It’s an imperfect MVP race. Every leading candidate is flawed. The unequivocal best player, Tom Brady, was suspended the first four games, which will sour some voters. Everyone wants to coronate Derek Carr strictly for being a young quarterback on a surprising 10-win team. Raiders fans hate to hear it, but Carr has been much more up-and-down on film than his numbers suggest; his mechanics and decision-making have wavered throughout 2016. Though he’s been much sharper most of the past month (Thursday’s disaster at Kansas City aside), Carr overall is just a very talented work-in-progress on an extremely well-crafted offense. Terrific rising QB? Absolutely? Most Valuable Player? No.
Matt Ryan has been a steadier version of Carr, though his interceptions against the Chiefs last week, plus the Falcons’ tenuous grasp on the NFC South lead, give pause. In Dallas, those beloved rookies aren’t even among the best three players on their own offense; linemen Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are. Some have suggested just giving the award to Dallas’s O-line, which would make it the MVGOP—Most Valuable Group of Players. Only a few stops from that precedent-setting copout would be giving an MVP to all 11 starters of the league’s top scoring offense some year.
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The unguardable wide receivers—Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones—have remained great, but not as prolific as in previous years (when they received very little consideration for the award). And amongst NFL defensive players, which unfortunately MVP voters have long tacitly agreed to ignore, Von Miller and Khalil Mack have had sensational campaigns, but have not quite produced at a Wattonian level.
This leaves Matthew Stafford. No player has been worth more to a successful team in 2016. Stafford’s receiving corps features a No. 1 who doesn’t draw double teams (Marvin Jones), an inconsistent No. 2 who subsists largely on gadget plays (Golden Tate) and an elderly slot man who can no longer run (Anquan Boldin). Stafford’s offensive line is improved, but with rookies Graham Glasgow and Taylor Decker on the left side, and middle-tier guys everywhere else, it still runs hot and cold. That’s partly why the Lions have a ground game that ranks 29th and must be supplemented with screen passes and misdirection concepts—tactics that hinge on Stafford’s presnap decision-making. On defense, the Lions are gradually improved but still not a unit of stingy stoppers or dynamic playmakers.
And yet this team sits at 9-4. An NFL record eight of its victories have been fourth quarter comebacks—including Sunday’s over Chicago.
Granted, it’s hard to include the Chicago win in Stafford’s MVP case. It was his foolish decision and inaccurate throw that created the Cre’Von LeBlanc pick-six that put Detroit in position to have to come back.
A mistake like this would have been considered “Classic Stafford” in years past. He’s long been a gifted but reckless gunslinger. However, since Jim Bob Cooter took over as Detroit’s offensive coordinator late last October, Stafford has thrown only 11 interceptions, while completing 67.6 percent of his throws. His passer rating is 100.8 and the Lions are 15-7 during this time.
Cooter asks Stafford to be more of a field general. The quarterback has to do more defensive diagnostics before the snap, which naturally leads to smarter decisions after it. As part of this approach, the Lions, by modern NFL standards, are pretty static and constricted in their formations and personnel packages. They’re counting on the scheme winning through execution. Which is to say, they’re counting on their quarterback’s football IQ and discipline.
Stafford has answered the call. And, fascinatingly, the sudden absence of longtime go-to guy Calvin Johnson has been an aiding factor. Johnson’s unique size, speed and catching radius made him a gunslinger’s dream. He was the type of target who justified risky, careless decisions—even the ones you really can’t justify. Without Johnson, Stafford has had to base his actions more off the defense and his play’s design.
When the defense and scheme don’t present an open target, Stafford’s new instinct is to move his feet, not fire his gun. That’s how you help receivers who aren’t getting open on their own. Stafford’s seven-yard, game-winning touchdown scramble against Chicago is just the latest on a long list of plays he’s made with his legs in 2016. The improvised runs and out-of-pocket throws are the easiest to spot, but Stafford’s most impressive plays on the move have come within the pocket, off of subtle, fundamentally disciplined footwork. This is what separates good and great quarterbacks.
The best part is: Through his newfound discipline, Stafford has still been able to call upon his gunslinger characteristics when late-game comeback situations demand it. People like to attribute late-game heroics to nebulous, mystical traits like “It Factors” and “Moxie.” But really, the “magic” comes from arm strength and precision accuracy. Or, in Stafford’s case, arm strength and precision accuracy on off-balance throws and from weird arm angles. These are ideal traits for challenging the deep voids in Cover 2, which is what most teams play when protecting a late lead. They’re also a good way to counter the intensified pass rush pressure that comes in those obvious throwing situations.
The Lions are two wins away from winning their first division title since 1993. For perspective, every other NFC team has won at least three division titles in that time. Stafford, who was five years old when that NFC Central banner was raised, deserves the credit for ending the drought. He’s been the Most Valuable Player of this NFL season.