I don't think you need us to break the news to you: Joe Flacco is now the richest man in NFL history. $120 million, 6 years; think of all of the eyebrow wax that money can buy!
Because we're a sports analytics company and because there is no offseason in the NFL, the second the deal went down, we ran off to our mathatorium to crunch the numbers on the deal. The headline gives it away just a little bit, but let's just be super clear about this: his contact is awful. Horrendous. In short, and in the most colloquial terms, it's an absolute joke.
One of the hallmarks of what we do here at numberFire is our ability to look beyond the traditional statistics. We know - and so should you - that statistics like passing yards are flawed, because they don't take into account the teams those yards were against, or the situations in the game in which those yards occurred. No, like any good mathematician, we've created our own statistic: a little number called NEP. NEP stands for Net Expected Points, and just like the name would have you believe, it measures how many expected points above or below the league-average play that a player has gained his team. Alongside its little brother NEP/P (NEP per play), it tells the whole story in one handy package.
Let's start our analysis of Joe Flacco there, shall we?
So, what do we see? Well, for one, Joe Flacco has never been a top 10 quarterback in this league. Not only that, he got this massive contract after having his weakest regular season since he was a rookie.
Just for entertainment purposes, let's look at who was ahead of Joe this season. Carson Palmer, #11. Sam Bradford, #14. Christian Ponder, #15. Yikes.
Of course, that was then and this is now: what about the future? Maybe his metrics point to an upward curve into the elite field of QBs. Let's test this by looking at his most comparable players on the basis of the NEP and NEP/P statistics, and then see the career arcs of those players.
Let's dispense with the obvious: that's not a great list. You're going to give $20M/year to someone whose statistic comparables include two different versions of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Brunell?
2001 Peyton does portend to some good things, although Manning didn't become truly elite until his magically 2004-2006 run. And what do we say about Roethlisberger, leader of their hated rivals? His 2006 version was good, but not elite; in 2006 and in subsequent years, he's never made the top 10 in NEP or NEP/P.
So, if his metrics don't point to anything all that spectacular and his comparables and their future career arcs don't point to anything, where is this contract coming from?
The Myth Of Clutch
Ah, yes. The clutch argument. Of course!
The problem with the clutch argument is that it ignores everything else. Tell me, what would you rather have: a QB whose rating is 90-90-90-90 across all quarters, or one whose rating is 70-70-70-120? Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have much less opportunities to be clutch because their teams aren't often in situations which dictate it, because they've played so solidly throughout the course of the game.
When you dig into the numbers - which we've analyzed and have been analyzed elsewhere - there is no correlation between the difference of a QB's performance in the clutch and performance overall. It's an idea fueled totally by anecdotal human bias. Even if you point to Flacco's performance in the playoffs, what about all of the other playoff games he's played in his life? Where was all of that clutch performance before? Where was Flacco's magic during the regular season? It was nowhere to be found.
The concept of clutch also leans on the ridiculous statistic of QB wins, as if wins should be attributed to a QB and QB alone. Like saves in baseball, they are essentially meaningless, and are totally correlated to the strength of the team in question. No sport more than football requires an entire team, and it's difficult to argue that the Ravens have had anything other than a very good team throughout Flacco's career. To assign more than a marginal share of credit to Flacco is simply wrong.
The Real World
Stepping back from our calculators, it's not hard to see why exactly this contract got signed. The Ravens as a team had absolutely no leverage; what are they going to do, let the reigning Super Bowl MVP walk? They had no position.
Of course, based on his regular season metrics, the Ravens made the playoffs in spite of Flacco, not because of his sparkling regular season play. And for as much as you're going to point to his playoff performance, you can't ignore the fact that it took a truly horrific play by Rahim Moore to advance him to the next round; this contract simply wouldn't exist without that colossal mental error.
Our problem isn't necessarily that the contract was signed; a franchise QB is a franchise QB, and Flacco is young and talented enough to fill that role for the Ravens. The league is a QB-driven league and the Ravens have the biggest problem facing most teams figured out, at least for the time being.
The price, of course, is the problem. It's ridiculous to argue that he's a top 5, or even top 10 QB in the league, given the metrics that we showed earlier. So how does that justify the highest contract in NFL history? It doesn't. At all. For Flacco to be worth the price he's being paid, he'll need to perform at the level he did in the playoffs consistently, which is something that he's never come close to proving.