I am not telling Detroit Lions fans anything new when I say that Matthew Stafford is underrated across the league. The 2009 first overall pick has been a star since he finally put together a healthy season in 2011. In his first full season, he joined the pantheon of quarterbacks who have eclipsed the 5,000=yard mark in a single season. Assuming he stays healthy, he will likely retire among the top five in all-time passing yards and could even sneak into the top 10 in touchdown passes all-time.
Despite his statistical prowess, there is a very clear reason he does not receive much award recognition—and why he has only been named to one Pro Bowl and never received an NFL MVP vote. Stafford just does not have the wins. He is yet to win a division title in 11 NFL seasons. He is yet to win a playoff game in 11 NFL seasons. He is yet to lead his team to at least 12 wins in 11 NFL seasons. Whether or not this is his fault is a separate debate, but it is obviously hard to justify voting for Stafford to win NFL MVP when other players with similar passing numbers are winning more games.
Stafford was in the midst of another such season in 2019 before an injury cut it short. He was on pace to approach the 5,000-yard mark once again and had 19 touchdown passes in eight games. While those are MVP numbers, even with a healthy Stafford, the team likely would not have won more than seven games. It would be another year with great stats with nothing to show for it.
2020 gives Stafford another run at it and another chance to finally break the ceiling and truly put himself among the league’s all time greats. Today we look at what Stafford will need to do, at minimum, to win the NFL MVP award in 2020.
The Standard Win
There is a pretty simple formula needed for an NFL quarterback to win MVP:
- Play for a team that wins at least 12 games
- Throw more touchdowns than the other quarterbacks who won 12 games
Only four quarterbacks have won MVP with less than 12 wins since the league moved to a 16 game schedule in 1978. The most recent was 18 years ago when the Oakland Raiders’ Rich Gannon did so (and why he won we will cover in the next section). It is near impossible to win MVP with less than 12 wins, and it is rare that any quarterback whose team does not earn a first-round bye — or at least a division title — even received consideration.
The next most important stat after wins is touchdown passes. Yards are nice, and Stafford has a lot of those, but touchdowns help run up the score and create more highlight plays. Throwing 98 yards in a single drive and then having your running back punch in a 1-yard touchdown is less valuable in the MVP race than having a drive where you only throw 5 passing yards, but those yards come on a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Almost all of the recent MVP winners were among the league leaders in touchdown passes, and when they were not outright No. 1, there is usually another obvious reason why they won anyways. The 2019 and 2018 MVPs, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, both led the league in touchdown passes. 2017 MVP Tom Brady was third in touchdown passes, but league leader Russell Wilson only won nine games that year, and second place Carson Wentz got injured early in December. 2016 MVP Matt Ryan finished second, but Aaron Rodgers—the league leader—only won 10 games. 2015 MVP Cam Newton finished one touchdown short of the league lead, but also notched 10 rushing touchdowns and a 15-1 record.
We can go on forever, but it is clear. MVP voters love wins, and they love touchdowns. One is not enough, you need both wins and touchdowns to win MVP.
Going God Mode
The 2002 Oakland Raiders went on a late-season tear. They won seven of their last eight games and their quarterback, Rich Gannon, was their star. Oakland’s offense spent much of the second half of the season blowing teams out.
Their quarterback put up huge numbers and had an all-time great passing season with... 4,689 passing yards. Okay, I know. In today’s NFL, 4,600 yards is a good number, but nothing to be truly excited about. Four players eclipsed that mark in 2019: Jameis Winston (now an NFL backup), Dak Prescott, Jared Goff (already considered one of the worst contracts in the NFL) and Philip Rivers (one of the worst performing quarterbacks in the league). It does not feel very special anymore, but 18 years ago was a different world.
In 2002, the only quarterbacks who had ever thrown for more yards in a single season than Gannon were Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon. For 2002, the season Gannon had was incredible.
As mentioned earlier, yards do not mean much anymore. Touchdowns are where players really make their money. The only way Stafford can win NFL MVP without having the 12 wins needed (which feels like a long shot for Detroit entering 2020), is if he throws a ton of touchdowns.
Stafford is already one of nine players in NFL history to throw for 40 touchdowns in a single season, but even 40 might not be enough without the wins. Three quarterbacks in league history have thrown for 50 or more touchdowns in a single season, Peyton Manning (2013), Brady (2007) and Mahomes (2018). Stafford will likely have to join that pantheon to even receive real consideration if the Lions fall short of 12 wins. If Detroit does not even make the playoffs, then he may need to set the NFL record at 56 to be looked at by voters.
This option is obviously more of a long shot, but it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Detroit has a great passing offense and a mediocre (if even) defense. This means that the Lions offense will have a lot of opportunities to throw the ball throughout games. With big-play threats like Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones around, the sky is the limit for Stafford’s touchdown total.