Matthew Stafford was in the MVP hunt as late as early December last year. A lineup of great defenses mixed with a dislocated finger quickly derailed his campaign in the final four weeks of the season. As a result, many dismissed Stafford’s run at an MVP in the first place. He was simply beating up on bad teams, they’d say. Good quarterbacks don’t need last-second comebacks, and they step up against elite competition.
Detroit Lions fans cried foul. Their team, they argued, had no business competing for a division, or even a playoff spot. Stafford willed the team to nine wins despite having one of the worst running games in the league and literally the worst defense. If not for Stafford, many said, the Lions were a three-win team.
But it’s no longer just Lions fans making this argument. ESPN’s Scott Kacsmar—who you may also remember from our Football Outsiders’ Q&A series—published a look at the top 10 most valuable quarterbacks from the 2016 season (ESPN Insider required).
The study didn’t simply look at each quarterback’s overall value but, rather, their value compared to the rest of the team. “We wanted a way to isolate a quarterback's value when he threw or ran the ball relative to what the rest of his team did on every other play,” Kacsmar explained.
So how did Stafford rank among the NFL’s best? According to Kacsmar, Matthew Stafford was the third-most valuable quarterback to his team in 2016. Only Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers was more valuable to their respective teams.
This suggests that not only was Stafford magnificent in 2016, but he was essentially the only reason Detroit made the playoffs last year. He finished a respectable sixth among quarterbacks in overall Expected Points Added (EPA)—which is a general statistic that determines a player’s value independent of the rest of his team. What pushes him to third in value is the fact that the Lions, as a team, ranked 27th in EPA.
This means, to put bluntly, Matthew Stafford had to work with one of the worst rosters in the NFL in 2016 and still managed to take them to the playoffs. It may not have resulted in any MVP votes, but it was a truly amazing accomplishment.
Now after an offseason focused on fixing the offensive line and defense, the hope is the Lions can turn one of the most valuable quarterbacks into the leader of one of the most valuable teams.