Inconsistency can't be overlooked
Joe Flacco is not an elite quarterback. He is good, and he has the potential to be very good. But elite quarterbacks are the great ones, and Flacco, now in his fourth season with the Baltimore Ravens, isn't consistent enough to be considered great.
Just look at Flacco's past five games. He has been all over the map. In Week 3 at St. Louis, he threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns, with zero interceptions. The next week against the New York Jets, he misfired on 21 of 31 passes and threw for only 163 yards. Talk about inconsistent: Flacco went two entire quarters without throwing a completion.
That is not elite.
After a bye, Flacco completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 305 yards against Houston. A week later, he threw for 137 yards in a loss to Jacksonville. Then last week, in a rousing comeback against Arizona, Flacco threw for 336.
Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot.
For the season, Flacco has completed a career-low 53.8 percent of his passes, including 46.9 percent in Week 2 at Tennessee, with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Those aren't elite numbers.
Flacco has great size and a big arm and he isn't afraid of contact. He is very good out of the shotgun with short, quick throws. He seems to thrive in a hurry-up situation.
But Flacco is not a drop-back passer. He doesn't lead his receivers, and although he has improved his ability to escape pressure, Flacco usually doesn't do much with the ball once he does. He doesn't turn the ball over in those situations, but he doesn't create plays, either.
Not everybody gets the "elite" status. It is reserved for consistently great players who throw for a lot of yards, have high completion percentages, avoid turnovers and win games. You know them when you see them. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are at the head of the class. Peyton Manning is there when healthy. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Schaub and Philip Rivers, among others, are there, although Rivers is turning the ball over way too much this season. Some young players are making arguments to get into that category, most notably Cam Newton.
Flacco wins games. He is 41-21 since 2008 and is tied with Roethlisberger for the most wins, including the playoffs, in that span.
Flacco is good, potentially very good. He's just not consistent enough to be considered elite.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Don't overemphasize his slump
The timing of this question couldn't be worse, though. Supporting Flacco during the worst throwing slump of his career makes me feel like a slow-footed receiver trying to go out and succeed on (Darrelle) Revis Island. After the Ravens' opening victory over the Steelers, Flacco went on a five-game slump in which he completed only 44 percent of his passes, and his poor first half against the Cardinals on Sunday had Ravens fans ready to run Flacco out of town.
Flacco came back using shotgun formation and spread throwing sets that enabled him to lead the greatest comeback in Ravens history, overcoming a 24-3 deficit in what turned out to be a thrilling 30-27 victory. What first turned me on to Flacco was a 2009 game in which he got into a throwing duel with Brett Favre, then a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
In Minnesota, Flacco generated three fourth-quarter touchdown drives. That forced Favre to counter with a field goal drive that gave the Vikings a lead. Flacco marched the Ravens back into field goal range, but Steven Hauschka missed what should have been the game winner.
To be an elite quarterback, you need to generate fourth-quarter drives. Flacco has that ability. His poor five-game stretch dropped his completion percentage below his usual 60-plus percent range. It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Cam Cameron does now.
During the offseason and in training camp, Cameron talked about turning the offense over to Flacco the way the Steelers turned Ben Roethlisberger into more of a passing quarterback. The Ravens have serious offensive line problems, and using Flacco in shotgun might help.
One criticism of Flacco is that he holds on to the ball too long, but part of that is a wide receiver issue. I've seen games in which the Bengals matched up in man coverage against the Ravens' older group of wide receivers. Against that type of coverage, Flacco had to stand in the pocket and watch receivers not separating from defenders, and then wait until RB Ray Rice or a tight end got open.
General manager Ozzie Newsome tried to help that by trading for Lee Evans and drafting Torrey Smith. Unfortunately for Flacco, Evans has missed most of the season with an ankle injury, and all Smith can do at the moment is run go routes down the sidelines. Against man teams, Flacco doesn't get much help.
The start of Flacco's season may not have been elite, but I'll still stand by him.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.