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3 differences in Matthew Stafford between last year’s start and this year’s

Where Stafford ranks through three weeks

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The NFL has seen an interesting trend with completion percentage over the last few decades, as the league continues to look for ways to making passing offenses appear more successful to audiences thirsty for touchdowns and big plays. There is no more exciting moment in football, arguably, than the highlight catch for a significant gain.

Just as we saw in Mahomes vs Allen, Stafford vs Brady, Burrow vs Mahomes, and Stafford vs Burrow in the playoffs last year, quarterbacks drive interest in the sport. Getting Josh Allen and Matthew Stafford on the stage for the first game was a big deal for the NFL. Sunday Night Football of Week 1 featured Tom Brady and Dak Prescott, while Monday Night Football had Russell Wilson facing his old team.

Even interest in following the NFL Draft could be based around the top-rated quarterbacks, as 2022 saw a huge dip in ratings after it speculation waned that it could be a strong class. It wasn’t, only one quarterback was taken in the top-80 picks, and fewer people watched than any year since 2017.

One way to potentially curb that waning interest on game day is to create high-percentage passing opportunities for your quarterback. Think of it like asking a hitter in baseball to only try for singles and to stop at first base, even if it seems like he could stretch it into a double. And rare is the home run.

That’s why completion percentage on its own doesn’t help foretell whether a quarterback is good or not. The stat needs context and maybe more than any other stat requires context.

For example, Geno Smith is leading the NFL in completion percentage through three a lot.

Smith’s 77.5% completion rate is the fifth-highest in NFL history through a team’s first three games and it is five percentage points higher than second-place: Matthew Stafford.

Stafford has completed at least 70% of his attempts in all three games and his overall completion rate of 72.5% ranks second in the NFL between Geno Smith and Aaron Rodgers. That’s not a sandwich I ever expected to eat.

The context necessary to add to completion percentage is rooted in a deeper look at the numbers, as well as historical evidence on their resumes.

The resume part, I think you get. What about other stats?

It’s important to go back to Smith being fifth all-time in completion percentage through three games: Also in the top-30 are Chad Pennington, Alex Smith, Teddy Bridgewater (twice), Gardner Minshew (twice), Colt McCoy, and Tyrod Taylor. Now take all 107 examples of quarterbacks to complete at least 70% of their passes through three games and sort it by adjusted net yards/pass attempt and see what you get:

Mahomes, Brady, Brady, Manning, and Stafford (last season) make up the top-five. The only odd ducks in the top-30 are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chris Chandler, and Lynn Dickey at 30. Jared Goff shows up three times, which brings us back to Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford.

In 2021, Stafford tied his career-high with a 67.5% completion rate, a number he also hit in 2015 with the Detroit Lions. However, Stafford’s 2021 season also included nine more touchdowns (in one additional game), a 0.9 higher Y/A than in 2015, and even though he led the league in interceptions the interception rate per throw was comparable to the last time he completed 67.5% of his pass attempts.

Stafford was throwing the ball deeper on average, and just like having Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate in 2015, he was paired with exceptional receiving talent. The completion rate in L.A. last season was even more significant than when he pulled it off in 2015 because the offense was more successful on average per completion.

Last year, Stafford got off to an incredible start by throwing nine touchdowns and only one interception in his first three games. Really the difference can be boiled down to three things:

1 - The interceptions in Week 1

If not for being picked off three times against the Bills, Stafford’s season would look very comparable to his 2021 campaign already. No quarterback should be so heavily defined by 3% of his total pass attempts. If that was the case, how would people feel after Stafford threw seven interceptions in the last three games before the playoffs last year?

It didn’t turn out bad.

2 - The seven sacks taken in Week 1

Stafford was sacked seven times by the Bills. He has been sacked once each in the last two games. In the regular season, the Rams were 3-4 when Stafford was sacked at least two times. Remarkably, he was sacked exactly two times in the final three playoff games.

I don’t see sacks as a problem for Stafford or the Rams offensive line. If Week 1 was a fluke, what’s the big deal?

3 - The intended air yards/attempt is down

This is where things do get weird. Stafford averaged 8.5 intended air yards per attempt in 2021 and over 21 games, including playoffs, he was over 8.0 on 14 occasions.

In 2022, his iay/a is 5.8 in Week 1, 6.9 in Week 2, and 8.6 in Week 3.

The 5.8 would have been his second-lowest of last season (he had 5.1 in the loss to the Titans), the 6.9 would have been his third-lowest (tied with the 20-19 win over the Ravens), and the 8.6 would have only ranked as his 11-highest.

When Stafford was able to air it out last year, the Rams were able to score more points. That’s one reason that L.A. is so primetime attractive these days.

The Rams are not airing it out nearly as much in 2022 and scoring is down. From 27.1 PPG last season to 20.3 PPG in 2022. It is a small sample size. However, there was only one three-game stretch in Stafford’s first season with L.A. in which the Rams scored fewer points and that was the three-game losing streak.

I’m not saying this is anything other than coincidental, but those were also the three games that saw Van Jefferson get the most playing time and the most targets of his career. It almost has to be coincidental because Jefferson has yet to play this season, but it also doesn’t necessarily give me confidence that Stafford will start throwing the ball downfield more when Jefferson returns from IR.

It was also during that losing streak that the Rams were transitioning from Robert Woods as the number two receiver to Odell Beckham, Jr..

The Rams then won their next five games, and nine of the next 10.

Fans like watching football for countless reasons, but I believe quarterback play is the most popular answer. The ratings and the media attention on quarterbacks are solid evidence backing that premise. Stafford brought more attention to the Rams at a time when they were debuting their $5 billion stadium and his season stats under McVay were reflective of the decision to get an upgrade at quarterback.

McVay had already proven capable of being able to design an offense that would elevate a good quarterback slotted into it and Stafford brought a consistent track record of being able to complete explosive plays with a deep passing attack.

The Rams won the Super Bowl and being able to complete explosive passing plays downfield in the fourth quarter proved invaluable to the mission.

So far this season, Stafford is 20th in intended air yards per attempt (down from sixth last year) and as a matter of fact, his 6.9 iay/a rate is exactly tied with Geno Smith. On the exact same amount of passing attempts. But we have historical context for why it is safer to assume that Stafford and Smith will trend in different directions over the course of the season.

Stafford last averaged 6.9 iay/a in 2018 and that year he finished with one of the most forgettable seasons of his career. He has almost identical an identical QBR right now to 2018, and almost the same touchdown rate, but he does have 14 more games to improve it and I assume that he will.

Next is the 49ers and last season he was consistently between 8.3 and 8.7 intended air yards/attempt in three games against San Francisco. Will he be in that range again, will it be higher, or will it be lower? That’s probably going to be more important to monitor than completion percentage.

But will require proper context.