Joe Flacco's Playoff Run Was Truly Elite (And Colin Kaepernick Was Pretty Good Too)

In January of 1990 -- the 1989 playoffs -- Joe Montana rattled off three straight incredible games. The 49ers legend compiled 800 yards on 65-of-83 passing (78 percent), fired 11 touchdowns and didn't throw a single interception. His five touchdowns and 297 yards paced San Francisco to a 55-10 demolition of John Elway's Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. The performance capped what remains the best postseason ever from a quarterback.

Joe Flacco's January and February of 2013 didn't eclipse Montana's accomplishments, but he arguably came as close as anybody in the 23 years since, and almost certainly closer than any other Super Bowl winner. Flacco did it in one extra game and 43 extra pass attempts, but he matched Montana's playoff record 11 touchdowns (also shared with Kurt Warner in the 2008 season) and zero interceptions. His 1,140 yards rank third all-time, just behind Warner and Eli Manning in last year's playoffs.

We only have WPA and EPA data dating back to the 2000 season, but Flacco's playoff run ranks second in both to Warner, and tops of any Super Bowl winner:

Some notable performances are highlighted; mousing over a dot will reveal the quarterback's identity.

Flacco racked up 1.84 WPA and 49.4 EPA, easily leading all other 2012 playoff participants; his 8.3 AYPA led all quarterbacks as well and his 0.34 EPA/P trailed just Russell Wilson. Only his completion percentage (57.9) lags compared to the rest of the elite playoff performances, but he made up for it with absurd proficiency with the deep ball: at least four completions thrown at least 15 yards down the field per game, and a total of 17 on 35 attempts. These deep balls racked up 561 yards -- nearly half Flacco's playoff total -- on just over a quarter of his attempts.

Colin Kaepernick's playoff performance shouldn't be forgotten despite his club's excruciatingly close loss to Flacco's Ravens. His 33.8 EPA ranks as the tenth highest playoff mark since 2000. His 9.98 YPA is the highest ever from a quarterback in his first or second year in the NFL, and he added 25 rushes for 264 yards (10.6 per carry) on top. His seven total touchdowns trail just Ben Roethlisberger (nine in 2004), Kurt Warner (eight as a 28 year old in 1999) and Dan Marino (eight in 1984). All three threw at least three interceptions; Kaepernick navigated his three games with just two picks.

Both quarterbacks seem poised to lead their respective teams for years to come. Kaepernick fully justified Jim Harbaugh's decision to replace Alex Smith midseason, and Joe Flacco is in position to garner one of the richest quarterback deals of all time.

Is Flacco really an elite quarterback now? Even including his stellar playoffs, he still ranks no greater than fifth in any of the following Advanced NFL Stats efficiency/win probability categories: WPA (6th), EPA (11th), WPA per game (9th), EPA per play (12th), and AYPA (5th).

But perhaps I protest to much. Joe Flacco was definitely elite for the month where it counts the most. Regardless of how the rest of his career goes, his run through the 2012 playoffs will live on as one of the best months of quarterback play the NFL has ever seen.

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17 Responses to “Joe Flacco's Playoff Run Was Truly Elite (And Colin Kaepernick Was Pretty Good Too)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Do the WPA or EPA correlate to the number of games played? Does a first round bye hinder your ability to hit the tops of these charts? Are the stats adjusted for EPA/gm, or is that not even a relevant question for this statistic?

  2. Anonymous says:

    When are we going to see games before 2000

  3. Anonymous says:

    Colin K. is an option QB. None of these types will ever win Super Bowls compared to traditionals like Flacco and Rodgers. Look-- the only reason Niners got as close as they did was because they had a solid D finally supported with the offense this year. But falling behind early in big games doesn't always mean you can catch up which proves again will people start whining next year when Colin plays a full year and there is more than one blowout in the mix. And the D mainly built by a guy named Mike Nolan.

  4. Mike says:

    Nice visual, Jack. I'm not seeing Tom Brady in this year's playoffs.

    Looking at these same charts for Flacco during past regular seasons, he certainly wasn't among the elite. Seems he got good/lucky at the right time.

  5. James says:

    While your conclusion is definitely true, haven't we shown that "EPA per play (12th)" is the most important aspect when determining Flacco's future performance? I'd be leery of a big contract if I was a Ravens fan.

    I'd also like to see the same charts with per play or per game options.

  6. Alex says:

    Nice article, but I agree with James and anon1: please adjust these stats and charts to a per game or per play basis. The fact that some of these QBs played 4 games and some 3 is simply too important to ignore. Think about it, the best QBs would tend to have gotten a bye, but then only have 3 games to rack up EPA and WPA in these charts. For example, 2007 E. Manning (4 games) vs Brady (3 games); Manning is ahead in WPA, but would fall behind if adjusted to WPA/Game.

  7. Anonymous says:

    small sample size.

    i bet two of the biggest plays in the entire offseason were the pop flys he launched that scored 2 long TDs against the broncos. Next year, throws like that will be picked off.

  8. Peter Harris says:

    Great work as always, but there's an error in the y axis of the EPA graph: 2010 is listed above 2011 instead of below?

    This is the first time I've visited the page since Saturday. I couldn't bear to follow the page on Sunday or visit it since :(

    Heartbroken 49er.

  9. Ian Simcox says:

    Liking the vis. Now is it just me or does it seem to lean a little to the right, as though if you fitted a parallelogram around the data points, your best fit would come from a right-leaning one rather than a straight up rectangle?

    Looks like more evidence, if any were needed, of the fact that offenses are moving the ball better every season.

  10. Eric Moore says:

    Anonymous #3 - an option quarterback came within 5 yards of winning the Super Bowl this year. Did you watch? It was a pretty entertaining game.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Joe Flacco was 12th in WPA and 15th in EPA among quarterbacks this year. Hardly elite. Because of great play in play in playoffs this year he will sign a 20 million dollar contract
    whao nelly

  13. Brett says:

    Looks like Rex Grossman was by far the worst quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl since 2000, and probably one of the worst ever. No real surprise there, but it's pretty amazing he managed to contribute -32.5 EPA in just 3 playoff games and win 2 of them. Props to the D.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Question about WP. If a team scores, it assumes that that team is better than if it didn't score, which increases the WP. Is it possible to separate WP from having scored more points, from WP from the probability of being a superior team, as evidenced by having scored more points?

  15. Anonymous says:

    The Ravens made a lot of changes to their offensive line at the end of the year. With a good line Flacco can be elite. If I wrote up a scouting report on the guy it would read, "accurate thrower, strong arm, but slow." He needs the line more then most, but given the time he is a great thrower, especially deep.

  16. MIKE M says:

    Flacco claims the new offensive cordinator got the plays in much quicker which gave him more time to read the defenses.

  17. bigmouth says:

    I dunno... Flacco was clearly playing out of his mind. That part is undeniable. But it seems to me anyone can get hot in the playoffs. How predictive of future success is such a small sample?

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