Why Kaepernick Will Dramatically Outplay Flacco in Super Bowl XLVII

Flacco's supposed to be the passing QB, right? So then why did Kaepernick add more total value to his team through the air this year?

We're there. Super Bowl XLVII. There's the stereotypical storylines of redemption (Randy Moss), an older, dominant athlete (Ray Lewis), and oddity (that whole brothers thing). And that's all well and good. But in terms of the important part, exactly zero of those things are going to matter.

No, I'm not talking about who's going to win the Dorito's Super Bowl commercial contest (although Goat 4 Sale is obvious, right?) I'm talking about the Grand Daddy - the game itself. And that's exactly what numberFire specializes in - the stats behind the game.

While Nik Bonaddio goes over the top prop bets to focus on this week for our premium subscribers (Part I and Part II here), I'm here to break down the action position-by-position (at least on offense) to see who has the advantage.

Today, we're starting off with the big one: the quarterbacks. The different styles of Kaepernick (running and short passes) and Flacco (hey, let's bomb it deep!) will be endlessly debated until the game begins. But there's a way to quickly end that debate: just look at the stats.

Inside the Numbers

Before we proceed to break down this bad boy, let me give a brief explanation of what these numbers you'll see mean. NEP refers to Net Expected Points, one of the main statistics that numberFire uses to determine a player's effectiveness and worth to his team.

I broke this down in a past MVP Watch article, but here's the short version: you want to add points to your team, right? Well, every situation on the football field has an expected amount of "points" that the average team would score on that drive. How much does each play with a certain player increase or decrease that expected total? That's NEP.

From there, we can analyze the numbers a bit further. Since passing is more efficient than rushing at increasing an expected points total, passing NEPs are often positive (above league-average) while rushing NEPs are often negative (below league-average). Since QB scrambles are often big gains since the defense is expecting a pass, QBs often have higher NEP per rush totals than RBs. And a player's rushing "success" rate can be determined by seeing how often their rushes increase a team's expected point total.

Joe Flacco by the Numbers

GSPassesPassing NEPNEP/PassRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %Total Adj. NEP
Regular Season1656550.03+0.09307.56+0.2533.3%57.59

Who is this Joe Flacco, and what has he done with the guy that was completely average during the regular season?

During the year, Flacco only added an average of just under four points per game to his team over the league-average play. Especially considering the strength of passing that I mentioned earlier, that's not good. And I mean, that's "he added less value to his team than Sam Bradford" not good.

Flacco ended the year 18th among NFL QBs in value added to his team; he was 17th in average NEP per pass among QBs with at least 50 pass attempts. Among QBs in the AFC North, only Brandon Weeden added less total value to his team than Flacco, and Big Ben had a rib injury that threatened to puncture his aorta at one point. Despite his fun "Top 5 QB" proclamation from the beginning of the season, it's safe to say that Baltimore made the playoffs in spite of Flacco rather than because of him.

But then the playoffs happened, and Flacco ceased to be a mere mortal. Over the course of three games, he has become the hero that Baltimore deserves.

Over 97 passes, aka less than one-fifth of his overall season total, Flacco has already almost equaled his season total in passing NEP. His NEP per pass number has ballooned to +0.48; Peyton Manning led the NFL this season with a +0.32 average. And if not for his rushing total slightly dragging him down, he'd have a case for the single-most influential player in these playoffs thus far.

But these recent playoff numbers would be a lot more convincing if he had faced the best secondaries. Or even ones that were league-average. Of the three team's he's faced thus far, only the Broncos (third) finished the regular season in the top half of NFL pass defense efficiency by our metrics. The Colts (32nd) allowed the most points above expectation to opposing passing games of any team that has made the playoffs ever. The Patriots (19th) allowed almost a touchdown per game more than the expected league-average play to opposing passing games. If there was one route through the playoffs that was going to make Flacco look good, this was it.

That's exactly why our projections see a possible return to the average old Flacco when facing off against the 49ers this Sunday. San Francisco ended the season with the seventh-most efficient pass defense in the NFL, giving up less than a point per game over expectation to opposing passing games. By comparison, at least 23 of the 32 NFL teams gave up over two points per game of expectation this season. It's possible that Flacco could sustain this high level of play against a good defense; it's just not likely. It did, after all, take a true Hail Mary against Denver to put Flacco over 300 yards and give him 3 TDs on the game.

Colin Kaepernick by the Numbers

GSPassesPassing NEPNEP/PassRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %Total Adj. NEP
Regular Season723451.02+0.226117.66+0.2949.2%68.68

Meanwhile, who said Colin Kaepernick couldn't pass? (Whoops, that would have been me.) The numbers strongly indicate the opposite.

Despite a smaller sample size - Kaepernick started less than half the games that Flacco did over the regular season - Kaepernick actually gained more value for his team than Flacco did this season. And that's not just on the ground, as Kaepernick outpaced Flacco in passing NEP by 0.99 expected points despite throwing 331 fewer passes. Kaepernick's 0.22 NEP per pass ranked eighth among NFL QBs with at least 200 pass attempts this season. And that's a better average than Tony Romo (0.19), Ben Roethlisberger (0.21), or fellow "rushing" QBs RGIII (0.21) and Cam Newton (0.15).

That passing ability hasn't diminished in the playoffs, either. Kaepernick's 0.26 NEP per pass only trails Flacco among QBs that have played in at least two games this postseason, and he's added an average of over a touchdown to his team this postseason through the air. And he was playing slightly tougher competition as well; both Green Bay (11th) and Atlanta (9th) finished in the top third of the league in defensive efficiency this season. Baltimore finished 15th.

But for Kaepernick, it's always going to be that running ability that has everybody intrigued. But despite his early use as Alex Smith's Wildcat QB backup, Kaepernick really didn't take off that much during the regular season. Kaepernick averaged 6.3 rushes per game over his eight games with significant playing time in the regular season; RGIII averaged 7.7 rushes per start and Cam Newton averaged 8.0 rushes per start this season. After his very first game with significant time against St. Louis, Kaepernick maintained at least a 3:1 pass to rush ratio over his final seven regular season starts, leaving most to believe that he had developed into a primarily passing QB...

... until, you know, that whole Green Bay playoff game and the QB single game rushing record happened. But here's the thing: that's proving to be much more of an outlier than most of the talking heads predicted after that game. Against Atlanta, Kaepernick rushed only two times for 21 yards, his fewest rush attempts of his 10 total NFL starts. That's what leads us to believe that his rushing totals against Baltimore will be somewhere in the middle, more like his regular-season rushing output than his playoff totals thus far.

The Projections

CompletionsAttemptsPassing YardsPassing TDsINTsRushesRush YardsRush TDs
Joe Flacco19.7233.08250.491.421.222.636.550.00
Colin Kaepernick17.6327.71226.121.500.557.7633.860.21

Passing-wise, there shouldn't be much difference between Flacco and Kaepernick in this game. Flacco should have more passing yards, but based on the two teams' style of play, it will also take more pass attempts for him to get there. The main difference between the two is in the interception total: Flacco projects to have at least one interception in this game, while it's a toss-up whether Kaepernick will even get there. Rushing-wise, meanwhile, Flacco should be a non-factor while Kaepernick returns to his average regular-season rushing totals.

But the passing game is just one factor; join us all week as we break down the offensive skill positions in this game as only numberFire can: by the stats.