Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Joe Flacco

In Best of CDH, Football on August 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm

If Joe Flacco did not exist, Kevin Van Valkenburg would want to invent him.

Van Valkenburg is a sportswriter at the Baltimore Sun, a wonderful writer who represents almost everything a sportswriter should be. He writes long, he thinks about issues, he is not afraid of new-fangled stats or countercultural ideas and he challenges his readers as much as possible. If it were not for his most recent take on Joe Flacco, he would be perfect, or at least as close to perfection as the Baltimore Sun comes these days.

Writing about the recent torrent of criticism Flacco was received from national members of the press, as well as some fellow players, Van Valkenburg writes:

“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.”

Van Valkenburg goes on to moderate between the two arguments. No, Van Valkenburg says, Flacco is not the reincarnation of Kyle Boller. He should not have been benched for Troy Smith or traded for a fifth-round draft pick. On the other hand, Flacco is not in the class of Phillip Rivers or Aaron Rodgers as well. He is an average quarterback, Van Valkenburg argues, albeit one who inspires a large amount of debate.

His thesis is hardly surprising. What is puzzling, however, is Van Valkenburg’s surprise at the amount of discourse Flacco inspires.

As Van Valkenburg notes, Flacco is pretty much a blank slate, at least in comparison to most modern athletes. He does not seek out national endorsements. He has not, and probably never will, appear on a reality show. Although he is the greatest quarterback in the Ravens’ short history as a franchise, most fans, myself included, know as little about his life away from the field as they did on the day he was drafted. Hell, he got married a week ago and no one heard a word about it until a couple of days later.

All of this makes Flacco the greatest of all possible subjects for sportswriters like Van Valkenburg because he is a blank canvas. He is a Rorschach test, a Matisse painting, an undecipherable passage in a Yeats poem. We, as fans, do not understand Joe Flacco so we turn to people like Van Valkenburg to interrupt his meaning, his value, in the world of the NFL quarterback.

The problem lies in the fact that any interpretation reveals as much about the interpreter as it does the subject. Criticism, almost invariably, is subjective, especially in sports. Yes, statistics at least try to tell some sort of objective truth. But fans and media people alike have almost unilaterally decided that the true measure of a quarterback lies somewhere beyond the reach of statistical analysis.

The qualities that determine a good quarterback then, the qualities that cannot be measured by statistics, are ultimately subjective. How clutch is a quarterback, or how does he respond under pressure? Is he a good leader? Does he improvise well? Can he manage a game when he has to or, even better, can he make something out of nothing when everything falls apart?

Often sportswriters answer these questions based on the context clues they gather from a quarterback’s off-the-field persona. Peyton Manning is a good leader because he appears affable and gregarious in television commercials with Jim Nantz. You can tell Tom Brady is cool under pressure by the way he stands on the sidelines.

Flacco, because he is so abstract, offers none of these type of clues, forcing sportswriters and fans to project whatever image they want on him. Take, for example, Van Valkenburg’s weekly blog post about the Ravens from last year. Here is, in chronological order, every single comment he made about Joe Flacco’s confidence in his weekly observations:

The next time Joe Flacco throws an interception, he’ll be less likely to dwell on it because he’ll have the confidence the defense will bail him out. That didn’t always happen last year…

But he never really seemed to have the kind of confidence in himself that you see in elite quarterbacks, and his mechanics were often stiff and awkward. He wasn’t consistently great, or even consistently good, but he had his moments that made you believe he was the guy

It’s not like he has the kind of swagger that could be easily regained if Bulger’s stint didn’t work out.

But I still think this mattered a ton for his confidence. The Ravens like to tell you he doesn’t care and doesn’t pay attention to anything anyone says about him, and maybe that’s true.

But he needed this game, personally, if only to slay the ghosts of last week

Did you see Flacco’s euphoric howl after the touchdown? Don’t believe for a second this was just another good win, no more important than any of his career. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, that was a barbaric yawp that could be heard over the rooftops of the world — including those back in Baltimore.

If Flacco really does have the freedom to audible, I wonder if he has the confidence to do so.

Flacco played, for three quarters, one of his best games as a Raven if you consider his footwork, his mechanics, the situation, and the way he was reading the field. But everything they did in the fourth quarter and overtime felt hesitant. Nervous. Tentative

Perhaps the next step in Flacco’s maturation will be to know when to trust his own eyes, and not Cameron’s.

Fair enough. Give Flacco credit for putting it on himself. I love that he’s always accountable like that, because that’s what leaders do.

But Flacco never seemed phased when he took a few licks, which is a good sign.

Football is an emotional game. Players get heated, then calm down. It’s not always a sign of strife. It also means Flacco isn’t afraid to get right back in the face of a dominant personality like Mason.

I’m sure Harbaugh and his staff will keep grinding away, probably working close to 20 hours a day, trying every last trick they can think of to get this team to play to its potential. Ray Lewis will give dramatic speeches, Joe Flacco will try to look calm and unflappable,

It turns out Joe Flacco does call audibles.

Let’s get a shovel and bury the question about whether Joe Flacco cares enough. And then let’s bury the shovel

Joe Flacco still plays jittery in big moments. In fact, “Joe Cool” may be one of the least appropriate nicknames in sports right now

This was the first playoff game of Joe Flacco’s career where I really felt like he really took control of the game.

If you watch tape of Flacco this season, one of the things that stands out the most is he still doesn’t trust himself to make the kind of throws you have to make to win games against the best teams.

But to win a championship, you need a quarterback who is both talented and fearless.

In fairness to Van Valkenburg, these observations were often accompanied by really trenchant analysis of the mechanics of Flacco’s game; his footwork, his struggles with zone coverage, his propensity to move sideways in the pocket as opposed to stepping forward at times. Those points are salient and, as is the case with young and average quarterbacks, are often consistent week to week.

But notice how Flacco’s confidence and demeanor seem to change almost on a bi-weekly basis. Some weeks he does not have the swagger to be an elite quarterback, other weeks he is letting out a barbaric yelp to the heavens. Some weeks he is too meek to call an audible, other weeks he is getting in the face of referees and teammates. Whereas Van Valkenburg’s analysis of Flacco’s mechanics is deliberate and consistent, showing the gradual process of a developing quarterback on a weekly basis, his analysis of Flacco’s mental state is schizophrenic and disjointed, with Van Valkenburg often seeing something one week, only to have that thing disappear the week after.

Professional athletes, like actors or politicians, rarely lack for confidence at the highest levels. Since the age of six, most athletes have existed in a world where their athletic gifts have been greater than those of their peers and have guided them to the best teams, schools, benefits available to someone of their prodigious talents.

Take Flacco, for example. He played for an unremarkable high school team, yet he was unworried about earning a spot at the University of Pittsburgh. He presumably wanted to play in the NFL, yet he had enough confidence in himself to transfer to Delaware despite knowing that Division I-AA quarterbacks are rarely held in the same regard as Division-I prospects. Hell, he wanted to try out for the Delaware baseball team after his junior season despite having not played baseball since high school. For most of his life, Joe Flacco’s athletic talents have let him accomplish whatever he wanted with very little track record of failure. So why would he lack in confidence?

Flacco’s confidence, at least in how it relates to his on-field performance, seems a construct created by fans and media alike to explain why he cannot do certain things other quarterbacks can. Van Valkenburg is correct that Flacco seems to struggle with reading coverage. But what does this fact have to do with confidence, except as an explanation for the un-understandable.

And therein lies the reason why Joe Flacco inspires such debate. Because Flacco is such a blank slate, fans and media are free to project any image on him that they desire. For diehard Ravens fans, those who have been through the Stoney Case/Anthony Wright years, Flacco represents an elite quarterback because they so desperately want their favorite team to have a quarterback of that caliber. For detractors, fans who have watched Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady seemingly single-handedly win games against the Ravens over the years, Flacco represents failure because he does not possess those qualities. Forget the good qualities he does possess; for those fans, quarterbacks are only valued if they are far and awy the best player on the field. Anything less is akin to being Kyle Boller, thus Flacco is a failure.

And for the media, Flacco is a blank slate to project what they want to see out of a quarterback. The media generally likes struggle, a person fighting against themselves as well as outsiders in order to overcome adversity. Writers also tend to admire grace under pressure, perhaps in a misguided attempt to ape Ernest Hemingway, and thus base most forms of achievement around confidence or clutchness.

Joe Flacco inspires such spirited debate because he is the great unknown. Quarterbacks like Manning or Brady are boring because so much of what they do, and so much of who they are, has come to be expected. They are the sun rising in the east every morning. Wars are never fought on what we know will happen but rather on things like ideals and principles, things which are much harder to define and which do not easily manifest themselves to us.

People fight over Joe Flacco because instead of being a quarterback, he has become an ideal of what we value in both an athlete and in ourselves. If he didn’t exist, we would have invented him.

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