Just when Matthew Stafford's reputation seemed to be slipping, he bounced back with a terrific season in 2019. Well, half a season, anyway. It vaulted Stafford back into the conversation of the most underappreciated quarterbacks in the NFL.
And maybe of all time.
That's what Chris Simms would tell you. The former NFL quarterback and current analyst for NBC Sports ranked Stafford No. 9 on his countdown of the best QB's in the league entering the 2020 season. That was seven spots ahead of Drew Brees, six spots ahead of Tom Brady and four spots ahead of NFC North rival Kirk Cousins.
After posting some of the worst numbers of his career in 2018, Stafford rebounded in a big way in his first season under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. He had a passer rating of 106.0 and 19 touchdowns to five interceptions through eight games before he went down for the year with a back injury.
"Stafford, I thought, in 2019 adjusted to the new playing style in Detroit with Matt Patricia," said Simms. "In 2018 I was concerned. It was the worst year I ever saw him play in his career. He missed throws, he looked out of place, he didn't look comfortable, he made some stupid decisions, and I think that was because they changed the style in which they played. They started playing a style the 2002 New England Patriots played, and he was used to being in the shotgun and 'I gotta score 40 points for the Lions to win. That's what I'm used to. I don't have a governor or anyone micromanaging me.'
"Well, he got that with Matt Patricia. Patricia said, 'Sorry, you're not the sheriff here. I am. And we're going to play this way.' And he had a tough time adjusting. But in 2019, he was out-of-this-world good in another offense that I would say was not quarterback-friendly and really wanted to run the ball first."
Despite a running game that continued to sputter, the Lions were among the highest-scoring teams in the NFL before Stafford's injury. And in keeping with Stafford's career, their record was 3-4-1.
"Matthew Stafford, from what I saw last year, the throws, the leadership, the decisions, his subtle movements in the pocket, he's not always going to scare you running, but he's great at just, I got a little pressure, and then walks up this way and throws a 20-yard laser down the middle of the field. He makes so many freaking plays and throws that change the game and I go, 'Wow, it's just unbelievable,'" said Simms. "They just don’t always capitalize because they’re not a great team up there in Detroit.”
From Week 4-Week 9 last season, Stafford averaged 333.6 yards per game, threw 13 touchdowns to three interceptions and posted a passer rating of 111.0. And in that five-game span, Detroit went 1-4. Then Stafford got hurt and the team didn't win another game all year.
"Their defense stunk last year and was constantly letting up yards and points. And there he was, trying to have to keep up, but not playing in a spread-out, shoot-out type of offense. And then, of course, there's no run game to talk about in Detroit," said Simms. "So Matthew Stafford, I'm a huge fan. He's going to be one of these guys, he'll be underappreciated forever in the lore of the NFL."
The knock against Stafford, of course, is his win-loss record. He's 10 games under .500 over his 11-year career. And the defense is that it's hardly his fault. Considering the teams he's played for, it's a marvel his record is halfway-respectable.
"Stafford, to me, has been carrying that organization his whole career," said Simms. "Has a little bit of like, the LeBron James factor going on where he's a victim of his own greatness, where he's made his team just get into the playoffs or be in the playoff conversation and they don't get in and we go, 'Matt Stafford can't win a playoff game,' or, 'They can't get to the playoffs.' And I want to go, 'They would be 3-13 if it wasn't for Matt Stafford. He's the reason they're 9-7 and in the conversation or squeaked into the playoffs.'"
Stafford, 32, is healthy entering this season, and Simms said he doesn't have any injury concerns about him moving forward.
"Not at his age right now. But guys like Matt Stafford and Aaron Rodgers are going to get hurt in certain years because they're the team," said Simms. "When you always have to play near the edge and 'I gotta break a tackle and throw a 30-yard laser and make seven people miss in the pocket,' they don't have the luxury of a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees in a (Josh) McDaniels or a Sean Payton offense where they can say, 'I'm just gonna take a sack, we'll get somebody open the next play.'
"Matt Stafford a lot of times is like, 'Man, there hasn't been anyone open in seven plays. I gotta make this throw here and get this to him,' and they leave themselves in harm's way. That's what happens."
Simms said he's "expecting a big-time year" for Stafford in 2020, a crucial season for the Lions franchise as a whole.
"If it's not, we might see an organizational move from him too, to where they might just go, 'Okay, we're going to get new coaches in here, we're going to get a fresh new look,' and maybe Stafford ends up somewhere else," said Simms. "So I think this is a big year for Patricia and Stafford that way."