Who is the best quarterback in the NFL right now? The list of names is pretty familiar, even if each player has some flaws. Cam Newton is the defending MVP, although his play has dropped off dramatically in 2016. Russell Wilson was phenomenal during the second half of 2015, but likewise, he has suffered a bit this year with a coalescing offensive line and a knee injury. Ben Roethlisberger is injured. Tom Brady is, you know, Tom Brady, but he was suspended for four games after the Deflategate scandal. Aaron Rodgers is struggling.
I named Matt Ryan as my quarter-season MVP, and think you can make a case for Ryan, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck or Derek Carr as being worthy of consideration, if not necessarily the honor itself. I am going to throw another name out there, though: What Matthew Stafford has done over the past season of football deserves to put him in the discussion.
The phrase "under the radar" is always silly when it comes to the NFL because nothing about football is underreported, but Stafford has hit a new level over the past 16 games, a stretch that coincides with the promotion of Lions quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator after Joe Lombardi was fired. Stafford's previous offensive coordinators, in awe of his prototypical arm strength, had built offenses designed to stretch teams downfield with throws to Calvin Johnson. With Megatron taking a step backward thanks to injuries and the Detroit offensive line undergoing construction, Lombardi began to build a scheme designed to get the ball out quicker and create throws that utilized Stafford's arm strength for short-distance accuracy. Cooter has taken those concepts to another level.
You can see the difference between what Stafford has done under Lombardi and Cooter in two GIFs. Thanks to TruMedia, here are the plots of every Stafford pass under Lombardi (from 2014 until his firing in 2015) and Cooter (in the 16 games since). They look reasonably similar:
Now, let's look at those same plots again in terms of efficiency with a pass grid showing his passer rating in various quadrants of the field. Red means Stafford was better than league average (hot) in the respective zone, while blue means Stafford was worse. This one makes Stafford's improvements under Cooter quite obvious:
The difference is staggering. And the results have been noticeable. Stafford has put together an All-Pro caliber season over his past 16 games. He has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes, while throwing for 4,310 yards, with 35 touchdowns against just eight picks. The shorter passes have crucially cut into Stafford's interception rate, which had been his biggest problem. Through the end of the 2014 season, Stafford's career interception rate was 2.7 percent. Since Cooter's promotion, Stafford's INT rate has been nearly halved, dropping to 1.4 percent.
In terms of rate statistics, Stafford's résumé is as good as anybody else's in football. Comparing him to the other qualifying passers (224 attempts or more) since Week 8 of last season, Stafford ranks near the league leaders in most categories:
QBR rewards passers who throw passes farther downfield, but likely underestimates just how hyper-efficient Stafford has been throwing a steady diet of shorter throws. The only quarterback throwing shorter passes than Stafford over the past year has been Teddy Bridgewater, and the only quarterback who has put a higher percentage of his passes on target has been Sam Bradford. Other quarterbacks have similar passing profiles, but Stafford has been more accurate than just about anybody else in the league.
Check out that drop percentage, too. Despite throwing a ton of short passes on target, Stafford hasn't gotten a lot of help from his receivers. They're dropping 5.6 percent of his passes, which is absurd; the only passer with a higher drop percentage over the same time frame is Blaine Gabbert. The league-average drop rate is 3.9 percent. Give Stafford a league-average drop rate, turn those drops into his typical completed pass (which generates a little over 11 yards), and he's completing 70.3 percent of his throws and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. His passer rating hops up to 107.6, leapfrogging Brees and trailing only Wilson, both of whom have drop rates below the league average.
It's important to bring up his teammates, of course, because Stafford's career has often been defined or analyzed through the lens of his best teammate, Johnson. Even when Stafford played well, there was a perception (and at times a reality) that he was being bailed out by one of the greatest receivers ever. Golden Tate's success on arrival helped matters, but the specter of Megatron still loomed over everything Stafford accomplished.
Now, though, Johnson is gone. Stafford is doing this with Tate, Marvin Jones, the 36-year-old Anquan Boldin, and Theo Riddick. He'll get Eric Ebron back eventually, and the tight end the Lions famously chose over Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald may be a useful weapon, but nobody in this group is a Hall of Famer. Riddick was a sixth-round pick. Tate, Jones and Boldin all arrived in town and have been more productive and impactful than they were in their previous stops. The Lions haven't skipped a beat despite losing Johnson to retirement and seeing both Ebron and their top two running backs (Riddick and Ameer Abdullah) go down with injuries. Stafford is making the guys around him better.
He's also not getting much help from his defense. The Lions' D was dead last in DVOA heading into this week. They've allowed only 23.2 points per game since Lombardi left, but that has been in part because Stafford's offense has been super-efficient. The offense has scored on a higher percentage of its drives than any team outside of the Panthers, turned the ball over less frequently than anyone besides the Bills and Patriots, and has handed the defense the league's ninth-best average starting field position.
The defense has responded with the NFL's eighth-worst three-and-out percentage, the fifth-worst takeaway rate, and the worst touchdown rate in the red zone by far. Detroit has allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 77.1 percent of their red zone drives over the past 16 games, with the league average at 56.4 percent and the 31st-ranked Saints at 70.5 percent. When you're worse than the Saints at something on defense, something has gone horribly wrong.
The same unit that cost the Lions a win by failing to properly defend an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary last season has been dangerously ineffective in the fourth quarter this year. The Lions' defense has blown five fourth-quarter leads this season, including three double-digit leads and two separate leads against the Colts in Week 1. Consequently, each of Detroit's victories this year has required Stafford to score a touchdown to either reclaim the lead or break a tie in the fourth quarter.
On Sunday, Detroit led 13-3 with 13 minutes to go and had a win expectancy of nearly 94 percent, only for the defense to allow consecutive touchdown drives of 75 and 76 yards to Kirk Cousins, who kept the ball on a read-option play for the first time this year and sprinted past Kerry Hyder for a 19-yard score to put Washington up 17-13 with 1:13 left. Washington's win expectancy there is 99.5 percent, but Stafford promptly drove the Lions 75 yards in 43 seconds for a miraculous victory.
The other historic knock on Stafford has been his salary. Stafford entered the league as a first overall pick in the era of the old collective bargaining agreement, which yielded a seven-year, $72 million deal with $41.7 million in guarantees in an era where that was top quarterback money. Thanks to subpar cap management and repeated restructures, Stafford's rookie deal accelerated such that the Lions had to offer the former Georgia star a three-year, $53 million extension before 2013 to create more cap room. In part, Stafford's salary (and the cap mismanagement, the larger culprit of the two) helped push Ndamukong Suh out of Detroit's price range when the defensive tackle left for Miami in free agency.
The rest of the league has caught up, and the Lions have done a better job managing their cap in recent years, but Stafford's 2016 cap hit is $22.5 million, the fifth-highest figure in football. In years past, it was fair to wonder whether Stafford was actually a net positive for the Lions, given that he was being paid like a top quarterback and performing closer to a league-average starter. Now, though, Stafford is providing return on investment for Detroit. He's likely to negotiate a new extension this offseason with the final year of his deal coming due in 2018, and on this form, Stafford will deserve the mammoth extension he is sure to receive.
There's a lesson to be learned here: We are almost definitely too confident in how we assess players and their level of play. This is really the third version of Stafford. There was the guy who couldn't stay healthy his first two seasons behind a terrible offensive line. Then there was the Stafford we knew between 2011 and the middle of 2015, the guy who would throw a ton of passes and mix highlight-reel throws with backbreaking interceptions and ill-fated decisions in the fourth quarter, delivering roughly league-average play on the whole. (Never mind that he led the league with five fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2014.)
The Stafford we've seen over the past 16 games has been another quarterback entirely. And he's not the first player to take a sudden leap after previously establishing a distinct level of play. Think about Andy Dalton, who was just good enough to be disappointing in Cincinnati before putting together one of the best seasons in football in 2015 and building on it by being just as good in 2016. Or consider Bradford, who might have struggled Sunday against the Eagles but has otherwise excelled during Minnesota's 5-1 start after years of mediocrity.
Bradford could go bad -- it has been only four impressive games for him -- and both Dalton and Stafford could regress to their prior selves. At the same time, though, the fact that each has been able to pull this for full seasons is telling in itself. Context and situation is everything in the NFL. Brady can look like a fool for a night in Kansas City behind a terrible offensive line and win a Super Bowl four months later. Rodgers can look unbeatable for a year and turn ordinary overnight. We don't think of Stafford as a superstar because of his past, but with each passing week, the evidence continues to suggest that Cooter's promotion has him playing like one.