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Stafford’s Terrific Start Highly Unsurprising

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After a blowout win over the lowly New York Giants, the 5-1 Los Angeles Rams have remained close to the top in the National Football Conference. Not only that but the team has played like one of the best squads in the National Football League so far. The Rams are rolling with five victories in six games and a spot near the zenith in most of the important statistical metrics.

Firstly, their defense has looks tremendous, outplaying LA’s first six opponents in a dominant fashion. Along with that, the offense’s air raid, which was a hot offseason topic, has been nothing short of sensational. Many in the NFL are undoubtedly impressed by the tremendous start to Matthew Stafford‘s 2021 campaign. That is particularly due to the Lions’ lack of success during his eleven years in Motown.

However, upon further review, his performance is nothing head-scratching. Instead, it has been a combination of established patterns in motion.

Motor City Stories

Matthew Stafford has been considered one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL ever since he entered the league with the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. The Georgia alum has lived up to his reputation, building upon an extensive three-year collegiate tenure that saw him start all 39 games. The widespread consensus is that Stafford might very well have been amongst the league’s best passers but the numbers do not reflect his capabilities. That, in turn, is thought to be due to the Lions’ inability to provide him adequate support through the air and in the pocket.

However, his win/loss record as a starter on the professional level is the only metric that fits this description. And under no circumstances does it provide a clear picture of his output as a passer. Not only that but other statistical categories underwent slightly, if not completely, different trends.

On the one hand, the former half of his career passed under less confidence in the height of Stafford’s ceiling in the NFL. Despite the opportunity to work with a plethora of productive weapons, underwhelming figures were not a rarity for the young Lions QB.

Between his debut in 2009 and the conclusion of the 2013 season, Stafford had three campaigns as a full-time starter for Detroit. The first of those was wildly successful and raised the value of both him and his favorite downfield target – Calvin Johnson. While Megatron enjoyed what would end up being the best of his nine years in the NFL, Stafford also put on prolific numbers. In particular, he turned in a completion percentage of 63.5% and threw career-high 41 touchdown passes. For the remainder of his pro stint, Matt Stafford would throw more than thirty just once. (Note: this year Stafford has 16 TDs after six games.). Touchdown throws are barely relevant as they are strongly dependent on play calling. Yet, Stafford was immensely efficient for a third-year quarterback.

The following two years, the Tampa native remained a high-profile commodity before the rest of the league. However, that was likely a hangover from his 41-touchdown campaign. The performance that would ensue in 2012 and 2013 cannot have been what had kept the belief in him strong. Those seasons observed noticeable drops in accuracy and efficiency, alongside an upward move in interception risk.

After a 63.5% accuracy rate in 2011, Stafford’s completion percentage would fall to 59.8% and 58.5%, respectively. Furthermore, his passer rating registered a drop to 79.9 from 97.2 in 2012 and only recovered to 84.2 in 2013. All of that while running an offense with the likes of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. The air raid was not stacked but a further downward move in accuracy despite Bush taking away a portion of the workload was an alarming sign.

On the other hand, once Matt Stafford matured and drew closer to the prime of his career, even the insufficient reinforcements that surrounded him were not an obstacle powerful enough to keep him from considerable improvements year after year.

In 2014, Stafford put on a completion percentage of 60.3% and a passer rating of 85.8, marking an improvement in both components. Moreover, he would also throw just twelve interceptions, the fewest in four years, and earn his only Pro Bowl appearance to date. More importantly, though, this would be the start of eight straight years that would not see Stafford’s accuracy rate fall under the 60.0% threshold. This value has not dropped below 64% since 2015.

This spike in efficiency was not tied to any particular positive talent acquisition process. Calvin Johnson would leave after the conclusion of the 2015 NFL season. Golden Tate then took over the WR1 spot. Tate would catch a higher percentage due to his role in the intermediate game. Meanwhile, he maintained a workload similar to Johnson’s (as a percentage of all throws).

Marvin Jones joined as a reliable WR2 on three occasions while Eric Ebron would also have his share of the pie. However, depth was still not present. Also, any positivity that could have stemmed from these and other pass-catchers like T.J. Hockenson and Danny Amendola in 2020 was thumped by a disappointing Lions offensive line. Detroit’s O-Line unit finished in the bottom half in fewest sacks allowed in each year during that period. Its worst position was 25th (eighth-most) during the 2017 campaign.

Although this is a volatile department, a 65% completion percentage would be around the middle of the pack at worst in an NFL season. The same applies to his passer rating, which was 94.5 for the aforementioned seven-year span. With so much to set him back, Stafford’s consistency as an average-to-upper echelon quarterback seems unbelievable.

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 13: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions reacts to a drop pass late in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on September 13, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

The Air Show on Turf – A Miracle or an Established Pattern?

Of course, despite entering his age-33 season, Stafford looked beyond capable of maintaining his level of performance for at least a few years going forward, as proven by his consistency previously. Furthermore, a few extra weapons and an upgraded offensive line would have elevated him to an elite spot in the pro football hierarchy.

Now enter the trade to the Los Angeles Rams. In mid-March, the Rams acquired Stafford in exchange for two future first-round picks and Jared Goff. Matthew Stafford’s numbers had already raised his value high. However, being surrounded by a better cast was a worrying prospect for the rest of the league.

Now that the aftermath of the deal has been observed, the season has started, and the Rams have earned a 5-1 record, Stafford’s further rise to prominence is easily explainable. In Southern California, the former Lion has the services of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, both of whom are amongst the best wide receivers in the NFL. Moreover, LA’s solid running game has taken some of the pressure off Stafford, who is merely 14th in attempted throws.

The Rams’ offensive line provides an even more pleasant output. The group has allowed the second-fewest sacks through the inaugural six games of the campaign. Last year, it conceded sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL.

All of that has led Matt Stafford to outperform the already highly-productive display he was accustomed to in Michigan. The Florida-born passer has a completion figure of 69.5% and a passer rating of 116.6, both career-highs by a mile. Furthermore, he has turned in an interception percentage of just 2.0%. Should he keep that up, 2021 would, potentially, be the sixth straight campaign without a value north of two percent in this field.

The takeaway from this statistical change is for front offices to build a sufficient supporting cast alongside gambling on their “franchise quarterback”. Most importantly, they should be financially aware of the necessity of the former and adapt the resources they might allocate to the latter accordingly. If you find that very simple, you would be intrigued to know that NFL general managers and their staff do not always do so. In fact, it can be identified that, in recent times, there has been somewhat of a conflict of ideologies.

Some teams, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Buffalo Bills, have gone down that road. Those clubs either built a good core of receivers, running backs, O-Line, and parts of the defense prior to signing a QB on a big deal (TB) or did so once they added those vital assets (BUF and ARI).

The difference between the two lines of thinking has been stark. Tom Brady, for example, had accuracy rates of 65.8 and 60.8, respectively, across his last two seasons in New England. His completion percentage and passer rating dropped to 60.8% and 88.0, respectively, once he lost Rob GronkowskiJosh Gordon missed most of 2019, and his second-best weapon was Phillip Dorsett. However, he joined a Buccaneers team that had the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, as well as Antonio Brown for half a season and a returning Gronk. The result: a passer rating of 102.2 and a completion percentage of 65.7%.

The offensive line and the running game for the 2019 Patriots and the 2020 Buccaneers had an identical output. Therefore, a drastic difference between the receiving cores contributed to a drastic difference between the two campaigns as regards Brady’s performance. The Bills and Cardinals offenses went in a similar direction once they added assets such as DeAndre HopkinsStefon Diggs, etc.

Other teams, like the New York Jets, opted for the narrative that all of their problems occur due to the quarterback. The Jets, having a plethora of roster holes, traded Sam Darnold and drafted a quarterback in Zach Wilson with the second overall pick this year. Instead, they could have added upgrades to a still lacking receiving corps or a massively embarrassing ground-game faction.

New York’s campaign is not over yet, but the club has just one win in five matchups. Moreover, their previous two seasons, with a total of nine victories, suffered for the same reasons. Also, the Bills and the Cardinals themselves, and Kyler Murray and Josh Allen, respectively, also struggled with inadequate weaponry around them before the current talent would lead them to the promised land. The difference between good and bad reinforcements has been bigger than the difference that came with the two passers’ process of maturity, for both teams.

Rams Flying High

Firstly, everyone within the business should have noticed Stafford’s incredibly high ceiling during the last seven years leading to 2021. Secondly, everyone should have seen this explosion coming with the magnificent talent around. Matthew Stafford had overcome enormous obstacles en route to terrific consistency for years. Now in the Golden State, his potential is close to being fully unveiled.

Moreover, the ongoing tendencies show that the success is likely to continue for Stafford, the Rams offense, and the team as a whole. Therefore, barring significant injuries, COVID absence of key players, or suspensions, the Los Angeles Rams should not be dropping in the standings any time soon.

Thanks for reading my article on Matt Stafford’s 2021 performance. Follow me on Twitter @TeodorTsenov for more of my content and follow @OT_Heroics!

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Teodor Tsenov is the Jets and Marlins writer for Overtime Heroics, as well as an NFL and MLB writer for Franchise Sports UK. From Bulgaria.