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It’s Time to Call Flacco An Elite QB

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco reacts after throwing a five-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco reacts after throwing a five-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Foxborough, Mass. — Maybe we need some ground rules here. Some basic parameters. Nothing too fancy, nothing that requires a Ph.D. in advanced football science. Just, you know, a signed legal document so we all know where we stand on this whole “elite quarterback” thing.

Because — and you’re not going to be able to escape this for the next few weeks — are you prepared to live in a world where Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback?

That’s where we’re headed, you know, now that Flacco’s Ravens beat Tom Brady’s Patriots 28-13 here in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

“I’m so glad we’re going to the Super Bowl right now so people can get off Joe’s back,” Ravens receiver Torrey Smith is saying amid the dancing of a wild postgame locker room. “He led us there.”

Flacco Is Now An Elite Quarterback is the easy story, the one that many will run with now, but it’s just not that simple. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. There are layers here that we all must think about, especially back in Kansas City.

For parts of the NFL — and they know who they are — up is now down, left is now right, and a guy some of us have spent the last few years calling mediocre and making “flaccid” jokes about has now beaten Peyton Manning and Brady in back-to-back road playoff games.

Brady had a halftime lead 67 times in this building before Sunday, and he won every one of them. But Flacco threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions and sent Brady home sad — another way of saying Flacco just put it on one of the greatest quarterbacks in the sport’s history.

This is Flacco, who many Ravens fans were tired of as recently as yesterday, now in position to win his first Super Bowl at a younger age than Phil Simms, Steve Young and Peyton Manning. A year after Eli Manning did it, Flacco becomes the second quarterback to draw giggles from audience by calling himself elite only to follow through with a Super Bowl appearance.

That will be enough for some of you. Many of you, perhaps. Flacco has won 54 regular-season games since coming into the league five years ago (more than Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers over the same time) and is the first quarterback in league history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. He’s now outplayed Brady in two straight AFC title games. If the NFL is about winning and quarterbacks, we shouldn’t need much more.

Young had that famous moment on the sideline at the end of Super Bowl XXIX where his teammates yanked the imaginary monkey off his back. Maybe Flacco is two weeks from his moment.

So, elite?

“He is one of the elite quarterbacks,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory says. “I know he gets a lot of flak for not being that type of guy, but he is.”

Then again, this is a quarterback who has never thrown for more than 3,817 yards or 25 touchdowns or fewer than 10 interceptions. Passer rating has its limitations, but Flacco was 12th this year — sandwiched between Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton — between Jake Locker and Michael Vick.

So, mediocre?

“He understands what is there,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty says. “What he can do and what he can’t do.”

Thing is, maybe there’s a third answer. One that makes more sense, even if it’s not as simple as some artificial “elite” title.

Maybe Flacco is a very good quarterback, but not a great one. Dangerous on deep balls, but less so on shorter routes. Maybe he’s one of the 10 or so best at football’s most important position, and maybe that’s enough when he gets to throw to Smith and Anquan Boldin and hand the ball to Ray Rice.

Maybe the NFL pendulum is so wildly in favor of passing offense that the Ravens could be in the top 10 of scoring without a guy who makes the Patriots, Saints, Packers — or, heck, even the Broncos, Giants or 49ers — jealous.

Maybe in the rush to declare the absolute need for an elite quarterback or the slobbering over young studs like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin we should recognize the NFL’s rules and culture have opened the door to offensive success wide enough for more players and teams to walk through.

At the very least, this changes the landscape in which the Chiefs hold the NFL’s first overall draft pick for the first time in franchise history. The Ravens took Flacco 18th overall in what was generally regarded as a weak draft for quarterbacks five years ago. They’ll play the 49ers, who two years ago made Colin Kaepernick the sixth quarterback drafted .

So if there is one, maybe this is the lesson of Super Bowl XLVII for the Chiefs. Your quarterback needs to be much better than Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn, of course, but not necessarily as good as Rodgers or Brady.

He just needs to be better than most, which today is good enough for the NFL’s rising tides to lift him to a debate about whether he’s elite and, more importantly, lift a talented team to the Super Bowl.