Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford turned 32 years old this week. By quarterback standards, he should be in the prime of his career, with the average age of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks through the 2010s being 31 years old. After an injury-hit 2019 season, however, and a perceived lack of success to his contract value, should the Lions look beyond Matthew Stafford as their quarterback of the future?
I choose the phrase “perceived lack of success” very carefully and deliberately. What is the definition of success for a franchise like the Detroit Lions? When they made Stafford the highest-paid player in the NFL in 2017, what were they expecting that money to buy? He had already taken them to the NFL Playoffs three times when the Lions hadn’t been there since 1999.
In fact, the Lions hadn’t won in the NFL Playoffs since 1991 when they went on to lose 41-10 to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship Game.
Although he hasn’t won a Super Bowl or been victorious in any NFL Playoff games, that doesn’t mean that Matthew Stafford hasn’t been a great quarterback.
The first overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, Stafford, leads all quarterbacks through 31 years old in passing attempts (5696) and completions (3559). He ranks second in passing yards (41,025) and third in passing touchdowns (256). Stafford is the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns for the Lions franchise, and his four winning seasons as the starting quarterback makes him the most successful Lions quarterback since Bobby Layne in the glory years of the 1950s.
In his career with Detroit, Stafford has had a team defense ranked in the top half of the NFL in yards or points allowed in just four seasons. Put simply, the lack of success doesn’t rest solely on Matthew Stafford’s shoulders.
2019 proves that Matthew Stafford should be the quarterback of the future in Detroit.
For me, the 2019 season provides the perfect reasoning as to why the Lions need to move forward with Matthew Stafford as their quarterback of the future. We can use Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric to show Stafford’s contribution to the offense and the impact his season-ending back injury had on the team’s performance.
At the midway point of the 2019 NFL season, Stafford was the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL with an overall grade of 32.00, indicating a very good performance. Within those eight games, Stafford had two elite grades of 40+.
The first of those grades came in the Week 4 loss over to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Lions tried to establish the run in that game, rushing the ball more than they threw it. Running back Kerryon Johnson only had an OSM grade of 11.84, below his season average. If the Lions had put the ball in Stafford’s hands more, with an OSM grade of 42.90 indicating he was performing as well as he could with the opportunities he was given, they might have pulled off a surprise victory.
In the Week 8 victory over the New York Giants, Stafford was the highest-graded quarterback in the league, with an OSM grade of 46.56. He had a season-high 78% completion percentage and average yards per reception of 10.7 yards. By contrast, the running game averaged just 2.4 yards as they labored to 59 yards on 25 carries. As he has done so many times in his Detroit Lions career, Stafford elevated the team to victory.
No other quarterback led the Lions to victory in 2019.
Backups Jeff Driskel and David Blough could not carry the offense in his absence. Blough started positively enough with a 24.43 OSM grade in his first career start against the Chicago Bears. However, he steadily regressed to an overall grade of 17.87 by the end of the year. Driskel faired much better with OSM graded of 36.79 (QB4) and 31.79 (QB5) in Weeks 11 and 12. However, the ball was taken out of his hands with rushing games of 121 and 175 yards, respectively. In the Week 12 defeat to the Washington Redskins, it was Bo Scarborough who was the driving force of the offense, with an OSM grade of 28.29, good enough for the fourth graded running back that week.
Stafford’s impact on his wide receiver group is well demonstrated via OSM too. Both Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola achieved their highest-graded games, and out-performed their season average, with Stafford under center.
Amendola twice had elite grades with Stafford as his quarterback.
If it hadn’t been for injury, Matthew Stafford would have been on pace for a career year in 2019. Based on his production through eight games, he would have been close to hitting 5000 yards, 38 touchdowns with just ten interceptions.
As per NFL Next Gen Stats, Stafford was a top-five quarterback in completion percentage versus expectation (+3.4%). He also had the fifth-longest completed pass, dispelling any concerns about the throwing arm that was surgically repaired early in his career. He also led the league in the yards to the sticks metric, on average throwing 1.8 yards beyond the first down marker, making plays for the team rather than relying on teammates to make up yardage after the catch.
This is further evidenced by the difference between yards before the catch and yards after the catch.
In 2018 Stafford’s figures were broken down to 1759 yards before the catch, with 2018 yards coming after. In 2019, he’d flipped the script with 1009 yards coming before, and 890 yards coming after the catch.
Reasons why the Detroit Lions could move on to a new quarterback
All the evidence points towards him being the franchise quarterback of the Detroit Lions for the entirety of his career. So why are there questions about Matthew Stafford as the quarterback of the future?
Recent trends in the NFL dictate that your best chance of Super Bowl success is to do it with a quarterback on a rookie contract. That way, you can better divide the salary cap between other positions of importance. The likes of the Los Angeles Rams with Jared Goff, and this year’s Super Bowl Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, are prime examples of this. The Lions are in an excellent position in the 2020 NFL Draft to begin that process. With the third overall pick, general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia could take a quarterback like Tua Tagovailoa, and trade Matthew Stafford away.
This seems unlikely, with the more sensible solution being to use this year’s draft stock to assemble a cast around Stafford. As Chris Spooner and Neal Driscoll alluded to in their latest NFL Draft pieces for PFN, the Liona could provide Stafford with the defensive support he’s so often been without.
Stafford’s injury sustained during 2019 is another reason given for the theory that the Detroit Lions should move on from him. It is the third season of his career where he has suffered lost game time due to injury.
What the protagonists of this theory fail to point out is that in between those injuries, Stafford has played eight consecutive seasons of 16 games.
What they also fail to point out is that on his return from a shoulder injury in 2011, Stafford won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, putting up over 5000 yards and 41 touchdowns as he guided the Lions to the NFL Playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
If the Lions surround him with the right talent, he can repeat the feat, and the conversation of whether Matthew Stafford is the Detroit Lions quarterback of the future will be one of the past.