Matthew Stafford is having a great season so far. He has no Calvin Johnson after the future Hall of Famer retired. Detroit has a depleted running game thanks to Ameer Abdullah being injured in week 2, and Theo Riddick also getting hurt. The pass defense ranks among the worst in the league, ranked 31st in adjusted net yards allowed, and dead last in passer rating allowed through 7 games.
And after Stafford hit Anquan Boldin with time ticking down on Sunday, to complete the fourth comeback win of the young season, talk turned to Stafford as a sudden MVP candidate. In fact, you could say that he has already clinched MVP of the Monday Morning discussion circuit.
But I’m here to pour freezing cold water on the Stafford MVP talk. Yes, as a practical matter, his play to this point may be among the most valuable contributions as we near the halfway mark. The Lions are a couple of plays from having a far worse record. Still, the biggest problem with Stafford for MVP is this: MVP’s don’t have seasons like Stafford is having.
Go back through the history of every quarterback to win MVP. They are, almost universally, on great teams. If we limit it to every QB who won MVP since 1978, the MVP played for team that, on average, went 13-3.
None of them have had more than 5 losses over the course of a full season: Rich Gannon (2002), Brett Favre (1995), Brian Sipe (1980). Gannon and Sipe played on teams that had the #1 seed in their conference for the playoffs; Favre’s Packers were a #3 seed, but he had 5 more TD passes than anyone else in the league.
Stafford’s Lions already have 3 losses, including one to the Titans, and the only loss to the Chicago Bears. They’ve played a below average schedule, and have scored as many points as they’ve allowed. They look like a team far more likely to finish 8-8 than close on a 8-1 run.
But what of those game-winning drives and close wins? Players like Stafford who have put up similar stats and led comebacks have not won MVP. Here’s a list of the most Game Winning Drives, since 1960, compiled by Scott Kacsmar and posted at Pro Football Reference.
If we extrapolate out and assume that Stafford plays exactly as he has, and the Lions win at the same rate, here are the most similar seasons in terms of Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt score, game-winning drives, and total wins.
None of those players won league MVP. Only two of the 28 quarterbacks with 6 or more game-winning 4th quarter drives in one season went on to win MVP, and both were named Peyton Manning (and had far more wins overall).
Stafford has been one of the best five quarterbacks in the league so far, and he has been playing very well since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator in Detroit last year. The odds of him winning a MVP, though, probably requires some combination of the Lions surging to a first round bye in the NFC, and Stafford shooting to a big lead in a traditional MVP category like passing TDs or yards per attempt, a combination looks unlikely at the moment.
The good news for Lions fans? Some of the other guys on that list, even though they did not win MVP, played for teams that made runs in the postseason. Four of them advanced to at least a conference title game, and the two guys who led 8 game-winning drives in a single season both went to the Super Bowl.