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Joe Flacco is Elite at Holding the Ball

A month ago, Joe Flacco felt “personally attacked” when the Ravens fired quarterback coach Jim Zorn. Flacco is one of those quarterbacks on which there is a legitimate debate. Some feel he is an elite quarterback, while others, like myself, have some doubts about whether he is going to make a leap into a discussion with the best quarterbacks in the game as he enters a quarterback’s peak years.

Much of this depends on your view of a quarterback’s responsibility for taking sacks. Flacco was above average at every other measure (YPA, completion percentage, td rate, and interception rate) in 2010, but has been below average at taking sacks for every season in the league. His rate of taking sacks increased last year, so I see a guy who played very similar to the year before overall. I happen to think that a quarterback has a great influence on his sack rate, and it can be a sign that the quarterback does not have pocket awareness or process through his reads quickly enough. It also, certainly, can have a lot to do with the linemen in front, as any quarterback is likely to do better behind a very good line than a porous one.

This week, J.J. Cooper of NFL Fanhouse posted a study of the 2010 season where he looked at all sacks and timed them. Flacco led all passers with 25 sacks where he had more than 3 seconds of time before the sack occurred. That comprised almost two-thirds of his total sacks on the season. Now, some of those numbers can be system-based; some quarterbacks take more seven-step drops and the offensive design calls for him to hold the ball longer. Also, it’s not rate-adjusted, and Flacco threw more passes than a lot of guys on that list. Also, it is probably generally true that a QB’s responsibility for a sack goes up as the time elapsed increases. Sometimes a QB is the one responsible to account for a free blitzer that will get there in 2 seconds.

Still, I thought I would add the pass attempts and look at some rate stats with Cooper’s data. The correlation coeffficient for all passers with at least 150 attempts, comparing 3+ second sack rate and quick sack rate (3 seconds or less) is only +0.09, very weak. This for me supports the idea that the two types of sacks are distinct, even though they occur with the same QB and probably the same linemen.

When I did that, Roethlisberger (4.8% of all dropbacks resulting in a 3+ second sack), Flacco (4.7%), Vick (4.7%), Colt McCoy (4.5%), and Jason Campbell (4.4%) were the leaders. Big Ben is notorious for holding the ball and extending plays, so his inclusion is no surprise. Vick is a scrambler and the most extreme running quarterback in the league. As I talked about here, a rush attempt is a sack avoided and including his rushes would lower that sack rate. Colt McCoy was a rookie, and I detailed concerns about his sack rate and comparable rookies here. Campbell, like Flacco, is more the traditional pocket passer, and has been criticized for holding the ball during his career.

So, even adjusting for attempts, I do have a concern about Flacco, who is definitely not Roethlisberger or Vick when it comes to trading off extending plays. If you ignore sack rate, he has been above average, which is a good thing for a 25 year old quarterback. I can’t ignore it.

When I ran some similarity scores for quarterbacks, similar to what I did for the rookies linked above, I got Don Majkowski in 1989 as the #1 comp. The rest of the ten most similar seasons to Joe Flacco at age 25: McNabb, Fouts, Dilfer, Kosar, Hoying, Zorn (yes, his old QB coach), Batch, Leftwich, and Carr. McNabb and Fouts were easily the best of that group; Kosar was good before then but was done as a starter by age 28. Dan Fouts‘ season at age 25 was very much an outlier when it came to sacks, his only one with 200+ passes where he was below average at avoiding them, and he was extremely above average at avoiding sacks with his quick release for his career.

The rest of that list is mostly guys who were considered promising, but faded as they entered their late 20’s. A big part of that was their propensity to hold the ball too long. I wonder if that was the issue that the Baltimore coaching staff wanted to address when they let Zorn go.

[photo via Getty]

 

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