Allen Park — In his 11th NFL season, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is peaking.
You might think this is a case of recency bias. After all, he just had a perfect second half in last Sunday's game against the New York Giants, completing all 12 of his passes over the final two quarters, propelling the Lions to a 31-26 victory.
But no, it's much more than that.
Stafford is in the midst of his best statistical season, particularly in the all-important efficiency metrics. His current numbers aren't heavily reliant on volume, as they often have been in the past. Through seven games, he's on pace for career-highs in yards per attempt, yards per completion, touchdown rate, passer rating and QBR, ESPN's admittedly confusing metric that attempts to assign value to a quarterback's situational, play-by-play performance. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a healthy 16-to-4.
"I’ve been really impressed with just about everything that he’s done since I’ve been here," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said a week ago. "He’s really just dived into the offense. It’s been really important to him to learn all the ins and outs as well as he could. He wants to be the master at what we’re trying to ask him to do."
Even though Stafford is unlikely to hit the 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown benchmarks of his 2011 campaign, or be called upon to lead an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks like he did in 2016, this season has the potential to trump them all.
How does Stafford feel about his own performance? With the shoulder shrug you might expect.
"I don’t know," he said. "I feel like I’m playing OK. There’s always room for improvement. I always want a couple throws back, but just trying to keep us scoring points. That’s the biggest deal."
We'll have to leave the appropriate gushing to others. This week, that job falls on the lap of Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
"Well, he’s feeling it right now, no question," Gruden said during a conference call with Detroit reporters. "I think he’s comfortable with his receivers, I think he’s really gelled with Darrell Bevell. They do a lot of things now, they can stretch you with no-back formations, they’ve got some really good play-action passes and screens. Stafford’s a lot more athletic than most people think, he can scramble. They’re a handful, they are a handful."
Gruden, who between coaching stints worked as a broadcaster, hosted an annual series on ESPN called "Gruden's QB Camp," where he would host top draft prospects at the position for an interview that included a film session. Many would say he's an expert at evaluating the position, and he has his own quarterback, Derek Carr, playing the best football of his career.
Asked what sets Stafford apart from his peers, Gruden didn't fall back on the arm strength that so many others are quick to reference, instead focusing on what Stafford has going on between his ears.
"Well I think the big thing that Matt does a great job of is he protects the offense at the line of scrimmage," Gruden said. "He doesn’t get fooled often. If you blow a coverage, he shreds you. If he sees a blitz, he throws it to his hot receiver or he fixes it and changes the play. He’s sharp. His experience is very, very valuable to their success and, he plays with a really quick tempo. I mean he’s very fast mentally – forget about the arm talent, and all of the different plays and talented players they have – he’s just a very quick-minded player that doesn’t miss much."
Stafford's early-season success has him on the fringes of the MVP conversation. According to odds site Bovada, Stafford is currently 40-to-1 to win the award. That ranks 12th, well behind front-runners Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson.
Yet even at his best, Stafford's efficiency numbers lag behind Wilson and Rodgers. The Seattle passer has a 17-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while Rodgers isn't far behind, with 16 scores and two picks. Jackson isn't nearly as accurate, but the dual-threat is dynamic on a different level, contributing 659 rushing yards, 10th most in the league.
On top of that, each of those teams have two or fewer losses. Fair or not, team success will always anchor perceptions of Stafford.
As has often been the case during Stafford's career, that greater success has been elusive. Nearing the midpoint of the season, the Lions are perfectly average, 3-3-1, and barely keeping their head above water in the ultra competitive NFC this season.
The Lions have been competitive week in and week out in 2019, and could easily be 6-1 if a few more breaks went their way, but the lack of a consistent run game or defense, two things that have long been part of the quarterback's narrative, have prevented him from receiving the full attention his performance merits.
"He’s had a lot go change around him – the head coach, coordinator, there have been a lot of people come and go, but he’s been productive every year," Gruden said. "It’s a real credit to him."
Where Matthew Stafford ranks in the NFL this season:
► Yards per pass attempt: 8.4 (fifth)
► Yards per game: 299.0 (fourth)
► Touchdowns: 16 (tied for second)
► QB rating: 105.3 (sixth)