The Never-Ending Search for the Truth About Joe Flacco
If "boring" were a foreign language, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would speak it fluently. In fact, if "boring" were a science, Flacco would not only have his PhD, he would be invited to travel around the country and give lectures in a dull monotone that would quickly put everyone to sleep.
This might seem like a shot at him, a dig at his character, but it's actually a compliment. In an era where any six-second quote, or soundbite, can send Twitter into a bloodthirsty frenzy of manufactured outrage, Flacco might be one of the most disciplined athletes in the entire NFL when it comes to being interviewed.
Like a seasoned politician, he almost never answers hypothetical questions. He rarely bites when someone goes fishing for a personal anecdote, and he won't play along when an interviewer tries to lead him down an obvious path. He's not a jerk about it. He's very polite, aside from a few eye rolls. He simply doesn't care if he come across as uninteresting. When the cameras are off and the notebooks are put away, he has a dry sense of humor and a fairly quick wit. But put him in front of reporters, or in a Pizza Hut commercial, and he is a virtuoso in the art of blandness. He's a blank canvas that actually repels paint.
Or, at least all that was true prior to this offseason.
The fact that Flacco has been so brilliantly boring for most of his career has made this offseason all the more fascinating. First, he wasn't shy about the fact that he was mad the Ravens decided to part ways with quarterback coach Jim Zorn, then there was the reveal at a charity event that he is a little annoyed the Ravens haven't signed him to a contract extension yet, and recently he felt compelled to respond to digs taken at him by Dhani Jones and LaMarr Woodley. It's been a bizarre offseason, in many respects, for the Ravens signal caller, especially when the most interesting off-the-field thing he'd done previously was shave lines into his head to look like a cast member from Jersey Shore for the Ravens Halloween party.
What's equally interesting, though, is how passionate people seem to be this offseason arguing Flacco's extremes. He's either a brilliant quarterback who isn't receiving the proper amount of respect, or he's a stiff and robotic game-manager who cannot win the big game or read a complicated defense. Barely a week has gone by since the lockout began that we haven't had someone -- be it a national pundit or a player like Jones -- arguing one extreme or the other.
Ravens fans seem equally divided.
Those deeply entrenched in Flacco's camp feel that criticizing Flacco in any way, even if it's constructive criticism, is tantamount to treason. They call into radio shows and rant on message boards that if you can't be 100 percent happy with Joe Flacco, if you dare point out any of his flaws, what it means is you'd rather return to the days of Stoney Case and Eric Zeier. Every time some national pundit praises Flacco, this group treats it as absolute gospel, even though that national pundit they cite has likely seen Flacco play in fewer games than their mother-in-law. They twist themselves into a daily pretzel trying to find statistics that prove Flacco is a superior quarterback to Matt Ryan or Philip Rivers, refuse to acknowledge what a ridiculous inexact science quarterback rating is, and they blame Cam Cameron for every missed read or bad throw. Even when he holds the ball for six seconds, they still blame the offensive line or the wide receivers.
In the other camp, we have the Flacco Detractors who refuse to acknowledge his steady improvement during the three years he's been in the NFL. They obsess over how poorly he played in the first half against the Falcons last year, but barely acknowledge how well he played in the second half when he led the Ravens on what should have been the winning drive in the Georgia Dome. They act like Derrick Mason is 27, not 37, and that he still has break-away speed. They hammer away at what they perceive to be Flacco's lack of fiery leadership, even though Flacco's lack of ego seems to be one of his greatest assets as a leader. The Flacco Detractors aren't interested in being patient. They spent two seasons calling for Troy Smith and another season calling for Marc Bulger, and they only begrudgingly acknowledge how impressive it is to lead a team to the playoffs three years in a row, especially when you played your college football against guys who are now selling insurance or pharmaceuticals.
But the truth about Flacco is that both camps are partially right. It's a boring position to take, and not one that could carry a full three hours of sports talk radio or spark a message board debate that would go 15 pages deep, but it's the most honest analysis.
Unless you're using an slide ruler and an abacus, or you're drunk on purple whiskey, there is simply no way you can credibly claim Flacco is as good as Philip Rivers. Football is not baseball, where statistics can be viewed in a vacuum. Statistics can't properly quantify a quarterback's pre-snap read, for instance. What Dhani Jones said recently -- that Flacco gets confused when teams put a lot of defenders in the box and bring pressure from different angles -- isn't even that controversial. Flacco needs to better understand how to control the line of scrimmage, whether it's changing the play, changing the blocking scheme, or simply growing more aware of where pressure might be coming from and then getting rid of the ball quickly. There is a reason he struggles against the Bengals and Steelers more than he does against other teams. They know his tendencies, and they know he's not comfortable throwing to certain areas of the field. So they take his favorite routes away and dare him to adjust. Often times, he can't. John Harbaugh said after the season that Flacco has to be more aggressive throwing into tight windows. And he's right.
But Flacco doesn't get nearly enough credit for bringing stability to the quarterback position for the first time in franchise history. In a year when the Ravens had a very mediocre running game and three wide receivers who couldn't get behind a single defense in the NFL, he was one of the Top 5 quarterbacks in the AFC. He may not be the kind of quarterback who can consistently drag a team to victory on a day when nothing else is working, but those kinds of players might come along two or three times a decade. There is no shame in being a good player who keeps making gradual progress. Harbaugh once explained to me that the education of an NFL quarterback is a lot like climbing a staircase. He's not going to wake up one day and be standing at the top of the stairs. He's going to climb, and level off, and climb, and level off. Sometimes the climb is going to be frustrating. Sometimes it's going to be thrilling. But it's clear that Flacco is still climbing.
NFL offseasons are always particularly maddening because even though the thirst for football is now year round, from February until August all we can do is talk in circles. Without free agency or minicamps to fill dead air, this offseason has been all the more frustrating.
But eventually, there will be a labor agreement. It's looking more likely by the day. And in time, we can stop debating what happened last year and start anticipating what's to come. I suspect Flacco will revert back to his old self once training camp begins, politely shrugging off innocuous, but often pointless questions about whether he feels more confident, more capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl. (And really, how is he supposed to answer a question like that? "No, actually, I'm terrified, but thank you for asking me.") Whatever Flacco's true feelings are, he knows it's best to keep them to himself.
But the debate about his strengths versus his shortcomings is not going away. It's going to continue as long as we watch him climb the staircase. And while it may get repetitive at times, it won't be boring.