Who is Matthew Stafford? I mean, do we really know at this point? If you took a sample of people around the league you’d probably get a wide variety of answers on where exactly the Detroit Lions quarterback stands. Fans have one opinion. General managers would have another. As would coaches.
This offseason ESPN’s Mike Sando tried to get that answer. He polled 26 league insiders for their thoughts on all 32 of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL on a tiered scale. Stafford ended up 13th on the list, slightly behind quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Russell Wilson.
This great quarterback debate is one we love to have every year. NFL.com has even started a weekly Quarterback Index to rank the quarterbacks throughout the season, not just after it. Coincidentally, Stafford ended up 13th on that list as well.
I think fans, pundits and analysts fear Stafford may be creeping into Jay Cutler territory: a supreme talent who can’t put all of the pieces together. To them I would say slow down and take a look at the circumstances that Stafford has dealt with since entering the league.
Myth 1: He has five years of experience
Five years into his NFL career and we’re still trying to figure Matthew Stafford out. Part of that has to do with the fact that Stafford isn’t truly a five-year starter. Stafford was the victim of several freak injuries throughout his first two years in the league that caused him to miss 19 of 32 possible games.
Between Stafford’s rookie and sophomore seasons he played a total of 849 snaps. Over that same two-year span an average starting quarterback – one who took at least 75 percent of the snaps – would have taken 2,036 snaps. Mark Sanchez, the other top-five quarterback from the 2009 draft, had 2,388 snaps including all of his playoffs games. That’s almost three times as many snaps as Stafford took over the same two-year period.
The upcoming season is really Stafford's fourth year of extended starting experience, and I look for him to take a major step forward under the new coaching staff.
Myth 2: He’s had tons of talent around him
Martin Mayhew certainly tried to put talented pieces around Matthew Stafford. Since taking over for Matt Millen, Mayhew has built his team around the idea of having a dominant offense. In fact, in each of his first four drafts, Mayhew selected at least one offensive skill player in the first two rounds.
The problem for Mayhew, and Stafford, is that very few of those skill-position players panned out. Derrick Williams, Jahvid Best and Titus Young are all out of the league, and Mikel Leshoure is still a free agent after being cut last week. So yes, Stafford has been surrounded with high draft picks, but not necessarily with talent.
As much as people like to believe everything falls on the quarterback, football is not a one-man sport. In the NFL a player’s success ultimately hinges squarely on those around him. It is true that some quarterbacks are worth more to their team than others. Peyton Manning is worth much more to the Denver Broncos than a replacement-level quarterback, as are Tom Brady, Drew Brees, etc. In its Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) metric, Football Outsiders ranked Stafford as their 12th quarterback with a DYAR of 690 in 2013. To add some context to this, I’ll adapt Football Outsiders' explanation of the stat, filling in Stafford’s information in brackets:
It is our estimate that a generic replacement-level quarterback, throwing in the same situations as [Stafford], would have been worth  fewer yards. Note that this doesn’t mean the replacement level quarterback would have gained exactly  fewer yards. First downs, touchdowns, and turnovers all have an estimated yardage value in this system, so what we are saying is that a generic replacement-level quarterback would have fewer yards and touchdowns (and more turnovers) that would total up to be equivalent to the value of  yards.
To keep it dead simple: the higher the DYAR a player has, the more total value he brings to his team.
It’s not a perfect system, but it gives us a jumping-off point. To add even more context, last year wasn’t close to Stafford’s best year in terms of DYAR even though his more traditional stats didn’t fall off much. In 2011 he was fifth in DYAR with 1,170, and in 2012 he was sixth with 1,160. What’s so interesting about those numbers is when you compare them with the Lions' win totals over those two years. His DYAR only dropped 10 points, yet the Lions went from a 10-win team in 2011 to only a four-win team in 2012. And according to DYAR, Stafford was nearly twice as good of a quarterback going 4-12 in 2012 as he was going 7-9 in 2013.
It takes more than just Calvin Johnson doing his best Michael Jackson impression among the rest of the Jackson 5 for the Lions to become a top-flight offense. This is why Mayhew went all in this offseason to fix it. He signed underrated veteran Golden Tate to complement Johnson and drafted Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. He also re-signed key veterans Dominic Raiola, Brandon Pettigrew and Joique Bell to help maintain offensive consistency. This is by far the most talented team Stafford has been a part of, and it should launch him back to 2011 form.
Myth 3: He implodes late in games
There’s no doubt the Lions haven’t been able to win games late, but I’m not going to lump that all on Stafford. First of all, he’s proven the ability to lead teams to late wins in every year he’s been in the NFL. Through his first three years, Stafford and the Lions had a 7-5 record in games decided by seven points or less. However, the narrative has changed over the last few years as the record dropped to an appalling 6-14 in one-touchdown games, including a 3-6 record last season.
While Stafford did throw six fourth-quarter interceptions in one-touchdown games last year, it’s not as simple as pointing out hard stats. According to FiveThirtyEight data, Stafford also had seven touchdowns in those exact same situations -- with four of the six interceptions coming as the Lions were trailing late in games.
If there's an area Stafford needs to improve on, it's when he has the lead before halftime. When the Lions have been up by a touchdown or less, his interception rate is at 3.8 percent overall. This is a little high according to FiveThirtyEight, but when presented with the same situation in the second quarter, his interception rate jumps to 6.7 percent.
Stafford needs to do a better job of protecting the football when the Lions have the lead early in games.
My bold prediction
By the end of the season, Matthew Stafford will propel himself into the Andrew Luck/Russell Wilson/Matt Ryan tier in the quarterback conversation. Stafford has more than enough ability to lead this team into the playoffs, and with solid weapons and an offensive-minded head coach, I think Lions fans are in for a fun year from Stafford.
It's not like Stafford hasn't proven he can be effective for stretches during a season. Take a look at how he performed to start off the 2013 season:
The offense is built around making sure Stafford doesn’t have to force things down the field to win a game. Joe Lombardi and Jim Caldwell will build a game plan that gives Stafford sure throws mixed in with shots down the field. The other area that can’t be overlooked is the offensive line. The Lions have quietly built one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, ranking second in the league in pass protection last season, according to Football Outsiders.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Stafford ends the season with over 5,000 yards, nearly 40 touchdowns and under 15 interceptions, with a DYAR over 1,000.