NFL1000: Is Matthew Stafford Leaping into NFL's Elite QB Class?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutOctober 25, 2016

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 23: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions throws a pass while playing the Washington Redskins at Ford Field on October 23, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan Detroit won the game 20-17. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Over the last 16 games, a "Tiger Slam" version of a regular season, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has hit a new statistical plane. In that time, he's completed 391 of 570 passes for a 69 percent completion rate, 4,310 yards, 35 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Stafford has always been a prolific stat collector, primarily because the Lions have competed with the Saints for the passing-attempts crown. Stafford won the Attempts King title in 2011 (with 663) and 2012 (with 727), but after his 41-touchdown season in ’11, he ramped down considerably in the scoring department.

In 2012, he threw for just 20 touchdowns in those 727 attempts for a touchdown percentage of 2.8. Between 2013 and 2015, Stafford threw the ball 634, 602 and 592 times, but he had just 29 touchdown passes in 2013 and 22 in 2014.

Things started looking better last year, when he threw for 32 touchdowns on those 592 attempts, but 2016 has proved to be a revelation. Through seven games this season, Stafford has 15 passing touchdowns in 241 attempts, and the corresponding 6.2 touchdown rate matches his 2011 career high.

Stafford has seen significant improvement in just about every relevant category in the last two seasons, and he's now doing it without Calvin Johnson, the future Hall of Famer who retired in March. Stafford also has 11 fourth-quarter comebacks since the start of the 2014 season, which leads the league.

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What's changed for the better? Well, the Lions signed former Bengals receiver Marvin Jones to replace Megatron, and that's helped, but the big difference has been offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (yes, that's his real name), who was promoted to that position midseason in 2015. He had been the team's quarterbacks coach since 2014 and had held various offensive assistant positions with the Broncos, Chiefs and Colts in the last few years.

Until recently, the only reason Cooter was remarkable was for his name, but people are starting to notice what he's done to diversify Detroit's offense—and how it's helping Stafford.

"I didn't make a conscious decision," Cooter said last October when asked about his name, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "I think maybe my parents were really into marketing, so we were trying to sell some T-shirts from an early age."

Laugh all you want, but Cooter's charges are all in to the way he's designing the offense and calling plays. Receiver Golden Tate recently said, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive:

I'm not sure how much you guys know, but Jim Bob's a very, very, very intelligent guy. His playcalling has been phenomenal, I think, the last season, really. Every single game, we've been in it when it came down to it. He's finding ways to put us in position to win. He understands what we all do well, and he's putting us in positions to do that. And when you make great play calls, it almost makes the game a little bit easier.

That's true. When you watch the Lions offense at work, you'll see Tate as the movable chess piece, everywhere from the backfield to the slot to outside. You'll see one of the better screen teams in the league, and you'll see favorable receiver distribution and location matchups that help Stafford simply find the open man. It's helping everyone play more consistently.

Based on what I've seen, Cooter's primary assistance to Stafford has been to keep him within himself. It's often thought that great quarterback coaches are the ones who can take marginally talented signal-callers and prompt them to reach the upper tiers of their potential, and that's one true story. But it's just as important, when you're blessed with a quarterback who has nearly limitless physical ability, to refine his attributes into a package that presents the most consistent player possible.

There's no question that Stafford pins the needle when it comes to pure talent. He's had one of the three best arms in the NFL since he entered the league in 2009 as the first overall pick out of Georgia. He's always been a tough and mobile player as well, but there's been an element of randomness to his game that prevented him from being great week after week.

More often than not, Stafford in his first few NFL seasons would mix beautiful throws and franchise-defining drives with scattered release points, head-scratching decisions and spotty accuracy. Now, with more consistent reads and mechanics and play designs tailored to his strengths, Stafford isn't so much a different quarterback as he is a more consistent version of the better versions of what we've seen before.

Now, he's a quarterback who deals with an ideal ratio of sticking with the system and off-play improvisation.

These five plays from the Lions' last two weeks show the balance.

This 52-yard pass to Marvin Jones with 8:49 left in the third quarter against the Redskins last Sunday proves that Stafford has the same arm strength he's always had, but also that it's buttressed by consistent mechanics. Jones is on the outside right, covered by Josh Norman, who's playing bail technique from the start. Jones outruns Norman on a deep post, and Stafford lets it rip right around the time Jones gets that first step on Norman.

The Redskins cornerback was all over Jones as the ball arrived (he was busted for pass interference and unfortunately injured on the play), but Stafford put the ball outside Norman's reach, where Jones had to dive for it. Stafford runs a play fake, bends his back on the dropback to get extra torque and rocks his body forward for optimal velocity. Because his body's in line, Stafford doesn't have to overexert himself, which is where a lot of quarterbacks get into trouble with accuracy.

The Lions were down 17-13 with 22 seconds left in the game, and the ball was on Washington's 18-yard line. This time, Stafford threw the ball to veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who signed a one-year deal with the team in July. Boldin doesn't have much left in the way of speed, but he's always been one of the NFL’s better contested-ball catchers.

Watch the way he slow-plays his route against cornerback Kendall Fuller from the middle position of a trips left formation. Boldin gives Fuller a sharp outside move, forcing Fuller to take that position, before cutting inside to the open area. Stafford had the protection to wait and make the throw, and he timed it perfectly.

"Just an aggressive shot," Stafford said after the game:

Obviously, we had some shots at the end zone there. A vertical concept, Anquan ran a great route, kind of slow-played his guy in the slot. I cut it loose and kind of thought to myself, "We're either going to win the game or lose the game on this one."

It was a tight window. I'll take that every time. I mean, I throw an interception right there, it's on my back, I'm fine with it. Being aggressive, trying to score, Anquan ran a great route. Obviously, caught the ball and got in, just a really nice play.

Boldin agreed. "Jim Bob called a good play," he said. "This was a play that we had been going over for a couple weeks in practice. Haven't had a chance to run it in a game yet, but Matt just made an awesome throw. I mean, he put it the only place you could put it, so I had no choice but to catch it."

For an ideal example of Stafford's ability to combine post-design improvisation and physical skill, look no further than this two-yard touchdown to receiver Andre Roberts with 3:12 left in the second quarter of Detroit's Week 6 win over the Rams.

It’s 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line, and the Lions went five-wide; Roberts motioned from left to right pre-snap. Stafford got flushed out of the backside pocket by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and he had to throw up a well-aimed prayer to Roberts at the end-zone boundary. Roberts fought for the ball and caught it for the touchdown. Cornerback E.J. Gaines couldn't keep up, adding a pass interference call for his trouble.

This play is about having trust in your receivers, because Stafford threw a bullet falling away from the play, which is usually a recipe for disaster. But he has the arm strength—and the targets—to pull it off.

Cooter said a few days later:

Really good scramble play by Stafford. You know, we called a play, and they really had a pretty good coverage called against that. We were going to have an uphill time finding a touchdown completion within the scope of the play we drew up.

It's fourth down, Stafford moves around, smart quarterback's going to give somebody a shot there, he's fading back, he's able to give Andre Roberts a shot, Andre goes up and makes a heck of a play. [Stafford] did a good job giving somebody a shot and making a really nice throw kind of moving away from the action. It was good to see.

If you want to see what Stafford's velocity gives the Lions, check out this four-yard touchdown to Boldin with 9:52 left in the third quarter.

Not much to draw up here: Boldin is in the left slot, he runs a quick in route to the end zone, cornerback Lamarcus Joyner bites on the play fake to fullback Zach Zenner and Stafford delivers an absolute missile to Boldin—again, perfectly timed. Joyner doesn't even have time to get his hands up to defend the pass—he looks startled that it's coming in that hot.

Finally, this 23-yard touchdown to Tate with 6:09 left in the fourth quarter is a great combination of execution and play design. I love the route combination to the left side, with Tate on the outside, tight end Clay Harbor in the middle and Boldin closest to the formation.

At the snap, Tate runs an underneath route while Boldin essentially runs a blocking route a few yards upfield, and Harbor runs a few more yards upfield to extend the coverage. The blocking by the receivers is excellent, as is Tate's agility to the end zone.

How far can the Lions take this? Well, they're 10-6 during Stafford's hot streak despite a defense that has been inconsistent at best. The Vikings look a bit vulnerable after their loss to the Eagles last Sunday, and you never know what you're going to get from Green Bay's offense from week to week. It's not out of the realm of possibility for this team to compete for a wild-card slot.

More importantly, Stafford has been recharged by his association with the unlikely offensive genius with the funny name. It's a heavy shotgun game plan with a ton of no-huddle—it puts a lot of responsibility on Stafford's shoulders, and he's ready for that challenge.

Jim Bob Cooter is an entertaining fellow, but his playbook is no laughing matter.


Quotes provided directly by team media departments unless otherwise noted.

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