After falling to 4-5, the Ravens’ playoff hopes were dim, and many fans were proclaiming the season to be all but over. Word was that John Harbaugh was on the verge of being fired, and the future looked bleak. What happened next was one of the best finishes in the entire league, as the Ravens went 6-1 with a road win against the Chargers and a close loss in KC. This finish was sparked by rookie QB Lamar Jackson replacing Flacco, and drastically improving the Ravens offense, or at least, that’s what it looked like. Looks can be deceiving. The Ravens offense was not significantly better with Lamar Jackson. Their defense was not significantly better either. The Ravens improved their winning percentage for 2 reasons: they did better in close games and their opponents made more mistakes.
Flacco vs Jackson: Evaluating the Offense
When Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco, the offense underwent a drastic transformation. The Ravens went from a pass heavy team to the most run heavy team in recent memory. The offense began going on long drives and eating up gameclock. For this reason, points per game is not the best way to look at things. Both teams will have more possessions if pass heavy offenses speed up the game, and both offenses will have fewer if they use a ball-control strategy. Individual QB stats are also a bad way of comparing Flacco and Jackson, because of how different their playstyles are, and Jackson’s impact on running back play. The best way to evaluate the offenses is to see how many points they average per possession, as opposed to per game. I used pro football reference to search the data, and to exclude kneeldowns from possessions and defensive scores from points. The final numbers are 2.33 points per possession for Flacco, and 2.29 for Jackson. One could argue that the Flacco offense benefited from unsustainable redzone success, but Jackson’s detractors could point to the strength of the defenses he faced compared to Flacco. Neither quarterback lead significantly more effective offenses: this is too close to call. Its not that Jackson is worse than Flacco, he’s just not clearly better.
Supposed Impact on the Defense
I know what a lot of you might think now: “A good run game controls time of possession, tires out the opponent’s defense, and keeps your defense fresh.” This idea definitely makes sense, which is probably why it is so often repeated by the NFL TV punditry at large. Despite the logic behind this, some quick research will show that the real world results don’t back up the theory. The Ravens allowed 1.58 points per possession with Flacco at QB, and 1.62 with Jackson. Drive for drive, this was essentially the same defense. Even for the NFL as a whole, defenses allowed fewer points per drive in the 4th quarter than they did in the first 3 during 2018, which suggests that fatigue isn’t leading to more points being surrendered. There is not enough evidence to conclude that Lamar Jackson and his run game make the Ravens defense better.
So why’d they go from 4-5 to 10-6?
Their offense didn’t get any better at scoring points. Their defense didn’t get any better at stopping opponents from scoring. It would take extremely good special teams performance to make a noticeable difference in that phase. The remaining explanation is luck: 9 games is not a lot, and sometimes the wins don’t match the talent. The Ravens were a very unlucky team when was Flacco starting, and caught some more breaks when Jackson did. Here is the luck that I am talking about.
Close games: Games decided by 7 points or less are games that could have gone either way. One key play can swing the outcome. If a team won by 2 in week 17, they didn’t necessarily play much better than they did when they lost by 1 in week 7 for example. With Flacco, the Ravens went 0-3 in close games. With Jackson, they went 2-1.
Opponents’ mistakes: Turnovers and missed field goals are two of the main ways that a team can shoot itself in the foot. Usually, an interception is more the result of an ill-advised throw from a QB, rather than exceptional defensive play. Even if it were, there is no reasonable case that Jackson helps the defense force turnovers specifically, without actually lowering their points per possession allowed. The Ravens’ opponents had a combined 9 turnovers and missed field goals in 9 games against Flacco. They had 14 in 7 games against Jackson.
Defensive/special teams touchdowns: These are very uncommon plays that rely just as much on circumstance as on defensive ability. Its not that they don’t take skill to execute, but they’re so uncommon that you can’t tell which teams are truly good at getting them over only 16 games. The Ravens go 0 D/ST touchdowns in 9 games with Flacco. They got 3 in 7 games with Jackson.
So does that mean that the Ravens’ 6-1 run was a fluke? Not really, or at least not by a lot: if their point per drive differential was any indication, they were extremely unlucky to go 4-5 in their first 9 games. 6-1 was probably only a bit above average luck for them.
The main takeaway here is something that most people realize, but can forget when its our rookie excelling: win percent is not a good quarterback stat, and the switch at QB is not the main reason for the turnaround. The Ravens were very unlucky to have gone 4-5, and somewhat lucky to have gone 6-1. The best way to judge a QB is to look at how good he makes his team’s offense. This can be approximated with advanced metrics, or can by arrived at by comparing 2 QBs after a mid-season switch. However you look at it, Lamar Jackson only separates himself from Flacco in win percent. Flacco was just as helpful to the Ravens’ offense.