Ravens coach John Harbaugh defends his opinion that Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in the NFL. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Eleven NFL quarterbacks broke the 4,000 yard plateau this year, with Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill becoming the 50th quarterback in league history to reach that milestone.
Joe Flacco was just 14 yards shy of 4,000, leaving a somewhat maddening number of what-ifs that could have put the Ravens' quarterback over that milestone.
Flacco finished the season a respectable 12th in the NFL in pass yardage with 3,986 yards, a career high and the second most passing yards in single-season team history behind Vinny Testaverde's 4,177 in 1996. Toward the end of the season, Flacco was lauded for his command of the offense, but obviously his playoff stats don't count here.
So, a 4,000-yard season proved just out of reach for a variety of reasons that could have — and by many statistics, should have — been prevented. A combination of run-pass balance, penalties, and drops all kept Flacco below that mark.
The first main contributing factor was the success of the Ravens' running game, especially late in games. In Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Flacco threw infrequently and not down the field in a game when the Ravens dominated on the ground. Ditto for Week 6 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when Flacco threw just six times in the second half after entering the break 15 of 22 for 245 yards and five touchdowns.
The Ravens also threw infrequently on either side of the bye, though for different reasons. In Week 10 against the Tennessee Titans, Flacco threw 27 times for 167 yards, and the team did most of its running in the second half. Flacco was picking up big chunks in the passing game in Week 12, completing 75 percent of his season-low 24 passes and averaging over 10 yards per attempt.
In each of those games, a less successful running game might have meant even one more attempt for Flacco to pass 4,000 yards.
Other limiting factors are somewhat out of his hands. The Ravens' receivers drew a league-high 14 pass interference penalties for 283 yards, according to Football Outsiders. With an average of around 20 yards per penalty, a single reception out of those would have elevated Flacco over 4,000.
Football Outsiders also calculates "effective yards," which puts a yardage amount on the site's per-play value ratings. Flacco's 4,319 yards in that category mean he performed better than his actual yardage indicated.
Pro Football Focus data indicates that only Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck — who has twice thrown for over 4,000 yards — had more dropped passes this season (38) than Flacco's 37. Flacco, however, had his dropped passes travel 472 yards in the air, which was by far the most in the NFL. Again with an average dropped pass of 12.76 yards, just one catch and a tumble forward would have gotten Flacco the 14 yards necessary to reach that milestone.
Now, given that nine or more quarterbacks have passed 4,000 yards in all but one of the last four seasons (and the fact that Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton did it in 2013), 4,000 yards isn't quite the high water mark that it used to be. But it's still a meaningful benchmark that plenty of good quarterbacks (and some not-so-good ones) have hit in their best seasons.