Matthew Stafford’s MVP Season That Never Was

Just a week ago, Matthew Stafford’s name was being bandied about during MVP conversations. The Detroit Lions starting quarterback had completed 164 of 241 (68 percent) passes for 1,914 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) and 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions. This was how Stafford responded just 12 months after being benched for Dan Orlovsky.

Stafford was benched for Orlovsky in Week 5 of the 2015 season. He had thrown one touchdown with three interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals as the Lions were blown out at home. He rebounded the following week to throw four touchdowns but a sack-filled performance against the Minnesota Vikings the following week saw Stafford’s offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, lose his job.

Lombardi was replaced by Jim Bob Cooter. Cooter called one game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8 before getting a bye week to install his offense. From that point onwards, Stafford’s numbers skyrocketed.

While the Lions won six of their final eight games, Stafford completed 205 of 293(70 percent) passes for 2,179 yards, 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. Add those numbers to his numbers to start this season and Stafford has completed 369 of 534 (69 percent) passes for 4,093 yards (7.7 yards per attempt) and 34 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Yeah, that sounds like an MVP stat line.

So how could Stafford go from being benched to having an MVP-level output over (literally) three weeks?

Cooter gets, and deserves, a lot of the credit for Stafford’s turnaround. When he took over, Stafford was throwing the ball to different levels of the field and erratically spraying it in the general direction of his targets rather than placing the ball in spots where only his receivers could catch it. For the full season, Stafford had 23 interceptable passes. Only six quarterbacks had more. He threw an interceptable pass every 25.7 attempts, the 19th-best rate in the league.

11 of those 23 interceptable passes came over the first six weeks of the season, or put another way: before Cooter became the offensive coordinator. On the 293 attempts he had after the bye week, Stafford threw just six interceptable passes, that’s one every 48.8 attempts. Had he done that for the full season, he would have ranked second only to Aaron Rodgers in ball security last year.

Stafford didn’t suddenly understand how to take care of the football once Cooter took over. Cooter simply put him in positions where it was easier for him to take care of the ball. Screens became a focal point of the offense and YAC was a greater emphasis as the offense focused on letting Stafford repeatedly throw short passes. He had 155 completions last year where the ball didn’t travel further than two yards past the line of scrimmage, only Rodgers had more. 26.2 percent of his throws, the fifth highest percentage in the league, were receptions of that kind.

Cooter’s offense alleviated the pressure on Stafford by simplifying his assignments. Had Cooter been in charge for the full 16 games, Stafford would likely have topped both of those measurements.

Now, in 2016, Stafford has been in Cooter’s offense from the start of training camp. His average depth of target is 6.85 yards past the line of scrimmage. 186 of his 282 throws have travelled fewer than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, while 21 of the remaining 72 qualifying throws (spikes and throwaways were excluded) traveled more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Cooter uses an offense that relies on short throws and shot plays, keeping Stafford away from intermediate reads and naturally protecting him from throwing into tighter windows.

For that offense to work you need a lot of YAC. So far this season Stafford has gained 1,225 yards after the catch, 56.9 percent of his total yards.

You can have a YAC-heavy pass attack where the quarterback is still made to work. Philip Rivers is the greatest example of this. Rivers constantly throws the ball from condensed pockets as he holds the ball long enough for coverage to clear for his underneath receiver. He will regularly hit shallow crossing routes that lead to big plays because he has looked off the coverage downfield and timed his release perfectly to put his eventual target in open space. Stafford has done some of that, but he’s also benefited from a lot of YAC on screen plays.

On 32 screen completions, Lions receivers have run for 422 yards after the catch. That screen yardage is significant, but what really stands out when you watch the Lions offense is how often a skill position player turns a negative play into a positive because of his ability to create after the catch.

Take this Third-and-9 play against the Los Angeles Rams. Stafford shows no pocket discipline as he moves backwards quickly against a four-man rush that is largely repelled. He is too eager to drop his eyes to his covered checkdown and throws the ball to that checkdown, Zach Zenner, even though there is a linebacker waiting to tackle him. Zenner makes the linebacker and two more defenders miss to gain 15 yards and a first down.

Zenner got that opportunity because Theo Riddick was absent through injury.

Riddick has been phenomenal this year. He has accounted for 268 yards after the catch on 33 receptions. Riddick is a dangerous screen receiver but also someone who is worthy of comparisons to Darren Sproles for his versatility and ability to make multiple defenders miss from disadvantageous positions.

Riddick’s value isn’t necessarily seen in big plays, though he has a few of those too. It’s felt in keeping drives alive and setting the offense up ahead of the down-and-distance. When you’re ahead of the down-and-distance, it’s easier for the quarterback to attack the defense because more options are available to you. In obvious passing situations where you need a specific amount of yards, the offense becomes predictable so the defense can be more aggressive/creative.

Cooter’s offense regularly puts Riddick in space. He thrives on screen plays, he has two touchdowns on brilliantly designed screen plays so far this year, while also being used on option routes out of the backfield in passing situations. Like with Darren Sproles, those plays are almost impossible for the linebacker to cover and can result in big gains/key first downs with short throws for the quarterback.

While Eric Ebron remains an inconsistent option at tight end, the Lions do have an excellent group of skill position players overall. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Riddick together are arguably the best quartet of pass catchers sharing the same field in the NFL right now.

A constant criticism of that group has been drops.

Stafford’s receivers have accumulated 20 failed receptions so far this season. If we double that number to extrapolate for the full season, Stafford would have 40 failed receptions. 40 failed receptions last year would have been tied for 15th amongst all quarterbacks. A significant but not a large number relative to the rest of the league. More telling is the number of yards that Stafford would lose if he continues at his current rate.

Because most of Stafford’s throws are short and failed receptions can’t account for yards after the catch, his lost yardage number is very small. He has lost 131 yards so far this season. 262 yards would have ranked as the 27th most in the NFL last year.

While his receivers have had some flat-out drops that should have been caught, the narrative on their play has flattered the quarterback and unfairly degraded the pass catchers. One of the new elements that I will be charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue this year is innacurate throws that are caught despite being inaccurate. So far this year, Stafford has 15 inaccurate throws that have gained 214 yards.

Right now that number is hard to put into perspective because I don’t have the charting for other quarterbacks. It should be acknowledged also that caught inaccurate passes can account for yards gained after the catch whereas failed receptions can’t.

Marvin Jones has been the Lions’ number one receiver so far this season. He has six failed receptions that have lost 49 yards. He has five accuracy-erasing receptions (inaccurate passes that were caught) for 129 yards. Jones, like Golden Tate, isn’t a big receiver but he does have a wide catch radius and an innate comfort adjusting to the ball in the air or at his feet.

One of Stafford’s biggest plays of the season was a result of Jones making an adjustment to come down with a pass that was poorly placed.

The Packers come out with two safeties deep but both are focused on the middle of the field as the play develops. That leaves Jones alone against the cornerback to the top of the screen. Jones was able to get outside of the cornerback’s aggressive alignment with relative ease before streaking up the sideline. When Stafford begins his throwing motion, Jones is advancing past the cornerback. By the time the ball is in the air, Jones has a step and is running free down the sideline.

Because the safety to that side didn’t move towards the sideline, Stafford has the opportunity to loft the ball into space downfield. That would give Jones a chance to run underneath it without breaking stride, continuing all the way to the endzone.

Jones gets to the endzone, but not because Stafford lets him keep his stride.

Not only is Stafford’s pass too high, but it’s also too far behind where it should be. It’s almost like he was throwing backshoulder but even if he was it would still have required Jones to make a tough adjustment to snatch the ball out of the air. Jones, like he had previously done for years in Cincinnati, made the difficult look simple by stretching back to pull the ball in while contorting his body. The above gif freezes when Jones catches the ball, look at how his body is shaped at that point.

Yet Jones doesn’t just catch the ball. He somehow maintains his balance to stay in bounds before handing off the cornerback to sprint away to the endzone.

That’s an outrageous play from the wide receiver.

Ball placement has always been an issue with Stafford. His accuracy percentage last year was 79.3 percent, good enough for 12th in the league. That number couldn’t qualify each quarterback’s result for the depth and the difficulty of his throws though. Hopefully next year the QB Catalogue will do a better job in that area. So far this season, Stafford’s accuracy percentage is at 75.4 percent. A thoroughly unimpressive number considering the type of offense he is running.

While his ball placement has held back his receivers too often, it’s also contributed to interception opportunities for his opponents.

Stafford officially has four interceptions this year. Two of those interceptions weren’t his fault. That means he’s been really unlucky, right? Not exactly. While half of Stafford’s caught interceptions have been excusable, he has enjoyed a Ryan Fitzpatrick-like streak of good fortune so far this year. On 282 attempts, he has 16 interceptable passes. 16! That is one every 17.6 attempts. Only Johnny Manziel, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck had a worse ‘per attempt’ number last year.

The average quarterback in 2015 had 47.8 percent of his interceptable passes caught by a defender. Coincidentally, Stafford was the only quarterback who was exactly average in that category. This year 12.5 percent of his interceptable passes have been caught, the lowest percentage last season was 18.8 percent for Brian Hoyer.

Stafford has a very strong arm. He’s one of the most impressive pure throwers of the ball in the league. Take this play for example, there are literally only a handful of quarterbacks alive who can make that play against NFL defenders. Yet, despite his obvious arm talent, Stafford struggles a lot throwing outside the numbers. Arm talent is only valuable if it can be harnessed. If you’re not in control of where the ball is going it just means your incompletions and interceptions will arrive faster and harder than a weaker quarterback.

Comeback routes have given Stafford major trouble this season. He has too often left them too far inside as his receiver breaks outside. The above play against Washington was his most egregious miss of the season. It would have been an easy interception for Bashaud Breeland had he not stumbled coming out of his break. Ultimately, but not surprisingly considering how fortunate Stafford has been this year, the ball actually bounces off of Breeland’s helmet into the waiting arms of Golden Tate.

Tate runs upfield for a 15-yard gain and a first down.

Most of Stafford’s interceptable passes have been a result of poor decision-making rather than ball placement issues. Some offered both but the bad decision more often than not was the main protagonist. Stafford has three separate games this year with at least three interceptable passes. He had a season-high four against the Packers, none of which were caught.

This hasn’t been an MVP-caliber season for Matthew Stafford. It hasn’t been close to that in truth.

It’s largely been your typical Stafford season where his inconsistencies prevent him from getting close to the potential that his physical talent creates. That’s not to say Stafford is having a bad season. In fact, he has had long stretches of high-quality play this year. He is still playing behind a limited offensive line with a historically bad defense. He’s in a situation where other quarterbacks would capitulate and drag the team to the bottom of the league.

Stafford has played well enough not to handicap his talented set of skill position players and his coach’s excellent play designs. He’s also had a lot of luck, so much to the point that the whole narrative surrounding his season would change without it.

While you never want to close the door on the potential for a quarterback to enjoy a prolonged stretch of high quality play, at this point of Stafford’s career he has repeatedly proven to be what he is. It’s year eight and we’re talking about the individual limiting himself with his play, not about the individual’s supporting cast limiting his play. That makes it hard to expect Stafford to ever become more than what he is right now.

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