A Quarterback Crumbles
Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
At PFF we have a lot of ways to accurately assess a quarterback’s production, but it really doesn’t matter which we one we use in this case; with qualification or without, Matthew Stafford comes out at the bottom of every overall measure so far in 2015.
Below Colin Kaepernick, below Michael Vick, below Jameis Winston. Absolutely, definitely the last on the list.
The fact of his decline really isn’t in question at this point—when a player of his caliber is benched it tells you all you need to know—but how did we get to this state of affairs?
The first thing that most people miss, lost in the fact the Lions made the playoffs last year, was that 2014 wasn’t a great year for Stafford.
Sure, it was only a slightly below average performance (on our scale, an average player = 0) and in the context of this year hugely superior but it ruined the upward trend he’d been enjoying since his difficult rookie year.
So what happened in 2014? A lot of people point to Calvin Johnson’s injury problems. It’s true that didn’t help, but our system significantly diminishes the impact of others on the individual’s performance. It grades the throw—not the ultimate result. If Stafford had continued to play at a similar level there is no way that losing a wide receiver (even for the entire season, never mind a few games) would cause this a drop of this magnitude.
Two things happened in 2014 that changed things dramatically. First, Joe Lombardi came in as offensive coordinator and brought with him a different view of how the passing game should operate. Secondly, Stafford started to get close to the NFL average for plays under pressure.
Why are those important?
Lombardi brought with him a scheme that featured much more underneath passing than Stafford was used to and, like most quarterbacks, Stafford has issues with pressure. Between 2011 and 2014 he averaged a QB rating of 94 without pressure and 63 under duress. You can use our grades to take out the influence of his receivers and, for the same period, know he averaged +16.5 when kept clean, and 3.9 with defenders in his face.
I know, the smart ones among you are already preparing to shoot me down. If he was under pressure more often every season and his grade went down under pressure why would his grade would go up every season until 2014?
Maybe the next chart will help.
The general NFL pattern in the face of pressure is to throw quicker, shorter passes. Up until 2014 he bucked that trend (and also the general trend within the league for this type of throw) and things had gone well. Some players are just better at longer throws than short throws (relatively speaking that is) and Stafford is one of them. For example, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler are players who work better when going deep. So is Stafford, but when the pressure and Lombardi’s new scheme forced him to dial things back, things started to go less well.
Moving on to 2015, the pressure situation because of the revamped offensive line has become intense. For the first time in his career he was in the top 10 for most pressured QBs. Add to that the failure of the running game—the Lions are on pace for an NFL all time low of 784 yards at their current pace—and you have a perfect storm of issues for Stafford.
Initially he held it together and managed a QB rating of 102.5 through two weeks when kept clean, but then the other type of pressure took a hold. The pressure of having to throw 73% of the time because of the inept running game and being behind so much, the pressure of losing, the pressure of simply being the quarterback on a 0-3 team in the NFL and even that last vestige of stability disappeared. For the first time in his life he started to play poorly when unmolested and his QB rating dropped to 85—well below the NFL average of 97—in an area he had previously excelled.
In summary, he’s a QB who prefers a longer passing game and who’s never played well under pressure being put under more pressure than he’s ever faced before and being forced into a shorter throwing game than he likes.
Something was always likely to give, and at the moment that’s the player himself. While it may already be too late to save this season, salvaging Stafford is the real goal now.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.