreamed for them.
The thing is, I’m not sure it matters. Flacco is completing a career-high 65.2 percent of his passes this season, in spite of the truly massive volume of attempts he’s been asked to throw. What does a better Joe Flacco look like? Does he complete 70 percent of his passes? Does he stop throwing interceptions? Does he somehow convince Steve Smith to be young again? (Please, Steve. Do not eviscerate me. I have so much to live for.) And in spite of Flacco’s reasonably good play, with perhaps the best defense in the NFL, the Ravens are still 7–6.
Another thing about the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl: it wasn’t just Flacco on offense. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were both better running backs than either player the Ravens have now. Same goes for Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin at wide receiver.
Even if Flacco can transform into a flawless throwing machine, it’s troubling that the Ravens offense is so limited that there’s no other option. Joe Flacco is playing about as well as a Joe Flacco can, and it might not mean anything.