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Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 passing yards last year, making him just the 4th man to ever throw for 5,000 yards in a season. Of course, Stafford also threw 663 passes in 2011, the third most in league history. Stafford actually ranked 13th in yards per attempt last season, which put him just ahead of Matt Ryan.

Lions fans certainly think that Stafford is a franchise quarterback, an elite talent, and the team’s first star quarterback since Bobby Layne. It’s hard to disagree, as Stafford and Calvin Johnson led a team that had no running game and an inconsistent defense to a 10-6 record last year. But on some level — with one big caveat — Lions fans are essentially saying that Stafford’s 5,038 passing yards are more of an indicator of his ability than his 7.6 yards per attempt average. And we know that’s not true.

What’s that one caveat? You can make a pretty compelling case that if Stafford had 400 attempts in 2011, averaged the same 7.6 yards per attempt, and threw for 3,040 yards, then his 2011 season would still signal an excellent future. At 23-years-old, ranking in the top half of the league in yards per attempt is pretty impressive. A lot of quarterbacks were far behind the curve at age 23: Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Mark Brunell and Trent Green didn’t even get in a game at that age. Others, like Tom Brady, Len Dawson, Philip Rivers, Rich Gannon, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Montana and Norm Van Brocklin were pure backups during their age 23 season. The table below looks at some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and how they performed at age 23. The two columns on the far right show where each passer ranked in Pro-Football-Reference’s Yards per Attempt Index and Net Yards per Attempt Index. In each case, 100 represents league average, and a higher number is better. 115 represents being one standard deviation above average, 130 represents two standard deviations above average, etc. For players who were 23 before 1969, the first year we have individual sack data for quarterbacks, they do not have a NY/A+ rating.

Dan Marino19845649.0140153
Ben Roethlisberger20052688.9134128
Peyton Manning19995337.8116124
Dan Fouts19742377.3113120
Jim Hart19673977.6110--
Matthew Stafford20116637.6109111
Joe Namath19664717.2108--
Johnny Unitas19561987.6108--
Fran Tarkenton19632977.8106--
Bob Griese19683557.0102--
Brett Favre19924716.9101102
Ken Anderson19723016.495101
Bart Starr19572156.995--
Drew Brees20025266.29095
Bobby Layne19492996.090--
Bert Jones19742706.09081
Terry Bradshaw19713736.18889
Roman Gabriel19632816.988--
John Elway19832596.48683
Troy Aikman19892936.07882
Donovan McNabb19992164.46155

Compared to some of the other great quarterbacks in NFL history, very few were on the same level as Stafford was last year, even ignoring the gross passing yards he produced. That said, if Stafford doesn’t finish in the top 10 in yards per attempt this year, I’d be at least somewhat concerned about his long-term prospects. Throwing for 5,000 yards is great, but ranking in the middle of the pack in yards per attempt is not. At age 23, expectations shouldn’t be sky high, but an elite quarterback playing with the best wide receiver in the league would put up great raw numbers and great efficiency numbers. At age 23, Daunte Culpepper ranked in the top 3 in both Y/A and NY/A and led the league in passing touchdowns while playing with Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Culpepper had two great receivers, not one, but the point remains that a young quarterback putting up great numbers with a star wide receiver doesn’t make a Hall of Fame career.

One could argue that you should throw out his game against the Bears when he had his worst game of the season and was playing with a fractured finger. But you could make the same case with the week 17 game against the Packers, when he threw for 520 yards and 5 TDs in a game that meant nothing to Green Bay. If you remove those two games, Stafford averaged 7.7 yards per attempt in the other 14 games, just slightly north of his 16-game average.

Matt Stafford won the ESPY for most double chins in a leading role.

Am I overrating pass efficiency? I’m sure some are thinking “the guy threw for 5,000 yards, what more do you want?” History can’t help us find comparables that are all that close, but we can try. Like Stafford, five other quarterbacks ranked in the top five in passing yards but outside of the top 10 in NY/A since 1990. The results are a bit mixed. Drew Bledsoe led the league in passing yards at age 22 and finished third in that category two years later. In those seasons he ranked 12th and 16th in NY/A, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Lions fans hope for more out of Stafford’s career than Bledsoe 2.0. An even worse omen comes from the desert, as Jake Plummer ranked third in the league in passing yards as a 24-year-old phenom in 1998. He led the league that season in 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives, but also ranked just 16th in net yards per attempt.

On the other side come the brothers Manning. As a rookie, Peyton Manning ranked third in passing yards but 13th in net yards per attempt, while a 24-year-old Eli Manning finished 5th in passing yards but only 15th in NY/A.

I like Stafford, but don’t think he’s “there” yet. It was last August when I wrote that Sam Bradford’s rookie season had been overrated because of his large attempt numbers. I don’t expect Stafford’s NY/A to drop this year; in fact, I’d wager that he’ll finish in the top ten in NY/A in 2012. But until he finally shows that he can put up excellent efficiency numbers, I’m not going to fawn over his sexy gross totals.

(Note: I suppose I should preemptively address the concern that Stafford’s relatively average NY/A ratio is a function of the weak Detroit running game, which forced Stafford to shoulder the weight of the entire Detroit offense. But let’s not forget that Eli Manning had his best season last year when the Giants ranked last in the league in rushing. Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, and a host of other great quarterbacks have produced extremely efficient seasons despite being saddled with a poor running game. At the NFL level, the relationship between passing and rushing has been vastly overstated.)

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  • Danish

    When we see a running back average 6.5 yards per carry, we usually follow it up by something like “but it was only in 87 attemps”, suggesting that had he been the main guy, the defense would have keyed on him and lowered that average. Couldn’t the same thing be going on here, i.e maybe 7.7 NY/A in 650 attemps is as impressive as 8.7 in 400 attemps?