The Tale of Two Flaccos

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Hey Simmons, I got you a belated Christmas/Happy 2015 gift: it’s the winningest road playoff team in NFL history and Foxboro’s arch nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens! I know you said you weren’t worried but after hammering our most bitter rival, in their stadium, I — OH MY GOD, THAT’S PLAYOFF JOE FLACCO’S MUSIC!!!!!!!!!
—Jared Lee, Phoenix

Anytime you type “Flacco” into your iPhone, it autocorrects to “Flaccid.” Does it happen courtesy of a ball-busting Apple programmer from Pittsburgh or Cleveland? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just the perfect way to describe Baltimore’s quarterback. Maybe he’s really two people — Joe Flaccid is Regular-Season Clark Kent, Joe Flacco is Playoff Superman.

You barely notice Joe Flaccid during the regular season … unless he’s starting for your fantasy team, in which case something clearly went wrong. That version of Flacco averages 21.1 touchdown passes per season. He has never thrown for 400 yards (in a game) or 4,000 (in a season). He started 112 games and topped 300 yards in only 21 of them. He’s never run for 200 yards in a season. He has one career four-TD game and one career five-TD game. He spent most of 2013 looking like this generation’s Vince Ferragamo: 19 touchdowns and 22 picks (and just a 73.1 passer rating). Until 2014, he never cracked the top 10 for QBR.1 He cracked the top 10 for passer rating only once: in 2010, when he finished seventh. His career passing rating (84.8) trails generational rivals like Jay Cutler (85.2), Andy Dalton (85.2) and Cam Newton (85.4).

His best quality? Hold on, you might want to take a seat because it’s so exciting: that’s right, durability.

In his first seven regular seasons, Joe Flaccid won 72 of his 112 starts without missing a game. He also throws a splendid deep ball that yields big plays and valuable pass-interference penalties. In fact, Flacco led the NFL in a goofy-but-valuable statistic called “clutch-weighted expected points based on penalties” in five of the last six seasons. It’s a fancy way of saying, “He excels at throwing deep and making SOMETHING happen.” Over everything else, it’s the scariest thing about wagering against Joe Flaccid — an experience that isn’t really that scary.

To recap: durability, pretty deep balls AND timely pass-interference penalties! You wouldn’t call it the sexiest quarterback package, and you certainly wouldn’t feel great about paying one of the league’s most lucrative ransoms for it. Did Joe Flaccid’s mega-contract make Bill Barnwell’s list of worst NFL contracts just five months ago?2 Yes. Yes it did.

Then again, the Ravens weren’t paying for Joe Flaccid. They were paying for Joe Flacco. You know, the calm dude from the playoffs. The towering, smiling, handsome, lanky, confident, gunslinging, teaser-killing, flag-generating, deep-ball-flinging machine. This version of Flacco suffered growing pains: seven straight road playoff battles; in the first five, he had no 200-yard games, one touchdown and six picks, three wins and two losses, and two season-ending stink bombs against the 2008-09 Steelers (three picks) and 2009-10 Colts (two picks, three points total). He looked better in his third postseason appearance (two more road games, including a blowout win in K.C.), then blossomed the following winter when deep threat Torrey Smith showed up. Flacco’s seven-game playoff stretch from January 2012 through last weekend kinda sorta maybe backs up John Harbaugh’s claim that Flacco is “the best quarterback in football.”

What did those five words REALLY mean? I judge quarterbacks by how they play when it matters. My guy wins on the road. My guy has a three-years-and-counting track record of coming up big in January and February. Nobody else can say this. Hence, my guy is the best quarterback in football. I trust my guy more than any other guy.

I mean … you definitely can’t call Harbaugh a liar.3 Check out these highlights:

• Baltimore won six of seven playoff games. The loss? 2012’s AFC title game … when Lee Evans briefly caught a game-winning touchdown that New England’s Sterling Moore heroically stripped away, then Billy Cundiff missed the game-tying 32-yarder.4

• 2013’s four-victory hot streak that yielded a Super Bowl MVP trophy, road wins over two legends (Brady and Manning), one of the greatest throws in football history (the pseudo–Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones), a game-winning drive IN THE SUPER BOWL, and a ridiculous 11-0 TD/INT ratio.

• The following 13 words will almost certainly go on his NFL tombstone: “Either ’89 Montana or ’13 Flacco had the greatest single NFL postseason ever.”

• His stealth legacy as the guy who unleashed the best contract run in NFL history (and maybe even sports history). In the winter of 2013, Flacco doubled his value on the open market. It was like Ronnie and Sammi during the final Jersey Shore season, only the exact opposite. (More on this in a second.)

• With the possible exception of Montana, has any quarterback ever slapped together a better seven-game playoff stretch? Flacco’s numbers: 1,881 passing yards, 17 TDs, one turnover, a 110.7 passing rating (including five straight 105-plus games), 74.3 QBR, and 28 times when my wife walked into the TV room and asked, “Who’s that? He’s really handsome.”

• You want to wager against Joe Flacco? He has covered the last six Baltimore playoff spreads. Not since Eddie DeBartolo’s heyday have Vegas casinos feared the powers of an NFL Italian this much.5 He also became our second-most important/influential/beloved Delaware-related celebrity, narrowly edging juggernauts like Joe Biden, Elisabeth Shue, Ryan Phillippe, Paul Goldschmidt, Aubrey Plaza and the great Valerie Bertinelli. With a second Super Bowl ring, he might even pass Elena Della Donne and become Delaware’s most beloved celebrity, period.6

• In Peter King’s last MMQB column, Flacco submitted a Hall of Fame quote about playing quarterback in pressure games. He was remembering how Elvis Dumervil tried to chat with him during the Steelers game, but Flacco blew him off because he was, as Dumervil put it, “in the zone.” Here’s how Flacco described the zone.

“I gotta be able to react to things and think, and not let my emotions get the best of me. My personality fits that. I get the most comfort before a game just sitting in here and saying to myself, ‘Go out there and just play the game. Take what they give you. Keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it.’ If you do it well enough, you’re going to win a football game. Having that peace definitely helps. You have to be in the moment and stay in the moment.”

He could have been describing Aaron Rodgers (read the Joe Cool section in Chris B. Brown’s recent Grantland story), Phil Mickelson, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Duncan … I mean, pick a name. The Tao of Joe Flacco makes sense. Don’t get high, don’t get low. Stay cool. Stay in the moment. Find that peace. For whatever reason, he can’t remain in that zone from September through December — that’s why Joe Flaccid made Barnwell’s Worst Contracts list as the NFL’s version of Deron Williams. But in the playoffs? Joe Flacco finds that zone. He finds that peace.

For most of the history of modern sports — say, 1950 through 2005 — we would have raved that Joe Flacco was “clutch” and left it at that. Ten years later, it’s much riskier to spit out a blanket statement without offering additional evidence … unless you want to be branded with a “HOT TAKE ALERT!” tattoo and get skewered across the Internet. You can’t cut corners in 2015. We’re too sophisticated about sports, mainly because of a relatively recent infatuation with advanced numbers and unconventional metrics. For instance, Kirk Goldsberry’s recent story about James Harden’s futuristic offensive impact was one of Grantland’s smartest pieces ever; Goldsberry’s angle would have been inconceivable in 2005 (both visually and intellectually), back when we would have collectively decided, “James Harden is an MVP candidate, he’s playing great!” without peeling off more layers of the Harden onion. I love numbers. They make me understand what I am watching, day after day, more deeply than ever before.

At the same time …

We’re stuck in something of a gray area now. It’s wonderful for accuracy, but it’s terrible for entertaining debate. There’s always a “Yeah, but” now. Everything hinges on degrees. You can’t just say, “Joe Flacco is clutch” without including a disclaimer like, “Yeah, but if Rahim Moore plays that one deep ball correctly, suddenly Flacco is 4-4 in the previous four postseasons, doesn’t have a giant contract, doesn’t have a Super Bowl MVP, and isn’t leading your Round 2 column right now.” Yeah, but. Joe Flacco has played a series of games that have made it seem like he’s clutch, but that doesn’t mean he’s clutch. Or something.

And again, I appreciate 99 percent of the New Era of Sports Thinking. We’re unquestionably and undeniably smarter now. But you also read and hear so much more hedging, so much more stammering, so much presenting-both-sides-of-the-picture, so many timid arguments because writers don’t want their opinions thrown back in their face later. It also enables certain radio hosts and television hosts to take comically strong stands, one way or the other, simply because everyone else is setting up shop somewhere in the rational middle. They don’t have to be right; they just have to stand out. It’s much easier to stand out in 2015, that’s for sure.

It’s just a weird time. Like so many others with a forum, I find myself calibrating the difference between “Here’s what I actually think” and “Here’s an educated opinion that’s being presented as safely as possible” pretty much all the time. You want to remain as candid as you can, but you don’t want to leave the impression that you were only trying to provoke a reaction, either.

A good example: When the recent NBA season started, I didn’t think LeBron looked right. He just didn’t look like LEBRON. Something was different. And it wasn’t just his curious weight loss. He didn’t have the same energy. He wasn’t trying nearly as hard on defense (something that started last season, actually). He played mostly below the rim, not above and through people. So I went on Colin Cowherd’s show and mentioned these points, even wondering aloud if there was a chance — repeat: a chance — that LeBron’s second Cleveland stint could unfold like Albert Pujols’s move to Anaheim did. In other words, was it possible that Cleveland acquired the best player of his generation right as he was about to cease being the best player of his generation? Was he injured and not telling us? Was he overwhelmed by all the off-the-court stuff that accompanies coming back home?

I didn’t know WHAT was happening, just that something was happening. I trusted my own eyes. And so I took a few seconds setting up my point (with too many disclaimers), and by the time I blurted out the actual take, it sounded like I was cautiously throwing out a theory over pushing something that I actually believed.

Why play it that way? Because I didn’t want anyone to blow whatever I said out of proportion, which is (ironically) what happened, anyway.

Looking back, I should have been more blunt and just owned it. Every instinct I had — confirmed from 40-plus years of watching basketball and attending games — told me that something looked unequivocally different about LeBron James. Common sense told me that Apex LeBron had gone to Apex Sports Heaven — not just because of LeBron’s insane amount of minutes/mileage/wear and tear from his first 11 seasons (especially these last four), but because it’s impossible to be ALL CAPS GREAT indefinitely. Nobody has pulled it off for more than a few years. Nobody. You can’t be the league’s best offensive player AND defensive player for eight months a year, every year, for a solid decade. Even the NBA’s G.O.A.T. walked away from professional basketball for 20 months, in his prime, because he was mentally and physically worn down.7 Real greatness has a shelf life.

And LeBron was really great for six seasons: the last two in Cleveland, then all four in Miami. He played 451 regular-season games, 112 playoff games and nearly 22,000 grueling minutes. He carried teams offensively, absorbed a ludicrous amount of punishment, then logged a superhuman two-way burden in every postseason. He averaged nearly 43 minutes per game in Miami’s 67 playoff games from 2011 through 2013. During the lockout season, he played 85 games and more than 3,300 minutes in less than six months. Those are miles. Lots of them. And I don’t care who you are … that shit is gonna add up.

Apex LeBron’s shelf life ended last summer and that was that. LeBron James will never be quite the same. I watched it happen with Jordan, Bird, Magic, Duncan, Kobe, Julius, Malone, Barkley, Hakeem … you name it, they hit the exact same invisible tipping point that LeBron hit last June. It happens. It’s sports. It’s life.

And you know what? Here’s a case where I didn’t even need to research the numbers, even if nearly all of LeBron’s 2014-15 numbers back me up. For six solid years, you could have taken any non-NBA fan to any LeBron game — your mom, your 7-year-old son, a foreigner, an alien, whomever (as long as they were a blank slate with basketball) — watched 15 minutes and asked that person to pick out the best player. And I don’t care who else was out there. Every time, they would have pointed to LeBron. In 2015, that’s not a sure thing anymore. Depending on the night, they might point to Harden, Westbrook, Durant, Davis, Curry … I don’t know. That’s one of the best things about this season. It’s an Alpha Dog In Flux season.

Anyway, it makes me happy that the Eye Test still matters, even if it has become an increasingly undervalued way to discuss sports. When the right numbers back up what you’re seeing, even better. That’s the sweet spot. Intuition plus actual evidence. And in Joe Flacco’s case, that admittedly small seven-game sample size backs up everything I actually watched. For whatever reason, the NFL playoffs roll around and Joe Flacco just LOOKS different.

Maybe it’s an optical illusion. Maybe.

So yeah, I wish Joe Flaccid were showing up in New England on Saturday night, but I am absolutely expecting Joe Flacco. People keep blowing out the whole Ravens/Patriots/nemesis angle, even though the 2009 Pats were the worst Belichick team of the past 12 years (and lost Wes Welker the week before); the 2012 Pats featured a makeshift secondary and a one-armed Gronk (and won anyway); and the 2013 Pats were missing Gronk altogether. This particular Patriots team is really good and features the best Patriots defense in 10 years, fueled by a suddenly reliable secondary and the one and only Darrelle Revis (Belichick’s best free-agent signing ever).

You know the recipe for beating the Belichick-Brady Patriots by now. Run the ball, chew up clock and limit possessions. Connect on a couple of deep throws. Pressure Brady up the middle with four guys, make him move from side to side, knock him around, make him uncomfortable. Force a turnover or two. Get a special teams play. Allow the short stuff to the slot guys and tight ends, then pancake them after the catch. And if you end up with a couple extra flags for being too rough, so be it. In other words … Ravens Football.

I never thought the 2014-15 Ravens could brew that Patriots/Kryptonite recipe until last weekend in Pittsburgh. Their offensive line was more banged up than Charlie Sheen. Their secondary had more holes than the Mueller report. They looked like a deeply flawed pseudo-contender that hadn’t played a great game for four solid months … until they did. Over everything else, you notice Baltimore’s big-game players in truly big games. You know Ngata, Suggs and Dumervil are showing up. So are the Smiths (Torrey and Steve). So is Justin Tucker. So is Jacoby Jones. So is John Harbaugh. And so is Joe Flacco. That’s enough for four quarters — control the lines, avoid turnovers, make two big plays, make your kicks, shift field position with a big return, and suddenly you’re winning in the fourth quarter as opposing fans flood each other with “WTF???” texts. That’s what the Ravens have been able to do, over and over again, since Harbaugh and Flacco arrived.

Of course, the Ravens have one other (frightening) variable going for them. Allow two readers to explain …

Cal in Los Angeles: “It is impossible to predict the Wonk Team before the playoffs. But the moment you picked Carolina to be the 2014 Wonk Team and dismissed the Ravens, you (by definition) turned the Ravens into the Wonk Team. And now, the Wonk Team heads to New England. You had ONE JOB, Simmons, and that was to NOT JINX THE PATS. You blew it, and we’re f–ked.”

Sampo in Palo Alto: “I’m in pre-emptive mourning for the Pats already, and I blame you. The whole season, I’ve been terrified of the Ravens — the classic team that sweats out making the playoffs, then turns on the jets. I crossed my fingers time and again that they would miss the playoffs, purely so the Pats wouldn’t have to face them in Round 2, but now it’s going to happen. You know why it happened? BECAUSE YOU KEPT REFUSING TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THEY’RE THE WONK TEAM. YOU KEPT TALKING ABOUT HOW YOU WEREN’T SCARED OF THEM … BUT NOW THAT WE’VE SEEN ROUND 1, EVERYONE KNOWS THAT THE RAVENS ARE F***ING TERRIFYING. That defense is going to give the Pats fits, the pass rush is going to get to Brady, and Flacco will deliver at least 2 50-yard bombs. All you had to do was pretend you were scared of the Ravens and then none of this would have happened. Instead, you jinxed it, and wasted another year of Brady’s career. I hate you. I hate you so much.”

My defense: You can’t figure out the Wonk Team until after Round 1 or Round 2. For all we know, it still might be Carolina, right? Our recent history of Wonkocity reveals that we never knew until Round 2 with the exception of last year (8-8 San Diego winning in Cincy).

2007-08 Giants (4-0): Round 2, upset 2-seed Dallas as 7-point dogs

2008-09 Cardinals (3-1): Round 2, upset 1-seed Carolina as 10-point dogs

2009-10 Jets (2-1): Round 2, upset 2-seed San Diego as 9-point dogs

2010-11 Jets (2-1): Round 2, upset 1-seed New England as 9.5-point dogs

2011-12 Giants (4-0): Round 2, upset 1-seed Green Bay as 8-point dogs

2012-13 Ravens (4-0): Round 2, upset 1-seed Denver as 9-point dogs

2013-14 Chargers (1-1): Round 2, lost in Denver as 7.5-point dogs (but covered)

Heading into this year’s postseason, the Wonk Team was 20-4 since 2007 — a stretch that included FOUR Super Bowl wins, one Super Bowl loss (barely), 13 road victories and a stupefying 22-2 record against the spread.8 That’s a great sign for either Baltimore (7-point dogs) or Carolina (11-point dogs), but after watching a banged-up Cam Newton sailing footballs like a hungover intramural QB last weekend, do you really expect Carolina to waltz into Seattle and move the football against the league’s hairiest defense? Me neither.

That leaves Baltimore as this month’s Wonk Team. Yikes.

You know what else that means? Recent Wonk Team history gives Baltimore a legitimate chance to complete the Roethlisberger/Brady/Manning road-beating trifecta, then topple Rodgers, Romo or Seattle in the Super Bowl. And if Joe Flacco plays as well in those three games as he played in the last seven? Welcome to the greatest 10-game postseason stretch we’ve ever seen. It’s in play.

Here’s the only thing I know for sure: On Saturday night, at some point, Patriots fans all around the country will text a friend just to say, “Flacco scares me.” Their iPhones will change it to “Flaccid,” like always. It will be a mistake.

(And yes, I am belatedly worried.)

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens, NFL, LeBron James

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons