The ultimate examination of Matthew Stafford’s legacy

Since signing an extension making him the highest-paid player in NFL history, scrutiny has followed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford like the plague. Those questioning the extension have been asking the same questions for years:

“Can he finally start winning big games?”

“Can he lead this team to a deep playoff run?”

Unfortunately, the team's 3-4 record to this point of the current season makes it seem like that playoff run may not happen this year, but that's a topic for another discussion.

What defines a quarterback's legacy? To most, the answer to that question is “Super Bowl rings,” or maybe even just general wins. But not every highly-skilled quarterback in the history of football has been able to win a bunch of games or a Super Bowl. Dan Marino is a perfect example. Considered one of the best quarterbacks, Marino was never able to win a Super Bowl.

For me, there is a lot more that goes into determining a quarterback's legacy than just championships and wins. Quarterback is undoubtedly the most critical position on a team, and without a quarterback who is at least considered “good,” teams are unlikely to have much postseason success. But when examining the legacy of a signal caller, the entire picture must be considered. For example, since joining the Lions, Stafford has only benefited from a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield in one season (2013, Reggie Bush). Here's a quick look at how vital rushing attacks were last season for the teams that qualified for the playoffs:

TEAMYDS/GRUSH TD
DALLAS149.824
ATLANTA120.520
OAKLAND120.117
NEW ENGLAND117.08
HOUSTON116.219
MIAMI114.014
PITTSBURGH110.013
KANSAS CITY109.215
GREEN BAY106.311
SEATTLE99.413
NEW YORK (N)88.27
DETROIT81.99

*Stats courtesy of ESPN.com

As you can see, the two teams that played in the Super Bowl last season (New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons) both had tremendous success on the ground. As you can also see, Detroit sported the least potent rushing attack among teams that made it to the playoffs.

Matthew Stafford

Let's take it a step further. Tom Brady, who has won five Super Bowls for the Patriots, has had a 1,000-yard rusher on three of his five Super Bowl championship teams. In the two years that New England did not have a 1,000-yard rusher, Corey Dillon led the 2005 championship team with 733 yards, and LeGarrette Blount led the team with 703 rushing yards in 2015. How much slack did Brady have to pick up in those two seasons? He threw for 4,110 yards in 2005 and 4,770 yards in 2015.

Stafford, who has never won a Super Bowl, has only had one season with a running back eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing. Excluding that season, he has averaged 4,570 passing yards per season (only counting the seasons in which he played every game, excluding the current season). That average is on par with what Brady did in his championship seasons with no such tailback.

I'm not saying that a 1,000-yard rusher is the end-all-be-all in determining a quarterback's legacy, but it floats under the radar.

Another factor: is team defense. If a quarterback is throwing for 4,500 yards a season, but his team's defense is atrocious, he isn't going to have much luck in the playoffs, let alone qualifying. For the sake of comparison, let's look at some defensive stats for the last five Super Bowl champions against the defensive stats of the Lions from the last five seasons.

TEAMYDS AGAINSTPPG AGAINST
2016 Patriots5,223 (326.4 per game, 8th best in the league)15.6 (1st)
2016 Lions5,676 (354.8, 18th)22.4 (13th)
TEAMYDS AGAINSTPPG AGAINST
2015 Broncos4,530 (283.1, 1st)18.5 (4th)
2015 Lions5,594 (349.6, 18th)25 (23rd)
TEAMYDS AGAINSTPPG AGAINST
2014 Patriots5,506 (344.1, 13th)19.6 (8th)
2014 Patriots4,815 (300.1, 2nd)17.6 (3rd)
TEAMYDS AGAINSTPPG AGAINST
2013 Seahawks4,378 (273.6, 1st)14.4 (1st)
2013 Lions5,546 (346.6, 16th)23.5 (15th)
TEAMYDS AGAINSTPPG AGAINST
2012 Ravens5,615 (350.9, 15th)21.5 (T-12th)
2012 Lions5,458 (341.1, 13th)27.3 (27th)

*All stats provided by ESPN.com

The Lions have had a statistically better defense than the Super Bowl champions in two of the last five seasons. Piggy-backing on the 1,000-yard rusher concept, only three of the last Super Bowl champions have had one. However, the 2014 Patriots did have a three-headed monster at running back in Jonas GrayShane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley that accounted for 1,143 yards.

All things considered, a quarterback's legacy doesn't only fall on his shoulders. Although, at the end of the day, nobody talks about their supporting cast. It's solely on the quarterback. It's been proven that while a solid defense helps, it isn't completely necessary. A great quarterback can lead his team to the promised land without a stellar defense. Also, while a running game is a nice luxury, it is proven that it is not a necessity either.

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In Matthew Stafford's case, he has had opportunities with a rushing attack (Reggie Bush's 1,000-yard season) and a great defense (top-three in 2014). I'm just as much of a Stafford fan as the next guy. He does the right things off the field, plays through injury, and has tremendous talent. But, he has shown that he is not capable (to this point at least) of being the sole leader of a team. Sure, all it takes is one season for that all to change. But at this point, it would seem that putting your eggs all in that basket would be an unwise decision.

Is he worthy of being the highest-paid player in the league, let alone the highest-paid ever? Well, if Super Bowls (or the potential to win Super Bowls) are your criteria, then probably not. Given the history of Super Bowl winning teams, Stafford should be able to make it happen, but he simply hasn't.