Allen Park — Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is on pace for the best season in his eight-year career.
Stafford has led the Lions to four fourth-quarter comebacks and three straight last-minute wins, including Sunday’s 20-17 victory over Washington where he threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left.
He ranks third in the league in passer rating (105.7), fourth in completion percentage (68 percent) and has a 3.75 touchdown-to-interception ratio – all career highs.
As the NFL season nears the midway point, has Stafford done enough to at least be mentioned in the MVP conversation?
"Stafford has impressed me since the day I meet him and when I walked into this locker room," receiver Golden Tate said Monday. "I think this is a guy who has always been a competitor. He's had a lot of things to battle against. This organization over the past two decades hasn't really had winning records, I guess, and Stafford has dealt with many different offenses with one team, so it's coming together.
"As far as MVP talk, I'm sure Stafford is not even listening to that. He's just showing up to work every week and he'd much rather have a Super Bowl MVP."
There are blemishes for Stafford’s case, such as poor losses at home to the Titans and on the road to the Bears -- which remains Chicago’s only win -- as well as the team’s 4-3 record.
But since offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter took over in Week 8 last year, Stafford has been playing at a higher – perhaps MVP-caliber – level.
In the past 15 games under Cooter, Stafford has completed 69.1 percent of his passes (369-for-534) for 4,093 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions. But most importantly, the Lions are 10-5 during that span.
“This streak that he’s had, he’s been on since the middle of last season. He’s had some great games,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Statistically he’s been really good and had some great performances, and he always has. It’s just that it’s been probably (more) consistent, midseason last year up until now.
“He’s been on fire and making some really good decisions, helping the team move along. But, I think this stretch has been his best stretch, I think statistically that bears out. But, I do think that you’ll see him just keep getting better as well.”
Caldwell has experience working with an MVP quarterback. In his first season as coach of the Indianapolis Colts, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning won his fourth of five MVP awards in 2009 when he threw for 4,500 yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions with a 99.9 passer rating.
Through seven games this season, Stafford’s numbers are similar to Manning’s 2009 MVP campaign.
Stafford has completed 164-of-241 passes for 1,914 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions, whereas Manning completed 187-of-263 passes for 2,227 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Yet, Caldwell declined to compare the two seasons.
“I’ve been around some pretty good quarterbacks in my time, been fortunate and blessed in that regard. They’re all different,” Caldwell said. “Matt stands on his own merits – all you do is look at what he’s been able to accomplish – and I don’t think he needs any comparisons.”
While Stafford is putting up impressive numbers, winning is the biggest factor. Under Manning, the Colts started 7-0 in 2009 and finished the regular season 14-2 before advancing to Super Bowl XLIV.
Only twice in MVP award history has it gone to a player whose team did not reach the playoffs: Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas (1967) and Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson (1973).
“I think through the years (Stafford has) been maligned a little bit, and it hasn’t been warranted,” Caldwell said. “I think I’ve told you from the first time when I came here, this guy is a really good player. He’s come from behind a lot, I don’t know how many he’s had. There were a lot more before we got here.
“I think overall, he’s playing well, he’s confident, the guys are catching the ball for him. But, the thing he’s interested in most, more than anything else, is winning. I’m sure he’d take far fewer stats and more wins; that’s really his goal and aim. He’s a consummate team guy, doing everything he can to win.”