NFL Analysis


6 min read

Matthew Stafford Is NFL's Best QB Nobody Is Talking About

Matthew Stafford drops back in the pocket
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) drops back to pass against the against the New Orleans Saints during the first half at SoFi Stadium. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Matthew Stafford is playing some of the best football of his career. There are maybe a handful of quarterbacks who are doing more for their team than Stafford has done for the rag-tag Los Angeles Rams all year long. 

In Thursday night's win against the New Orleans Saints, Stafford made a statement showing to finally launch himself into the national conversation and get the flowers he deserves for what he's been doing. 

Stafford was exceptional in prime time. Rattling off his 328 passing yards and two touchdowns doesn't even begin to do justice to the performance he put together. Neither does the game's 30-22 final score. 

Instead, Stafford's performance might be better understood through Cooper Kupp's meltdown.

Kupp looked like he didn't know how to catch a football for the first time in his career. He finished with six catches for 52 yards by the end of the game, but he dropped two potential touchdowns, and a third-and-2 pass hit him in the mitts to force the field goal unit on.

It was a bizarre, uncharacteristic string of errors from a star player, the kind of high-profile implosion that would normally sink an offense. 

It didn't matter whatsoever.

Stafford never stopped slinging the ball around. Short, intermediate, deep — he threaded every throw you can imagine. He was smart and methodical when coach Sean McVay was hitting the right notes as a play-caller, but Stafford also pulled a few aces out of his sleeve when he needed to.

He was in full control. 

Stafford's opening-drive touchdown shed light on the first aspect of that formula.

McVay went for it on fourth-and-2 after Kupp dropped a should-be touchdown near the right pylon on the previous play. Before the snap, Kupp went in motion from left to right, changing the formation from a 2x2 to a 3x1 bunch set.

The Saints' defense bumped across rather than have a man follow Kupp, which told Stafford he was likely getting zone coverage. Stafford took the snap and ripped the ball to Puka Nacua on a little hitch route without a single wasted motion, believing fully in the scheme and the receiver on the end of the throw. 

It's far from the flashiest throw of Stafford's career. Still, there's something beautiful about McVay having unwavering faith in his quarterback in that moment and being rewarded with a throw executed to perfection. 

If you want the flashy throws, though, don't worry. Stafford delivered those, too. A pair of passes to Demarcus Robinson during a two-minute drill was vintage Stafford. 

That is "throwback" Stafford. That is 2011, "I just want to make the coolest throw possible," Stafford.

It didn't matter that he was rolling to his left, which is typically a tougher proposition for right-handed quarterbacks. Stafford flicked the ball almost 35 yards over a Saints defender and pinned it on Robinson's helmet. 

That version of Stafford didn't exist last year. Injuries up and down his body zapped him of the mobility and creativity he once had. We still got to see some sweet arm angles from inside the pocket, but the wheelin' and dealin' on the move we were so used to seeing from him looked gone for good.

Against the odds, Stafford has found that magic again — as a man who is two weeks away from turning 36 years old. 

Peak Stafford also reared his head to finish off that two-minute drive with six points — but in a different way. 

I mean, come on. The RPMs on this ball — while it still has the arc and control to hit Robinson dead in the hands — are something else. As is how quickly Stafford cycled through his options and decisively made a back-side throw in the first place. Red zone football is all about marrying speed with precision, and that's exactly what Stafford did here. Perfection. 

Thursday night might have been the first time the whole country tuned in to see Stafford, but he has been playing like this all year. He's especially been doing so during the last month. He's been on fire since the Rams' bye in Week 10. McVay got a week to pore over the film and adjust the dials of the offense, and Stafford has executed as well as anyone could. 

Stafford has been playing like one of the best quarterbacks in football. 

Stacked bar chart showing EPA per dropback since Week 11. From top: Purdy, Love, Browning, Stafford, Presott, Allen, Carr, Jackson, Tagovailoa, Lawrence, Smith, Levis, Mayfield, Goff, Hurts

Stafford ranks fourth in the league in EPA per dropback since Week 11. He falls a little because he still has some clunky misfires. But those haven't stopped him from being a force. Stafford does more than enough to keep Los Angeles' offense on track and constantly delivers explosive plays that breathe new life into a drive. 

Fourth in EPA per dropback and 10th in success rate doesn't sound too insane on its face, but consider the context.

In that six-game stretch, the Rams have played the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Saints. The Browns and Ravens rank first and second in pass defense DVOA, respectively. The Saints aren't too far behind at eighth. The Rams have played some Swiss cheese defenses in that span, too, but there are real-deal defenses that Stafford has dissected. 

To say Stafford is playing some of the best ball of his career feels like an overstatement. He's thrown more than 40 touchdowns in multiple seasons; he won a Super Bowl just two seasons ago. Stafford has played at an extremely high level before. 

When you watch him now, you can feel the delicate blend of the old wild stallion he used to be and the mature, veteran pocket general he is now who understands what is best for the offense.

It's the best of both worlds. 

Stafford's play alone will make the Rams a tough out in the playoffs if they can get there. They have become the team nobody wants to draw in the NFC playoff bracket. Stafford is leading an offense that can go blow for blow with anyone, and Los Angeles' young defense might have just enough teeth to hang in there. 

Trying to predict a Cinderella postseason run is a fool's errand, but Stafford is giving this Rams team a real chance to make it happen.