EAGAN — Future Hall of Fame cornerback Patrick Peterson shares a common opinion around the NFL: That Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has never gotten the credit he deserves because he spent his entire career with the league’s most miserable franchise.
“I always thought that he was unappreciated in the league,” Peterson said. “Just his arm power, the way he was able to throw the ball. He was just a very solid quarterback. Gunslinger, that's what we always called him leading up to game plan week trying to play against those guys.”
If everyone says you are underappreciated, are you actually either completely appreciated or overappreciated? Can you be underrated if a team trades a starting QB and two first-round picks for you?
What folks are really saying when they declare Stafford underrated is that his failure to do things that great quarterbacks usually do like getting Pro Bowl nods, winning MVP awards, winning playoff games and reaching Super Bowls did not happen because he played for the Detroit Lions, not because he wasn’t capable.
Stafford’s win-loss record and box score statistics in Los Angeles seem to back up that sentiment. The Rams come into US Bank Stadium for Sunday’s matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as winners of 10 games — something Stafford’s teams only did twice during his Lions Career. The 33-year-old quarterback presently has a career high quarterback rating, his second highest touchdown career total with three weeks remaining and the best mark in terms of yards per pass attempt when adjusted for sacks an interceptions.
“He is just as good as he’s been his whole career,” Vikings co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “We’ve played him seven years, twice a year, and No. 1, he’s one of the toughest quarterbacks I think I’ve ever played. He takes a bunch of hits and keeps on getting back up. He gets back up and slings the ball. He’s got a great arm.”
If you cut down a few inches with the metrics, Adam Zimmer is right: He’s just as good as he’s been. Not better. From 2016 to 2020, Stafford’s Pro Football Focus grades varied between 77.8 and 82.6 (out of 100). This year his grade is an 82.4. His big-time throw rate is 5.5% versus a career 5.2%. His turnover-worthy play rate sits presently at 2.9%, which is just 0.3% below his career mark.
By almost any stat that works to add context to the box score, Stafford is the same. His average depth of pass is only 0.3 higher this year per attempt than his career. By ESPN’s QBR stat, which works to factor game situation, Stafford’s 65.6 QBR is nearly identical to 2016 and 2017 and below his 2019 season.
So Stafford left Detroit and played QB in the same exact way and got better results. Mystery solved, right? It must have been Detroit’s fault that he went 74-90-1 and 0-2 in the postseason while only making one Pro Bowl.
That conclusion leaves a few things out. First being that things could still change this year. In 2016, the Lions were rolling behind a “different” Stafford. They entered the final stretch at 9-4 with weapons Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Eric Ebron giving the veteran QB everything he needed to take them to the next level. And then the Lions lost three straight regular season games and the playoff opener while averaging 14 points per game during that stretch.
Stafford went through the type of ice cold streak this year. In three games from Week 9-12, he threw five interceptions, had nine turnover-worthy plays and produced PFF grades of 52.1, 62.4 and 58.8. They went 0-3 during that stretch.
That short run of poor play puts the Rams in danger of deep disappointment, even if they reach the playoffs. If they lose to the Vikings on Sunday afternoon, L.A. will drop to less than 25% chance to win the NFC West, 0% to win the NFC and just 4% to win the Super Bowl, per FiveThirtyEight. The No. 5 seed is not exactly how the all-in Rams drew it up.
If they beat the Vikings, odds of winning the West shoot up to 60% and 9% for the Super Bowl.
As Kirk Cousins often says: It’s a razor’s edge.
The Rams’ goal was to get farther than they could with Jared Goff — even though he took them to a Super Bowl and won a playoff game last year. They wanted to get a quarterback who could open up their offense and maximize all of its talent and scheme capabilities to get back to the Super Bowl, where Goff came up small against New England in 2018.
“They trust Stafford to do a little bit more in the offense,” Adam Zimmer said. “I think they have the confidence in him that he’s going to make all of the right throws, and he can make every throw in the book, so I think they’ve gotten to the philosophy, ‘We’ve got really good players and we’re going to let our players make plays.’”
The Goff part of this whole thing adds an extra layer of complexity to the overrated/underrated Stafford conversation. When Goff’s Rams reached the Super Bowl, his numbers weren’t vastly different from Stafford’s current marks and he won more regular season games. Goff threw for 32 touchdowns, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, ranked eighth in quarterback rating and was only a shade off Stafford’s current QBR. Goff’s offense ranked No. 2, Stafford’s No. 5 in scoring.
The rosters around the two QBs were pretty comparable. The 2018 Rams ranked seventh in pass blocking by PFF and No. 1 in receiving. The 2021 Rams rank No. 1 in pass blocking and ninth in receiving. Sean McVay was/is the guy pulling the strings. By Pro-Football Reference’s strength of schedule rating, the 2018 club had a slightly harder road.
We can’t perfectly pin down how much defense impacts a team’s quarterback but Goff’s Super Bowl team was 20th in points allowed, this group is 11th.
Think for a second about what happens if the Rams do not get better final results than they did with Goff. They will have traded a heap of draft capital to acquire Stafford and added additional talent on the team, including dealing a second-round pick for Von Miller, for a quarterback who didn’t take them any farther.
To the people who are tasked with stopping the Rams’ offense, however, things are different from the Goff days because of Stafford’s skill set. Defenses have reason to be more concerned about Stafford letting it rip and throwing the ball all over the yard against them than they did about Goff only hitting on the plays that were laid out perfectly for him.
“I'd probably say that it's more passes down the field and a lot less screens involved,” Peterson said. “It just seems like they are attacking more down the field now. It's more of a free offense is what it seems like now watching them on film and whenever I get to see them on TV. Those guys are very explosive.”
Interestingly enough, asking Stafford to do more because he’s more talented hasn’t always been the right idea. McVay has only dialed up play-action passes on 24.4% of Stafford’s passes (21st in the NFL) yet the veteran QB has a 117.9 rating on such throws (third best). Last year Goff had the fourth highest play-action percentage at 34.0%. Treating Stafford a little more Goff-ian might have helped during his cold streak.
There are always so many moving parts when it comes to evaluating a quarterback that everyone, including every single NFL team, struggles to pin down exactly how good quarterbacks actually are and what they need to win. There’s supporting cast, chemistry, consistency, scheme, coaching, injuries, opponents, outside pressure and total randomness.
The obvious cases aren’t tough. We know that if Trevor Lawrence played for the Patriots, he’d be having a much better time than with kicker-kicker Urban Meyer as his head coach. We know that Patrick Mahomes on almost any team would make them way better than they are. The cases in the middle i.e. the Ryan Tannehills, Kirk Cousinses and Derek Carrs are much more fuzzy.
The Rams went all-in with hopes that a player who has generally been considered in the same tier as that group would take them to the next level. In a way, they went all-in on the idea that a huge sample size of play in Detroit didn’t mean much. Now we sit in late December wondering if some of those good-not-great years with the Lions weren’t just because of the franchise’s ineptitude.
That can all change in the coming weeks if Stafford blows out the Vikings and steamrolls through the playoffs.
It wouldn’t be the NFL if the narrative of a quarterback’s entire career didn’t rest on a few games, right?