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02 Jan 2018

Any Given Sunday: Bengals Over Ravens

by Rivers McCown

The Baltimore Ravens have finished in the top six in defensive DVOA and special teams DVOA each of the last two seasons. In 2017, Baltimore dug out Alex Collins and watched him finish among the top five running backs in rushing DVOA. That's the kind of found money that can make a big difference for a team in the playoff chase, even if they only got him for a shade over 200 carries. Teams like, say, the Seattle Seahawks would kill to have a back as effective as Collins was this year. (I enjoy a good knife twist.)

The Ravens have zero playoff appearances to show for it after Sunday's devastating loss to the Bengals. The reason is fairly obvious: the cognitive dissonance between the organization's respect for Joe Flacco and his actual performance.

Public relations as media is now a powerful industry. Stories from both the Baltimore Sun and the Ravens' official website led with the idea that the Ravens were crushed, that this was a gut-wrenching and surprising loss. The Sun story made it 13 paragraphs before getting to Flacco, after John Harbaugh and Marty Mornhinweg. And even then, it only mentioned in passing that the Ravens are locked into him but should possibly consider drafting a replacement soon, and buffered that statement by saying that Flacco was better in the second half of the season. The official Ravens story did not mention Flacco at all beyond a reference to the "Flacco Era." It didn't even attribute the pick-six Flacco threw to anyone, since it apparently just happened by chance. ESPN's Ravens reporter did not mention Flacco in his game story until the third-to-last paragraph. To be fair, he does mention Flacco's poor play in his season review (paragraph 11 of 13) with the same caveat that a long-term replacement should be on the agenda.


The Ravens have every right to shackle themselves to Flacco's broken career and pretend that it's about everyone else. That the offensive coordinator they're bringing back is to blame, and that there aren't enough playmakers around Flacco. Those aren't even untrue statements. It's not like Baltimore's affection for Flacco negatively impacts anyone but their organization and their fans. But at some point we should accept the truth that Flacco has played like a replacement-level quarterback for four of the last five seasons. Joe Flacco is not elite. Joe Flacco is not acceptable. Joe Flacco is bad.

Joe Flacco did not allow the Bengals to convert fourth-and-season for a game-winning touchdown. But he is to blame for averaging 4.3 yards per attempt. The Ravens scored 10 points in the first half, and those came on a pair of drives that combined to go for 12 yards. Flacco threw behind Chris Moore, enabling the bobbled pick-six to happen. On Baltimore's first long scoring drive of the game, Flacco completed three passes to running backs for 16 yards. The Ravens targeted an astounding 26 passes at Cincinnati over the short middle of the field, to an area where the Bengals were missing all of their starters and were down to Vincent Rey and UDFA Hardy Nickerson Jr. at linebacker. Baltimore averaged 5.7 yards per attempt on those passes. And that was the successful part of the pass offense. Given the ball with 44 seconds and three timeouts left, the Ravens went four-and-out.

In his stretch of "improved play" after the bye, here's where Flacco ranked league-wide. I'll even conveniently set aside this meltdown to cherry-pick the best argument the Ravens have.

The Great Flacco Caper
Timeframe DVOA
Weeks 11-16 10.0% (17th)
Weeks 1-10, 17 -13.9% (29th)

Some quarterback situations that had a better DVOA than non-Week 11-16 Flacco did: the non-Jimmy G 49ers; the three-headed monster in Denver; and even Jay Cutler. And the absolute upside that the Ravens are promised by putting up with those games is average quarterback play driven by low-turnover games.


Flacco has finished with negative DYAR three times in five years, and in one of those years he didn't, 2015, he finished with 17 DYAR. The complete list of quarterbacks who generated negative DYAR in two of those years, with more than 400 pass attempts in each negative year is: Joe Flacco and Cam Newton. Newton has legs, an MVP award, and a history of electric throws. Flacco has an above-average stretch of play under Gary Kubiak and four years of being a pumpkin.

For some reason it's verboten to criticize Flacco in Baltimore. It's the sort of thing where -- pardon the political trek -- certain viewpoints never get aired publicly because they aren't considered "serious" by the establishment.

If I were running the team, I'd draft a quarterback early and have a camp battle. That might not be a "serious" solution, but some teams care about winning, and others care about the legacy of their former franchise quarterback. Prayers up for Steve Bisciotti as he figures out how to count the money. The Ravens remain a team with an absolute upside of 1990s playoff team in the 2010s.

Where the Game Swung

The Bengals put this game in a delightfully boring chokehold early, kicking a field goal with 23 seconds left in the quarter to take what looked like a 17-3 lead to halftime. However, Moore bailed the Ravens out with an 87-yard return right up the gut, then caught a Flacco touchdown pass on the next play to cut the lead to seven.

Flacco answered the fortune with misfortune, putting the ball behind Moore and having it result in the aforementioned pick-six after Darqueze Dennard snapped it up:

Per EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance, the pick-six increased Cincinnati's chances of winning by 24.3%.

The Ravens scored 17 unanswered by running the ball better and getting underneath yardage on two linebackers with little range. Cincinnati, at this point, had punted the ball or ended the half on their last four possessions, accounting for a total of 11 yards over that span. Despite starting at his own 10 with 2:48 to play, Andy Dalton dink-and-dunked the Bengals down the field. However, in Baltimore territory for the first time in the second half, A.J. Green committed an illegal motion penalty to put the Bengals at first-and-15. Two incomplete passes and a dumpoff later, fourth-and-12 for the playoffs, Dalton threw a strike to Tyler Boyd in zone coverage.

Maurice Canady couldn't recover in time to stop the touchdown, and the Ravens coughed up their playoff hopes at home to a team with a -12.5% DVOA. That play was, obviously, worth a lot of GWC: 90.1%.

By the VOA

CIN 34.5% -7.7% -24.3% 17.9%
BAL -16.1% 17.3% 25.8% -7.6%
CIN 21.8% -13.1% -24.3% 10.6%
BAL -7.6% 10.3% 25.8% 7.9%

The Ravens came close to winning this game all because of special teams. They started three of their five scoring drives in Cincinnati territory and had two other drives start nearly at midfield (At the Baltimore 39 and 44, respectively). The only time the Bengals started a drive beyond the Cincy 28 was when Flacco turned it over on downs to end the game.

When Family Goes Wrong

One of my many wrong predictions this season was assuming that the Bengals could overcome some fairly glaring issues in pass protection and make the playoffs. In fairness, I wasn't wrong about my assessment of the rest of the AFC playoff picture. I thought most of the non-Pittsburgh and New England teams would struggle, and that a team with a weak schedule like Cincinnati could overcome its concerns. Other than Deshaun Watson's six games, Kansas City's hot start on offense, and the Jaguars defense becoming a pulverizing cloud, I think you could argue that nothing unexpectedly good happened to any AFC team this year. Seven of the bottom nine in DVOA were from the conference.

Our projections at the start of the season actually oversold the Bengals on offense as well. My confidence in their rookie class didn't go very far in Year 1 after the Bengals mercy-killed John Ross's season and placed Tyler Eifert on IR early, leaving them with little NFL-ready passing game talent outside of A.J. Green.

And, simply put, Andy Dalton has always been woeful under pressure. Dalton's DVOA dropped -132.6% under pressure in 2016, which ranked 28th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks. While we don't have this calculated just yet for 2017, we know the rate of pressure Dalton took increased. The Bengals finished eighth in pressure percentage allowed in 2016, at 22.8 percent. In 2017, they allowed pressure on 29.4 percent of their snaps. Even this somewhat undersells things given how quickly the Bengals switched to Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator and had to retool their offense on the fly. Dalton looked skittish all season as a result. Tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi continued to be bad.

The Bengals have a tendency under owner Mike Brown to not want to make changes. Changes, you see, cost money. And while most of the time I'm willing to give owners the benefit of the doubt on a direction, it can't be disputed how little the Bengals have spent, especially in upfront money, compared to the rest of the league. They, more than anyone, are a team that relies on breaking in young talent. It's why a lot of what Cincinnati does feels like it's from bizarro land, and why I compared them to a family in their FOA 2017 chapter. Marvin Lewis may leave, and the only person bandied about as a real candidate to succeed him (through Monday night) is defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

So, for Cincy's sake, here's hoping there are some good offensive linemen in the draft. Because the only way to fix what ails Dalton is the confidence of knowing he's not going to be under immediate pressure. If they'd had that this year, they might have been in the playoffs as well.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 02 Jan 2018

18 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2018, 6:09pm by Hoodie_Sleeves


by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 12:39pm

"it can't be disputed how little the Bengals have spent, especially in upfront money, compared to the rest of the league. "

This is just lazy.

The cap runs in 4 year chunks (2013-2016 being the last one), where teams have to spend 89% of the total cap allotment in cash.

The average team spent $544M. The Bengals spent $567M. Only 7 teams spent more (Bills, Dolphins, Chiefs, Broncos, Eagles, Seahawks, Packers).

They've been cheap as hell with front office staff, but not with players.

by jonnyblazin :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 12:41pm

A brutal but deserved takedown of Flacco. Ravens would be wise to move on from Harbaugh as well, who is Flacco's biggest supporter.

by JimZipCode :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 12:53pm

Harbaugh is the biggest supporter of any Ravens player. He talks like his commitment is absolute, but he ALWAYS talks that way. I'm not sure Harbaugh is really an obstacle, to the Ravens getting a viable alternative at QB onto the team.

Put another way: you'd be Flacco's biggest supporter too, if your backup QB was Ryan Mallet.

by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:25pm

Didn't Harbaugh want to bring in Kaepernick? I thought it was the owner who vetoed that one.

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 4:38pm

Yes. Harbaugh was quoted saying that Kaepernick : "You just have to figure all that stuff out and see what’s best for your team. I guess the question was, when you start with ‘How good of a football player is this?’ Absolutely, good enough football player to be here. That’s where you start, for sure"

Biscotti has made a couple comments about 'not protesting the right way' and then they signed a guy who played arena football.

Biscotti also said "I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what’s best for the fans. Your opinions matter to us, and we couldn’t get a consensus on it in [this room] either."

by JimZipCode :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:24pm

Kaepernick's girlfriend compounded the matter, when she posted that pic comparing the owner and Ray Lewis to Dicapprio and Samuel L from Django. That ended it: Ravens couldn't bring in Kaep at that point.

Too bad, would have made a lot of things much easier this season.

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:49pm

I think the decision had already been made at that point - but she surely didn't help anything.

Frankly - Biscotti holding Kaepernick accountable for the actions of someone he associates with - while associating with Ray Lewis, is pretty disingenuous. Then again, when you're rich, you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want.

The image was on point.

by JimZipCode :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 12:50pm

Brutal on Flacco, not necessarily unwarranted, but blaming Flacco for the bobbled pick-6 takes the piece from "convincing" to "sounds like a hit job". Would make its case more strongly by backing off on the pick-6, from "Flacco caused it" to something like, "even the bobbled pick-6, Flacco is not blameless, it was not a well-thrown ball, forcing the receiver to reach behind him."

That editorial advice is coming from a Ravens fan who wants to link other fans to this piece.

by greybeard :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:11pm

I fully agree with the article on how bad Flacco has been. But I also found that blaming the pick-6 entirely on Flacco is a bit much. It was a bad throw but had the receiver caught the ball it would not be surprising. He could have dropped it to ground instead of bobbling it to the defense, or after the interception someone could have stopped the defense from scoring, or TE could have slowed the DE little bit better allowing Flacco to throw the ball better.

by Mike Y :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 1:18pm

Was the Bengals touchdown the biggest GWC swing ever? It has to be up there, right? And that single play could be the biggest single swing of a playoff chance I'm sure.

by Travis :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 1:26pm

Has to be the Josh McCown-Nate Poole pass, which came on a last-play 4th and 24 and swung the 2003 Vikings' chances from (100% - chances of converting a Hail Mary) to zero.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 2:48pm

Did he get that foot down or did they rule it a forceout? (Watching w/o audio)

by Travis :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:33pm

They ruled it a forceout (you can see #89, Craig Wrolstad, make the signal). This wouldn't be a touchdown in 2017.

by big10freak :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 3:39pm

For all the deserved criticism tossed at Flacco it was the Ravens defense, the strength of the team and best in the , that coughed up the lead in an extraordinary way.

To quote Gus Johnson, simply shocking!!

by JimZipCode :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:33pm

That's been the story of the Ravens with Dean Pees as coordinator. Deano gets a lot of love nationally, and I think from Schatz, but he has not been able to hold leads. The two Pittsburgh losses this season; the Christmas loss to Pittsburgh last season; remember the loss to the Patriots in the 2014 playoffs. The Ravens D has been un-clutch, has come up small in every big end-of-game situation against a good team, basically since Pees became the coordinator.

I suppose you could point to the goalline stand in the 2012 Super Bowl as a counter-example. But the Niners just waltzed down the field in the 4th quarter and esp the last 2 mins, and I think the Ravens got a little lucky with the officiating on the final Niners pass.

by duh :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:38pm

There wasn't much love for him in New England either by the end of his stay. I seem to remember the general fan perception was that folks were glad he was moving on.

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 6:09pm

The defense got worse every year he was there - and they seemed to have a penchant for playing way off receivers in short yardage situations (and I remember a couple of occurances of BB on the field screaming at cornerbacks to try and get them to move forward). Blaming him was somewhat reasonable.

They haven't really gotten any better since he left though - at least according to DVOA. They allow less points though, So who knows.

by nickd46 :: Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:10pm

"Teams like, say, the Seattle Seahawks would kill to have a back as effective as Collins was this year."

Too soon.