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Matthew Stafford: The Leader

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Why Stafford is the veteran leader you always hoped for.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

You can tell a lot about one performance. Sure you can't tell whether a team will win the Super Bowl or will have the first overall pick in the next draft, but you can learn the drive and the will of some players by seeing one game. Last Sunday we learned what Matthew Stafford is. Like him or not, he's unequivocally the leader of this franchise.

I've been watching the Lions for 30 years. I've see Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna and countless other quarterbacks helm this ship. 26 different quarterbacks, to be exact. I can say without hesitation, that what I saw from Matthew Stafford against the Colts, was something I've never seen from any other quarterback in Detroit: outstanding leadership.

When the Lions tried their hardest to be the Lions of old and found themselves down 35-34 with 37 seconds left, I couldn't help but feel a profound calmness when Stafford took the field, a calmness I haven't felt since the Lions dominated the Chargers to claim a playoff spot in 2011. Perhaps it's because we've seen Stafford do this before.

Matthew Stafford has led the Lions to 19 comeback wins since the 2011 season. We've seen him dive over piles against Dallas, lead a 98-yard touchdown drive against the Raiders, sidearm the Lions to victory against the Dolphins and so many more. We've seen it all... but not like this.

Usually these comebacks are erratic. It's Stafford running around like a madman and chucking up passes with nothing but hope carried with them. This time around, now a veteran quarterback with an understanding of the offense that he's seemingly never had before, Stafford stepped on the field with the aura of "follow me, I've done this before" surrounding him. You couldn't help but share your nervousness with optimism, and Stafford made sure to reward your faith.

Where does this come from? If you're a fan of the Lions, you've seen all the narratives on Matthew Stafford over the years. Here's a few.

  1. He's a party boy
  2. He wears his hat backwards
  3. He doesn't care
  4. He has no drive
  5. Calvin made him
  6. He only bombs it
  7. He turns the ball over too many times.
  8. He can't win on the road
  9. He doesn't have the brain for this
  10. He can't win in the playoffs

There's so many that it's hard to remember all of them. What so many refuse to see is that Matthew Stafford's career is really the tale of two halves. One half where all of those things are probably true. And one half where Stafford has become a grown man and the leader of this football team.

Around the time Jim Caldwell showed up, you could really begin to see the difference. Turnovers went down, as did the urge to bomb the ball down field or force a play to work. Footwork and timing became a thing Stafford could do and his attitude changed from smiling Haley Joel Osment look-alike to straight-laced and demanding leader.

The stats definitely back this up. Take a look at how Stafford's career has changed in the two halves of his career. Here's the first half.

2009-2013

Completions Attempts Comp % Passing Yards Touchdown Interceptions Passer Rating QBR Record
1,485 2,497 58.9 17,457 109 73 82.7 48.17 24-37

We can agree that those numbers certainly are not favorable. As I mentioned earlier, the old narratives about Stafford were probably true around this time. Now let's take a look at the second half of Stafford's career.

2014-2016

Completions Attempts Comp % Passing Yards Touchdown Interceptions Passer Rating QBR Record
792 1,233 69 9,129 57 25 103.6 69.45 19-12

As you can see, the difference is drastic. One of the only things Matthew Stafford appears to be doing that he did in the first half, is passing for a high number of yards. In a game that's reverted to pass first, you can't be surprised to see any quarterback play like that. What should catch your attention in the improved completion percentage, passer rating, QBR and record, not to mention the lower amount of interceptions. Which had me thinking...

When I looked at 25 interceptions in Stafford's last 33 games, it initially struck me as still being a high number and therefore a major problem in his game. He still managed to hit career lows in this stat since 2014, but it just didn't feel right. I wanted to see how that 25 stacks up against other starters in the NFL.

So I looked at every starting quarterback in the NFL that's played at least 33 games. I took a look at the last 33 games of each of those quarterbacks and did the math to see where Stafford's 25 interceptions rank among the crowd. Here's what I found on that. (Note: Mark Sanchez technically isn't the starter in Dallas, but I kept him on the list because it's fun.)

Quarterback Interceptions
Mark Sanchez 44
Andrew Luck 34
Joe Flacco 33
Philip Rivers 31
Sam Bradford 31
Matt Ryan 30
Jay Cutler 30
Ben Roethlisberger 29
Ryan Fitzpatrick 29
Eli Manning 29
Drew Brees 28
Matthew Stafford 25
Cam Newton 25
Carson Palmer 25
Andy Dalton 25
Tony Romo 25
Ryan Tannehill 24
Robert Griffin III 23
Tom Brady 17
Russell Wilson 16
Alex Smith 14
Aaron Rodgers 13

That's a lot lower than even I thought. Seeing this really makes you think about how good Matthew Stafford really is and how far he's come in his career. One thing is for sure: gone are the days of Stafford making things work on talent alone. Here are the days that Stafford has become a more polished quarterback and is a major part of how the offensive playbook has been put together and how it's being executed. Matthew Stafford is no longer just a member of the team; this is his team. It's when a player reaches that point of their career that special things can start to happen.

Special things like the possibility of a division title for the Lions, which one former Lion-turned-analyst believes could be in the cards in 2016. Nate Burleson chose Matthew Stafford as his most clutch quarterback under 30. He went on to make claims that the Lions could win the division and that Matthew Stafford will have a career year in 2016. What was the reason for the claims? This quote sums all of that up.

"Here's the thing that I noticed yesterday when watching the game—and this is a former player of the team, as a fan and a friend of Stafford—he's grown up."

Nate is not alone in this thinking. Many other analysts have agreed. For example ESPN's Michael Rothstein felt the Stafford has become more of a leader as of late.

"Earlier this week, Stafford said he needed to take more leadership with the offense. And on Sunday he did, getting his teammates to believe."

Detroit Free Press's Shawn Windsor believes that Stafford "has finally taken charge."

"It’s his team now. And if we only thought that before Sunday, before Matthew Stafford led the Lions to an improbable last-second victory over the Colts, we know it for sure now."

That's what today's thoughts are all about. Despite the way you feel about Stafford, there's no denying that he is not the same quarterback that he was three years ago. Not even close. Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron can attest to that. They're the ones Stafford scolded with good reason this past Sunday.

Where things go from here, I can't say, but I will say that the Lions, even without factoring in the records, have never been in better hands in their history. Let's all sit back and see where this thing goes.

What are your thoughts on Stafford? Do you believe he's grown up? Or is he still the same guy from 2013? Be sure to leave your comments below or come chat with me on Twitter @POD_Payton.