Every Inch Counts: The Matthew Stafford Zone

By: Chris Dagonas

Fourth down. Ten yards from the end zone. Two seconds on the clock. Six points needed to win the game.

If you could pick any current quarterback for this scenario, who would it be? And why? The top of the list is pretty simple: his name probably rhymes with Dayton Channing. But how many quarterbacks would you pick before you got to Matthew Stafford, or even Tom Brady for that matter? It might be more than you think.

The Matthew Stafford Zone is the grey area in which quarterbacks stop being centrepieces of their offences and start becoming afterthoughts, or complimentary pieces. In other words, it is the zone in which quarterbacks have performed just at replacement level. It glosses over the best and worst at the position this year.

Peyton Manning, QB efficiency leader

Peyton Manning, QB efficiency leader

Using QB Rating as a metric, including only quarterbacks with 280 or more attempts this season, the cream of the crop are: Peyton Manning (114.5), Russell Wilson (106.5), Philip Rivers (106.4), and Drew Brees (104.9). Their teams all rely heavily on these guys, and their presence, leadership and skills make them virtually irreplaceable. As I said, this isn’t too hard to figure out.

The current bottom of the barrel guys are: Eli Manning (74.2), Chad Henne (74.9), EJ Manuel (75.4), and Joe Flacco (77.0). That is to say, I believe that the Giants, Jaguars, Bills and Ravens would probably all have better records this season with higher-rated quarterbacks, and that is not a very difficult case to make either. Eli particularly has had a turbulent year, but his Giants sit at 5-8, whereas two close losses to the Cowboys could have been victories with some slightly better decision making and accuracy from the QB spot.

The NFL's worst starting quarterback?

The NFL’s worst starting quarterback?

As a grade 6 teacher, I know there is a way to find the middle ground. I just taught it in November! It’s called the mean, and it’s found by adding all the numbers in the data set, and dividing by the number of numbers in the set. (Work done on separate piece of paper.) The mean quarterback rating, for those with more than 280 attempted passes,  is 88.8. Replacement level starting quarterbacks, then, sit around a 88.8 QB rating.

The quarterbacks closest to this rating would represent average quarterbacks. This season, those are: Matt Ryan (89.0), Tom Brady (88.3), Matthew Stafford (88.2), and Cam Newton (87.9). It might not be easy, but can an argument be made that their respective teams would be better with another quarterback? Or, in the case of Stafford, that a ‘worse’ quarterback could achieve the same results? Let’s dive in and see.

Matt Ryan has had a respectable career in Atlanta, leading the Falcons to division titles in 2010 and 2012, and playoff appearances in every season but one. Ryan has also been on very talented Falcons teams, with aggressive defenses and skilled receivers and running backs. His yards per completion are down this season, as well as his touchdown rate. Injuries to his passing options have been a factor, yes, but Ryan’s regression has been swift and startling nonetheless. The Falcons currently sit at 3-10, and you’d have a hard time convincing me that a Wilson or Brees, let alone a Peyton, would not have been worth wins against, at the very least, this year’s New York Jets and the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers. The Falcons thought Ryan would become the centrepiece quarterback of a championship team, but it just never happened. Instead, he has been the compliment to an impressive running game (Michael Turner for years, and Steven Jackson this season) and talented receiving group, albeit one that has suffered an unfair share of injuries this season. Assuming full health for Roddy White and Julio Jones, how many wins would you expect of this year’s Falcons? Most projections had them winning their division, or at least competing for a wild-card spot, but the fact remains that this team with this year’s Matt Ryan would not have made much noise, regardless of health.

A visual summary of Matt Ryan's season

A visual summary of Matt Ryan’s season

Tom Brady has had some absolutely disgusting seasons. How about 50 touchdowns in 2007? How about 8.6 yards per completion in 2011? This season, he is on pace for about 25 touchdowns and 7 yards per pass, which is exactly the same as Matt Ryan. The Patriots are 10-3, fine, but they are not the dominant force they used to be anymore. They only have two wins of more than 10 points this season; one came against the Josh Freeman Buccaneers way back in week 3, and the other was an aberration against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 7. Other than that, this is a team that has barely defeated cellar-dwellers like the Bills, Jets and Texans. Yes, elite safety valve Wes Welker has moved on, but he was far from the perennial reception leader he became when he arrived from the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots made Welker who he is, and they can do the same with Kenbrell Thompkins or Danny Amendola. Except, they haven’t. Maybe Brady just doesn’t have it in him anymore. These recent late-game heroics make for a nice chapter in the Brady story, but sooner or later, the Patriots will meet an AFC defense that won’t blink. Given over a decade of excellent performances, it is hard to make a case that Brady is not the centrepiece quarterback. But this season, the Patriots are surviving, and thriving, on an active running game and tenacious defense, not on the back of Tom Brady, as in years past.

Tom Brady struggling STILL makes for a 10-3 season.

Tom Brady struggling STILL makes for a 10-3 season.

Matthew Stafford wears the same colour jersey as Calvin Johnson. It’s not quite that simple, but it does explain a lot. Without Megatron in his huddle, Stafford is more Chad Henne than Drew Brees. Stafford’s completion rate has only been above 60% once in his career, and while his yards-per-completion rate is up this season from last, he has displayed inconsistency so far, not composure and leadership as you might hope for from your franchise quarterback. Without Johnson in the lineup, in a week 5 matchup against the Green Bay Packers back in October, Stafford struggled to gain any momentum. His stats were not terrible, (262 yards, 1 TD, 62.5% completion) but they were average. This will be the story of Stafford’s career, and if the Lions were ever to lose Johnson, well, it would not take long for Stafford’s flaws to come to light. Again, this is not an argument that Stafford is awful, or that he should not be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It is simply to say that he puts up inflated stats with an all-universe wide receiver on the roster. Could Brees or Wilson get better results from the Lions? Sure. But unlike the other three quarterbacks in this discussion, I legitimately believe that a quarterback near the bottom of the league in efficiency would achieve similar results as Stafford if he were placed on the Lions and given the ability to throw to Calvin ten times a game or more.

Cam Newton can run. The other three quarterbacks cannot. I mean, they can, physically, but not effectively on an NFL field. Newton’s running is what separates him from most of the quarterbacks in the league. Yet, the Panthers have schemed this season to keep Newton inside the pocket, reducing his runs by more than one per game. Removing this weapon from Newton’s game is counterproductive. Young quarterbacks often struggle with accuracy early in their careers, and Newton’s 62% mark this season is his best, which shows progress. However, his yards-per-completion has dropped significantly, which signals that he is using his checkdown options more often. He is on pace for his highest touchdown total in his three seasons, but he will also likely finish this season with more sacks than ever before.

Cam Newton at his best, on the run.

Cam Newton at his best, on the run.

All told, Newton is a freakish athlete with most of the tools for success in the NFL, but the Panthers have tried to make a pocket quarterback out of him, and he may lack the necessary downfield accuracy of a Brady, Manning, or Brees (as I was writing this sentence, Newton just overthrew an open Greg Olsen on a long throw). It doesn’t take much analysis to say that Peyton Manning would be the better quarterback, but if the Panthers are looking for a pocket passer, they might even do better with Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger, a notion that seems outrageous at first glance, but is supported by the stats. Cam Newton can become a very good NFL quarterback, but for that to happen, he will always need what he has in Carolina: a very intimidating defense, and the dual threat of running with the ball or throwing it to keep opposing pass rushes and defenders at bay.

Would I choose Tony Romo or Ben Roethlisberger over Tom Brady in the scenario I led off with? Probably not. Brady has a much more impressive history, and he tends to improve as the game wears on, and Newton’s ceiling is just so high. But when the Patriots or Panthers come across a stout defense like the Chiefs, Bengals, 49ers or Seahawks in the postseason, I will remember, and the evidence will show, that Brady, as well as Stafford, Ryan and Newton, are replacement level quarterbacks this season. Nothing more.

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