Predicting which quarterback is going to take the jump from above-average to stardom is nearly impossible. By definition, a leap happens suddenly. There are six or seven “Hey, Ryan Tannehill is about to break out” false alarms every summer. Most of the candidates never make the leap, and there are a couple of unifying rules that typically apply to the ones who do.
To be eligible to make the leap, a quarterback usually has to be older than 27. A young guy, like Derek Carr or Dak Prescott, going from good to great isn’t a leap; it’s just a natural progression. No, we’re talking about quarterbacks who swiftly elevate their games mid-career: see 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan. The prime candidate to become this season’s Matt Ryan is Matt Stafford, who’s playing against Matt Ryan on Sunday. Ryan was last season’s Cam Newton, who was the 2014 version of Joe Flacco’s 2012. Josh McCown made the statistical leap in 2013, but let’s never talk about that.
Still with me? Good.
There are other candidates to be this year’s Matt Ryan. Hell, Sam Bradford and Alex Smith lead the league in passer rating. Stafford is fourth, and his 114 rating through the first two games for the 2-0 Lions is a dramatic uptick from his 87 career rating.
Ahead of the matchup between the once and possibly future Matt Ryans—plus, the only game of the upcoming weekend to feature two undefeated teams—let’s take a look at the three rules for a quarterback who wants to make the leap.
The quarterbacks who go from good to great are typically comfortable in their surroundings. In 2015 Newton had the same head coach, Ron Rivera, and QB coach turned offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, as he had the four previous seasons. In 2016 Ryan was entering his second season with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Dan Quinn, along with a steady front office led by Thomas Dimitroff.
In 2017 this all applies to Stafford, who is in his second full season learning from offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. There’s also second-year general manager Bob Quinn and fourth-year head coach Jim Caldwell. The hierarchy is the same, and the targets—Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Co.—are generally the same, too.
If you spend a few months learning a new playbook or the names of your new targets and where they want the football, you’re behind. If upheaval leaves quarterbacks scrambling to get up to full speed, continuity allows them to focus on tweaks that take their game to a higher gear.
Last year, when Shanahan was asked about the changes that led to Ryan’s MVP season, he said there wasn’t much: “Just going to the right places with the ball. He’s been attacking coverages and not really forcing it.” Ryan himself said the key was patience in his throws. None of these revelations are particularly shocking: Players need time to learn, and it’s typically not until their second or third year in a system that they figure out how to maximize it.
Throw Smarter Passes
With these leaps, we’re talking about quarterbacks who were always good. No one is absolute dog crap as a quarterback—hello, Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles!—then puts up star-level numbers. No, these are quarterbacks who already have a baseline of competence. Ryan, Flacco, and Newton all put in years of decent seasons, and then they adjust slightly, become more efficient, and thrive.
There’s one number to watch in particular: Newton improved his touchdown percentage from 4 percent in 2014 to 7.1 in 2015. Ryan had a similar bump from 3.4 in 2015 to 7.1 in 2016.
The point is not to throw more passes but to throw smarter ones. Stafford’s first two games saw his touchdown percentage skyrocket; it’s up from 4 percent to 9.7, a number that’s been bested only once since 1963. While Stafford had been known as a prototypical gunslinger, he’s changed in recent years. Last season his interception percentage (1.7) was the lowest of his career, and this season he’s even below that. Plus, his yards per completion is down almost 2 yards from last year, and his completion percentage is up to 71 percent from 65 percent a year ago. It might not be as fun to watch, but this season he’s throwing shorter and smarter passes while also completing more dangerous ones. If he can keep that up for 14 more games, he’ll have made the leap.
Injury luck, a talented supporting cast on offense, solid defense—these are the things quarterbacks need to win enough games to make themselves relevant in the MVP conversation.
This is where Bradford falls off. After a near-perfect showing against the New Orleans Saints in prime time of Week 1, Bradford, who has battled injuries throughout his career, missed the second game of the season with a noncontact knee injury, and his status for Week 3 against the Bucs is in doubt.
Meanwhile, this is where Smith is thriving. The Chiefs look like playoff contenders. Buoyed by a solid defense, rookie running back Kareem Hunt, and playmaker Tyreek Hill, Smith is in a perfect position to make a few throws a game and help his team clinch a first-round bye while racking up gaudy numbers.
As for the Lions, this is all still TBD. Wins over the horrible Cardinals and the imploding Giants make his performance hard to gauge. The offensive weapons are there—aside from the offensive line, which is so bad it has Greg Robinson on it. Tate is a reliable option to catch the ball and break a few tackles. Exciting rookie Kenny Golladay looks like a future star. Ultra-athletic-but-inconsistent tight end Eric Ebron is even contributing, which didn’t seem possible. It is not quite the same offensive firepower we saw from the Falcons last season, but it may be enough to get Stafford squarely on the A-list of throwers.
This weekend will go a long way toward indicating if Stafford is ready to be the new Matt Ryan. He might be ready to make the leap; he just has to get past the original version first.
Four More Thoughts for Sunday and Monday
1. Are the Seahawks or Titans Super Bowl contenders? These were two of the most buzzed-about teams during the preseason, and they both sit at 1-1. They’re both in weak divisions, so they have some room for error, but Sunday’s matchup is big for both sides, and particularly for potential star QB Marcus Mariota, who’s facing a great Seahawks defense. Meanwhile, the Seattle offense still has a lot to prove since that line … uh … yeah ...
Skewed stats: The NFL leaders in QB pressures through two weeks both played the Seahawks: Nick Perry and DeForest Buckner.— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) September 21, 2017
2. Is Raiders-Redskins worthy of prime-time status? Through two weeks, most of the talk surrounding the league is rightfully about the poor level of play. This is a curious game to put on Sunday night, but maybe it’ll provide some unexpected fireworks. With two of the most capable quarterbacks in the league facing off, this one has a chance to be fun.
3. Is the Giants’ season over? I predicted that the Giants would join the Cowboys as a playoff team from the NFC East. Let’s forget that ever happened. The Giants look clueless on offense and not nearly as good as I thought on defense. On Sunday, they face the Eagles in a huge division game that could come close to shutting the door on their postseason hopes.
4. Let’s watch Colts vs. Browns. Holy shit. Just kidding.