One of the more curious stories of the offseason was the behind-the-scenes feeding frenzy around Matthew Stafford. Teams furiously made calls to Detroit as soon as it became clear the Lions were ready to rebuild and let him free. The Panthers, Broncos, Colts and 49ers all made attempts, but in the end it was the Rams with the firepower to make the deal.
It’s not that Stafford was bad, obviously far from it, but when you have so many teams eager to get a 33-year-old quarterback it’s clear the entire league is thinking the same thing: This guy has plenty left in the tank, and desperately needs a change of scenery.
Three weeks into the season it’s not just the best trade of 2021, but one of the best in YEARS. Stafford is playing better than he ever has before, and the now 3-0 Rams have a much-needed statement win against the Buccaneers, which was billed beforehand as a battle between the NFC elite.
I really hate projecting stats this season, because it just feels wrong. In a few years we’ll get a better sense for benchmark numbers, but as it stands I’m still in favor of normalizing projection for a 16 game season, just because it feels right. So, just know that the following numbers would be bumped up even more.
As it stands, if Stafford keeps up this pace he would finish with:
- 5,024 yards (highest since 2011, 2nd highest of career)
- 48 touchdowns (career high)
- 5 interceptions (career low)
- 78 percent completion (career high)
- 10.12 yards-per-attempt (career high)
- 130.63 passer rating (career high)
To be clear, this would not be a good season by Matthew Stafford standards, it would be the greatest quarterback season of all time. Saying this will all hold is like predicting a game of Jenga after the first move, but outside of touchdowns (which he’s still within striking range of) Stafford’s 2021 would eclipse Tom Brady’s 2007 and Peyton Manning’s 2013 in every other statistical area.
I think it’s been far too easy to overlook Los Angeles this season, as tends to be the case with a lot of west coast teams. They get forgotten in the discussion and it’s not until the end of the season everyone gets surprised they’re really good.
It’s time to start paying attention to what’s happening with the Los Angeles Rams. Beating Brady and the Buccaneers will go a long way to earning some attention, but beyond that Stafford might finally get the credit he’s deserved for a long time.
Winner: Justin Herbert
The Chargers have been the bridesmaid in the AFC West for as long as I can remember, but it’s starting to feel like things are turning, and the biggest force of chance is Justin Herbert.
I had the game between the Chargers and Chiefs circled as one to watch, and I’m glad I did — because dang it was fun to watch Herbert play. He finished the day with 281 passing yards and four touchdowns, spreading to scoring love to three different receivers.
Herbert is showing no signs of dropping off following his record-breaking rookie season, and in fact he’s getting better. While he’s on pace to throw more interceptions than a year ago, he’s also upped his passing yards, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, and touchdowns.
It helps that Los Angeles has done a great job putting weapons around their rookie, and it’s paying huge dividends. On any given play Herbert has no fewer than three significant receiving threats to find, and they can be swapped out for a diversity of players to give defenses really tough looks to manage.
With the Chiefs struggling so far we could be seeing a power shift in the division. Even if we don’t quite reach that zenith it’s clear the Chargers are close, really close.
Loser: Expecting a rookie QB to carry you
It really felt like we were turning a corner after Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert changed their team’s fortunes in their first season. That came off 2018 and 2019 when Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray got the job done respectively. Now we’re learning in the glorious, charred remains of hubris that quarterbacks stepping into the NFL and excelling is really, really difficult.
It’s no so much about Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Mac Jones struggling, as much as it’s a testament to the fact that the NFL, despite best guesses, as not been “solved.” Sure, college offenses are more advanced than ever, and rookies better prepared than at any point in modern football — but still they walked out onto the field Sunday and all got their asses spectacularly kicked.
Trying to decide who was the worst of the crew is a fool’s errand. Like eating five variants of earwax ice cream and deciding which is the most palatable. Let’s just instead combine the rooks into a cerberus of mediocrity. If all four were one player, here’s the stat line:
77-of-140 (55 percent completion), 717 yards (5.1 yards-per-attempt), 2 touchdowns, 7 interceptions — 51.2 passer rating
If you match that up to the closest modern era player you get … Jimmy Clausen. I’m sure at least one of two of these guys will be good when the dust settles, but goodness right now these teams are not benefitting from starting a rookie who has that deer in the headlights look. It brings us to …
Loser: Pass blocking
If you follow along the league you’d see roughly 20 fanbases complaining about not having a good offensive line, and it comes with cause. The league’s lack of good QB protection is remarkably pronounced this season.
Part of this comes from there being so many first and second year quarterbacks still adapting to the league’s speed and what they can get away with under center, but nonetheless the result has been absolutely staggering.
From 2010-2020 the average number of pass rushers who finished the season with 10+ sacks was 20. As it stands there are currently 39 players on pace to finish with double digit sacks.
In addition, six players are on pace to finish with 20.0+ sack seasons (reduced for a 16 game schedule). That’s a mark only 21 players have achieved in NFL history, and over a quarter could be added to this list by the end of the year.
In short: The league is in dire need of more pass blocking, and there’s a serious brain drain at the position.
Winner: Justin Tucker
You need to do something pretty special to get a nod as a kicker, and, well … Justin Tucker did something pretty special.
Tucker drilled the 66-yard field goal with a little assistance of a bounce, but I don’t give a crap about how this happened. It wasn’t at elevation, there was no tailwind to benefit — just a dude with a leg that didn’t fly off when he obliterated the ball into the next century.
Winner: The Tom Brady Adele promo
Oh, this was bad. It’s a winner though because I am a huge fan of terrible movies. Just enjoy this work of art.
The entire overwrought package was so bad it left Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth speechless — which is no easy feat. I know everyone really, really wants to make Brady vs. New England a thing in Week 4, but it’s looking like it’s just gonna be sad.
Winner: Changes of scenery
We’ve already talked about what Matthew Stafford has done for the Rams, but Sam Darnold is balling in Carolina, Teddy Bridgewater is surging in Denver, and heck, even Jared Goff is finding his footing on a Lions team that’s much more competitive than anyone gave them credit for.
The major QB shuffle that happened this offseason is paying some serious dividends, and adding another layer of fun to an already wild season.
Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers
This was a 12-4 football team a year ago! Now they’re losing to the Bengals inside their division. That’s not supposed to be a knock on Cincinnati, it’s just, like, nobody in Pittsburgh should be happy with how this team is playing. At 1-2 they can definitely still turn the season, but the AFC North is such a rough division and now the Steelers hit a rough stretch against the 3-0 Broncos, the 1-2 Seahawks who are in a similar position of desperation, and then return to the divisional slate with the Browns.
The wheels really could fall off this soon.
Winner: Jaguars accepting their fate
I watched a really fascinating documentary last week on the benefits of psychedelic drugs being used in therapeutic settings, and how researches are struggling against lingering stigma from the 1960s to secure funding.
Inside this one of the most fascinating elements was the use of psilocybin mushrooms by terminal cancer patients. To make a long story short, using the drugs was shown to have significant mental benefits to those facing death, making their acceptance of mortality and peace as their condition worsened much, much easier.
So when I saw this tweet, it reminded me of that.
Jaguars WR Marvin Jones with a message for everyone: “go home and drink some wine”
— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) September 26, 2021
Acceptance is such an important part of the process.
Winner: Football fans
I don’t care which team you support, three weeks in this season has been spectacular. On Sunday another five games were settled by a single score, taking the league total this season to 21.
If you want to be cynical about the league, fine … I get it, but when you have over 20 percent of games being close it means we’re in for a wild ride. Furthermore, I don’t know if anyone has firm feelings about who is good, and who isn’t. It feels like there are as many amazing teams with losing records as paper tigers with winning ones, which keeps the intrigue flowing for the next 13 weeks.
I think we’re still holding to have a very special season.