Stafford at the century mark, in context


The 2016 Detroit Lions are doing kind of okay! Week Seven is in the books, and they’re 4-3, including a win over the probably good Eagles. In a week of very bad professional football, the Lions’ game-winning drive provided a rare highlight on Sunday. I insist you enjoy it again:

Because the NFL media corps is an insatiable monster, Sunday and Monday found everyone except Skip Bayless launching the Matthew Stafford MVP campaign:

Sunday was Stafford’s 100th NFL game, leading one writer to tabulate a long thread of historical statistical notes, the catchiest of which is the list of quarterbacks’ passing yards through their first one-hundred career games:

  1. Stafford: 27,890
  2. Dan Marino: 27,064
  3. Kurt Warner: 26,097
  4. Peyton Manning: 26,008
  5. Aaron Rodgers: 25,616

Not unimpressive company. As with Carson Palmer’s headline-grabbing passing milestone last month, though, this accumulative distinction requires some context, lest we assume, for example, that Stafford’s destined to be a better quarterback than Rodgers, Manning, or Warner, much less the great Marino. (Wait a second, Marino never won a Super Bowl? We may actually have something here.)

When Palmer surpassed Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas on the career QB passing yards list in September (he’s all the way up to fifteenth on the list now, having added Kerry Collins to his list of conquests), I wrote:

It’s tough to write successful biographies while the subject still is alive, and it’s tough to evaluate the legacies of athletes while they still are playing, but you can be forgiven if you think Palmer might not quite belong in the company of Montana and Unitas.

The NFL has changed a lot since Montana was leaving his championship mark on the sport, and it’s changed even more since Unitas made waves simply by wearing hightops in a game. In short, the 40,000 passing yards threshold isn’t what it used to be, and the modern game is so different from prior eras that comments like Schrager’s, above, say more about those broad, sport-wide changes than they do about any individual achievements. Any longer, it simply isn’t helpful to our understanding of professional football and its players’ achievements to compare, for example, quarterback career passing yard totals.

A better way to understand how Palmer’s career achievement stacks up against those of Montana and Unitas is to contextualize it so we can better appreciate what it means for Palmer to have thrown for more than 40,000 yards in his NFL environment as compared to what it meant for Montana and Unitas to throw for over 40,000 yards in their NFL environments.

I then proceeded to create such a contextual comparison in a very crude (though not truly vulgar) manner and concluded that, had they played in Palmer’s era, Montana and Unitas probably still would have a leg or two up on Palmer in the career-passing-yards department.

Although none of the other four quarterbacks on the list Stafford tops, above, are as chronologically removed from him as Unitas was from Palmer (likely a telling fact in and of itself), lists of this sort still require contextualization. To provide that, I’ll apply the same rough (like, forty-grit sandpaper rough) inflation formula I used in the Palmer analysis to determine Stafford-era, first-one-hundred-game yardage totals for each QB based on the average team passing yards per game in the season in which each QB played his fiftieth career game (for Stafford, that was 2013):

[first one hundred games passing yards] * ([2013 average passing yards/team/game] / [average passing yards/team/game in previous era]) = Stafford-era total first one hundred games passing yards

The adjusted results:

  1. Marino: 30,949
  2. Manning: 29,698
  3. Warner: 28,901
  4. Stafford: 27,890
  5. Rodgers: 27,165

Again, I know everyone will let me know where this went sideways methodologically and arithmetically, but I think this exercise provides a more realistic idea of how the beginning of Stafford’s career stacks up against some of the best to play the position, which is: well, but not best all time.

Back in August, I suggested that two factors– an easy second-half schedule in 2015 and the absence of Calvin Johnson– should temper the heightened expectations for the Lions offense in 2016. So far, though, things are looking pretty good even in Johnson’s absence, and I am close to doing that reliably reckless thing all Lions fans do at some point each season, which is throw all reason to the wind and buy hard on this team, only to be deeply, deeply disappointed at some point around the time the gravy boat docks at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Go Lions!


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