By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Denver Broncos not long ago were kings of the AFC, standing toe-to-toe with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots every year. But then, after winning Super Bowl 50, Peyton Manning retired. And things went a bit south.
Now, the Broncos are set to make a move to revive the franchise, restoring their greatness, and getting them back to the promised land.
They’re … wait, no, this can’t be right. Hang on, let me double-check this. Oh. Oh, dear. Oh my. Well, OK.
Turns out they’re going out and getting Joe Flacco.
Adam Schefter reported Wednesday that the Broncos are going to go ahead and trade for Flacco, who became pretty available recently for a couple of reasons. First, the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson late in the first round last year, and he’s a fun quarterback. Second — and this might be the bigger reason — is that Flacco has been arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL for the past six seasons.
That’s not hyperbole. Last April, Jason Lisk at The Big Lead noted that among the 33 quarterbacks who threw at least 800 passes from 2013-17, Flacco ranked dead last in yards per attempt, touchdown pass percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, net yards per pass attempt, and adjusted net yards per pass attempt. He ranked second-to-last in passer rating (beating out the esteemed Blake Bortles).
Lisk wrote: “[In 2017], he averaged 5.7 yards per pass attempt. Let’s put that in some perspective. Ryan Leaf’s career yards per attempt was 5.6, and JaMarcus Russell’s was 6.0.”
The 2018 season didn’t get much better for Flacco. He improved some, but he completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 2,465 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, leading the Ravens to a 4-5 record before suffering a hip injury. Jackson started in Flacco’s place, and Flacco never played again. The Ravens went 6-1 with Jackson as the starter.
Even in the Ravens’ lone playoff game, when Jackson struggled mightily, head coach John Harbaugh didn’t turn to Flacco and all of his postseason experience. Many speculated that the coach didn’t want to hurt Jackson’s confidence for the long term; it’s equally possible that Harbaugh simply knew that Flacco wouldn’t make anything better.
And now, Flacco will head off to Denver, which has been a wasteland for quarterbacks, even when including Manning’s final season.
In 2015, when Denver had a tremendous defense, they got the following production from the Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler duo: 60.7 percent passing, 4,216 yards, 19 touchdowns, 23 interceptions. Ay, caramba!
In 2016, the Broncos handed the keys over to the legendary duo of Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Amazingly, this plan from John Elway did not work out all that well; they completed under 60 percent of their passes, throwing a combined 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions across an entire season. The team went 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years,
They missed the playoffs. That’s bad. Even Tim Tebow could get the Broncos to the playoffs. Even Tim Tebow could win a playoff game.
Things got worse in 2017, when new head coach Vance Joseph had to try to utilize that famed Siemian/Lynch duo while ALSO bringing back the mythic Osweiler into the picture. Those three Hall of Famers combined to complete 58.7 percent of their passes, which in the modern NFL is almost impossible to do. Together, they threw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. With the defense still ranking highly in yards allowed but falling to the bottom third of the league in points allowed, the Broncos went just 5-11, of course missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
One might imagine that entering 2018, the Broncos would really focus on fixing the problem and finding the right quarterback to lead that team back to where it wants to be: playing for an AFC title every single season.
One would be wrong to do that, though. Because the Broncos went out and got Case Keenum.
Now, Casey Austin Keenum was coming off a career year with the Vikings, who as a team enjoyed their most success since 1998. Yet it spoke volumes that even after going 13-3 and reaching the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings had absolutely no desire to keep Keenum as their quarterback, instead opting to invest 500 billion dollars (roughly) in Kirk Cousins.
Lo and behold, after completing 67.6 percent of his passes in 2017, Keenum’s completion rate dropped to 62.3 with Denver.
After averaging 7.4 yards per attempt in 2017, Keenum’s average dropped to 6.1 with Denver.
And after posting a TD-to-INT ratio in 2017 that was better than 3-to-1, Keenum threw 18 touchdowns and 15 picks with Denver.
The Broncos went 6-10.
No playoffs. Again. For the third straight year.
Clearly, the quarterback position has been a major, major weakness for the Broncos, dating back four years. They were able to overcome the deficiency in 2015, thanks to a world-class, dominant defense. As that defense has come back to Earth, the fortunes of the team have crumbled.
But fear not, because Joe Flacco will be coming to save the day.
On the positive side, the Broncos did bring in Vic Fangio as the head coach. And if he can get that Denver defense to play at a level similar to the way Fangio had Chicago’s defensive unit humming last year, then it’s possible that the Broncos can get back to winning with just a middling quarterback under center. Flacco has proven to be Super Bowl-caliber while playing mostly mediocre football.
But even that Flacco hasn’t been around for five years. That Flacco averaged 7.2 yards per attempt, something he did just once (2014) in the years that followed. That Flacco threw more than two touchdowns for every interception thrown, something he’s also done just once (2014) in the years that followed.
Basically, when Flacco was the mediocre quarterback who got hot in the playoffs and led his team to a championship, he was 27 years old and at his absolute peak. Since then, he’s had one more good season (2014) and five sub-par seasons.
The Broncos have to hope that somehow, some way, the 34-year-old Flacco manages to find a way tap into that mediocre magic that graced him in 2012 and 2014. At the very least, the Broncos ought to plan on having their wide receivers practice extra hard in the spring and summer when it comes to drawing pass interference penalties, because Flacco’s Vortex-esque rainbows might be their best offensive option.
But given their track record of quarterback assessment recently, and given that Flacco’s coming off four straight seasons of substandard play, that may not be something for which many folks in the greater Denver area will want to hold their breath.
The Broncos haven’t made the playoffs since 2015. Flacco hasn’t played in the postseason since 2014. How or why Elway sees this as a solution remains a bit of a question mark, but this does appear to be a match made in heaven.