That's a question I would like to ask coaches and scouts if we could re-do the 2008 NFL Draft. Both quarterbacks have been outstanding players for their respective franchises and are on the verge of joining the ranks of the elite at the position. However, NFL signal callers are judged on the number of Super Bowl rings in their jewelry boxes, and neither has secured the ultimate prize.
With Ryan and Flacco forever linked as '08 draftmates, let's compare their skills in five different categories to see which one is the superior player:
Ryan is one of the most polished pocket passers in the NFL. He displays outstanding fundamentals and footwork, and his flawless mechanics produce beautiful throws from the pocket. While he doesn't possess the natural arm strength to make laser-like throws from awkward body positions, he is capable of making all of the throws at intermediate and deep ranges when he fully incorporates his lower body. However, Ryan struggles to make some of those throws in inclement conditions due to his lack of superior arm strength. This was particularly evident in the Atlanta Falcons' 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the wild-card round. Ryan was unable to push the ball downfield in swirling winds and the Falcons' offense failed to score a single point.
Flacco, on the other hand, is a gifted passer with extraordinary physical tools. He boasts one of the strongest arms in the NFL, routinely delivering balls with exceptional zip and velocity. Combine this with pinpoint accuracy, and Flacco is able to fit balls into tight windows between multiple defenders. This includes high-risk throws in the red zone, where the speed of defenders and a condensed field force quarterbacks to find narrow openings. Although Flacco's footwork and mechanics are far from textbook, he shows remarkable touch and accuracy on deep balls. With several of the Ravens' receivers lacking the quickness and burst to separate from coverage, Flacco's extraordinary arm talent is the key to Baltimore's passing game.
The speed of elite pass rushers in the NFL requires quarterbacks to possess the agility and elusiveness to avoid big hits within the pocket. Ryan displays outstanding pocket mobility, slipping and sliding around flailing bodies, but he's also able to quickly reset his feet and deliver pinpoint strikes downfield. The Atlanta signal caller also shows the ability to effectively throw on the move while rolling to his right or left. As a result, the Falcons are able to incorporate several movement-based passes (bootlegs) into the game plan each week.
Flacco is an underrated athlete with uncommon movement skills for a big man (6-foot-6, 245 pounds). While most prototypical passers at his height are unable to avoid rushers, Flacco is at ease side-stepping bodies to deliver accurate throws from a collapsing pocket. In addition, Flacco shows the ability to extend plays on his feet with his occasional impromptu scrambles up the middle to avoid pass rushers attacking off the edges. The Ravens have capitalized on Flacco's athleticism by calling predetermined quarterback runs near the goal line, throwback passes and conventional waggle-action passing plays from the pocket. With this kind of trickery in the game plan, the Ravens are able to create big play opportunities from anywhere on the field. The Ravens use an assortment of play-action fakes, and one of their favorite plays incorporates bootleg action with deep routes on the outside. This is how the play looks pre-snap, on a first-and-10 in the first quarter:
Flacco executes a run fake to Ray Rice before rolling to his right to set up for a deep throw from the middle of the pocket. Torrey Smith runs a deep post on the right side, while Anquan Boldin works his way across the field on a deep crossing route. When the St. Louis Rams' free safety jumps the crossing route, Flacco lobs a deep ball to Smith on the post for a 41-yard score:
Elite quarterbacks not only make enough plays to sustain drives, but they also avoid the negative plays (sacks and turnovers) that undermine scoring opportunities. Ryan has become one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the game by constantly improving his decisions within the pocket. Many of those decisions are conducted before the play even begins. Ryan has become a master at sorting through pre-snap disguise. His exceptional football IQ has led to some big plays for the Falcons. His connection with Julio Jones on a 75-yard catch-and-run against the Carolina Panthers showcased his ability to anticipate the blitz and get his offense into the right play. On this play, Ryan is conducting a no-huddle offense at the end of the Falcons' Week 14 win at Carolina:
Ryan comes to the line and sees the Panthers are locked into a "Man-Free" coverage, with the defenders playing man-to-man on Atlanta's perimeter receivers:
Jones adjusts his original alignment and runs a skinny post inside the cornerback to take advantage of the vacant area down the field. Ryan throws a perfect strike to Jones as he comes out of his break, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown to seal the victory:
While pre-snap game management is certainly important, it is the decisions made after the snap that ultimately decide games. Ryan has been outstanding in that regard. In 2011, he completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 4,177 yards with 29 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Although he lost three fumbles on the season, his 15 total giveaways put him in the top half of the league in ball security.
Flacco is an efficient game manager in his own right. He routinely avoids the big mistake in the pocket and his ability to keep the Ravens' offense on schedule allows them to take advantage of scoring opportunities created by an aggressive defense. While some would argue that the conservative play calling from Baltimore's offensive staff suggests a lack of confidence in Flacco, I would point to the fact that he averaged 33.6 pass attempts in 2011 as evidence the Ravens are willing to put the game on his shoulders in favorable situations. In fact, the Ravens allowed Flacco to pass 30-plus times in eight of their first nine games and he responded with four 300-yard games and a 6-3 record.
Although the Ravens eventually reverted back to their conservative nature during the stretch run of the season, this is a testament to Rice's value, not a slight to Flacco. Now, I must point out that Flacco's completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating were down slightly from previous season in 2011, but playing 12 games against top-10 defenses certainly impacted those numbers.
Ryan has shined as a leader since taking over as the face of the Falcons following the Michael Vick debacle. He has guided the Falcons to a 43-19 regular-season record and three playoff berths in four seasons, but has yet to win a playoff game. While there's plenty of blame to go around, Ryan hasn't eclipsed 200 yards passing in any of his three postseason games, totaling 199 yards in the most recent loss to New York. Although the Falcons' short-yardage failures certainly played a significant role in the offense's disappointing performance in this January defeat, Ryan's inability to connect on intermediate and deep throws allowed the Giants to suffocate a unit that entered the game as one of the league's top point producers. Until Ryan finds a way to spark the Falcons' offense in the playoffs, his overall leadership ability will be questioned.
Flacco's leadership role is overshadowed by the presence of the Ravens' veteran defensive core of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. However, he has started to assert himself over the past few seasons and the offense has responded favorably to his leadership style. From offering up suggestions to play calls to tutoring the Ravens' young receivers, Flacco has taken on the responsibilities expected from a franchise QB. More importantly, he has consistently guided the Ravens to wins since stepping onto the field as a rookie starter. He sports a 44-22 regular-season record and has led the team into the playoffs in each of his four seasons. In the postseason, he has guided the Ravens to a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances while compiling a 5-4 record in nine starts, including eight on the road. Although his numbers are not very impressive on the playoff stage, he has secured wins under pressure.
Franchise quarterbacks are judged by their ability to get it done when the game is on the line. Ryan has become one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in come-from-behind situations. In his four-year career, he has already engineered 16 game-winning drives, including 11 fourth-quarter comebacks. Part of his success can be attributed to his mastery of the Falcons' no-huddle offense. He efficiently directs traffic at the line of scrimmage and keeps the tempo high. Ryan makes critical plays to sustain and finish drives with the game on the line, and his superb ball placement is routinely the deciding factor in the outcome.
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Flacco has been solid in the clutch, as well. He has directed 11 game-winning drives in four seasons, including six fourth-quarter comebacks, showing tremendous growth as a clutch player. This was apparent in his ability to guide the Ravens down the field on numerous occasions against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Flacco showcased outstanding anticipation, awareness and timing with his receivers in the clutch. The only thing that prevented him from cementing his status as a prime-time performer in the postseason was a Lee Evans drop. With that performance in mind, Flacco is on the verge of being recognized as an elite player.
The debate between Ryan and Flacco is as close as you will find in pro football. Both players have won at a high level as young quarterbacks, and their consistent play has helped their respective franchises contend on an annual basis. I would rather have Ryan as my quarterback due to his ability to run the offense from the line of scrimmage and his history of engineering fourth-quarter comebacks. While I certainly recognize his playoff failures, I believe he is the more consistent playmaker and game manager, which gives him the nod in my mind.