QB Index: Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford surprise

Print

There are some news developments you can never fully prepare for.

When each season starts, we know from experience to expect the unexpected, that anything is possible. Yet, certain stories never fail to catch us flat-footed, out of breath.

This week, let's take a look at some of this season's quarterback revelations we never saw coming.

This is the Quarterback Index. Each week, we rank every starter based on 2016 performance alone.

Race for MVP

1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Last week: 1)

2) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (LW: 2)

While Brady's political leanings and expected gradual decline earned offseason attention, the 39-year-old was working to improve two of his weaker traits, like a mid-career Michael Jordan. It's no fluke that Brady is nearly tripling his career rushing yards-per-game average (from 3.9 entering 2016 to 11 this season). His footwork and speed (it's all relative) are vastly improved from five years ago.

It's even more surprising to see Brady enjoying his best season as a vertical passer with Chris Hogan as his best weapon on the outside. Brady is connecting on 85.7 percent of passes that travel over 20 yards for an outrageous 25.7 yards per attempt. That's best in the NFL and more than double his numbers from a season ago. This week's matchup against the Seahawks, a team that is so skilled at preventing big plays, will force Brady to adjust. No one does it better.

Despite Brady's excellence, Matt Ryan would be my MVP pick, because he's played more, thanks to Brady's four-game suspension to start the season. Ryan's near-perfect performance against the Bucs last week was typical of a season where the Falcons make 25-yard pass plays look as routine as 3-yard runs. Through nine games, Atlanta is keeping pace in many key offensive categories with all-time great offenses like the 2000 Rams, 2007 Patriots and 2013 Denver Broncos. That is not a result even the most ardent Falcons supporter saw coming.

Top shelf

3) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (LW: 3)

4) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (LW: 4)

5) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (LW: 8)

6) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (LW: 6)

7) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (LW: 5)

Everyone knows Matthew Stafford and his high-flying tag-team partner, Golden Tate, can rip hearts from sockets in the closing seconds, but Stafford has also earned this ranking by doing the little things.

There was a moment early in last week's overtime win, with the Lions facing third-and-7, when Stafford didn't like what he saw with the Vikings' defense crowding the line of scrimmage. So Stafford audibled to a Theo Riddick run, setting up the Lions' biggest ground gain of the season and a key field goal in a low-scoring game. Stafford may be the most likely quarterback to direct a 23-second scoring drive to end regulation, but he also showed the patience to pilot a 17-play, 9:45 touchdown drive before halftime. His winning overtime march included three third-down completions under pressure. Stafford is now one of the most complete quarterbacks in football, including from the neck up. Who saw that coming?

The shelf below the top shelf

8) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (LW: 9)

9) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (LW: 7)

10) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (LW: 11)

11) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (LW: 10)

12) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: NR)

Wilson looked nimbler against Buffalo, but he still mostly won from the pocket. He always has one of the league's sexiest deep balls, and aside from the tie in Arizona, his low fantasy numbers have caused the extent of his struggles to be overstated. ... It's amazing that Wilson is more trustworthy than Aaron Rodgers from the pocket. The great throws will always be there -- Rodgers' final score to Randall Cobb last week was inhuman -- but the book is out on how to make Rodgers hold the ball too long by keeping him contained. Game Pass film reveals that Rodgers waits until his receiver is really open to let it rip rather than anticipating the throw. ... Cam Newton gets extra credit every week for completing throws few others could. Carolina's offense is tailored to his big arm and capability to deliver deep-outs.

Ranking Big Ben so low feels so wrong. He's had three vintage games, yet he's also had three no-shows out of seven starts: at Philadelphia (62.4 passer rating), at Miami (57.1), and at Baltimore (67.3). Lately, teams have been playing consistent Cover 2 zone defense against him, daring him to force the ball into the middle of the field. He's taken the bait and was lucky to have only one interception against Baltimore. ... Watching the Cowboys' offense against the Browns' defense was the closest you'll ever get in the NFL to watching an SEC power take on a cream-puff out-of-conference foe. Prescott is a rhythm thrower, and he noticeably gets on hot streaks as a passer. Even if he only has to make a few throws with heat in his face each game, he usually makes them. His preseason performance has translated seamlessly to regular-season success, something you don't often see happen.

Stuck in the middle

13) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 13)

14) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (LW: 14)

15) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 15)

16) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings (LW: 12)

17) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (LW: 18)

18) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 16)

19) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (LW: 19)

Back in August, it would have been hard to imagine a division leader taking cues from the 2010 St. Louis Rams' offense. Watching Sam Bradford ably run offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's system again for these Vikings reminded me of Bradford's overrated rookie season. Give Bradford credit for executing the dink-and-dunk attack, orchestrating a thrilling touchdown drive late in regulation that should have won the game. Bradford is a better, tougher player than he was as a rookie, but it's asking too much of him to carry an offensive line and running attack this inept.

The surprise is not that Wentz is starting to make rookie mistakes more regularly. The surprise is that it took so long. He was loose with his throws against the Giants and could have finished with more than two interceptions, although there were real positive signs in the game. After weeks in a constricted offense, Wentz was successful going downfield plenty against an excellent Giants secondary. His 58-yard air-strike to Bryce Treggs was a thing of beauty. These are the ups and downs that come with starting a rookie quarterback.

Tyrod Taylor has earned his salary this season and another 10 years in the league after that. It doesn't get much better than carrying an offense in a back-and-forth shootout in Seattle. That was his best game of the season, but he's been building to it for a while, including an underrated effort in the team's loss to Miami. The Bills' offense is more reliable than the Bills' defense.

Leave you wanting more

20) Eli Manning, New York Giants (LW: 25)

21) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 21)

22) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (LW: 22)

23) Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears (LW: 23)

24) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (LW: 17)

25) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (LW: 20)

26) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (LW: 24)

We didn't expect a scenario in which the Dolphins would go on a three-game winning streak that would make me feel less confident in Tannehill's future with coach Adam Gase. Miami is winning by reducing Tannehill's exposure, which is not an ideal formula for a fifth-year starter. The running game and defense have led the way, with Tannehill hitting on a few great plays each week to put the team over the top. It reminds me of Tannehill's rookie season, which at the time felt so promising. In many ways, Tannehill plays like the same quarterback now.

Stale six-pack

27) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (LW: 26)

28) Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns (LW: NR)

29) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (LW: 28)

30) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (LW: 31)

31) Case Keenum, Los Angeles Rams (LW: 27)

32) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 32)

Cody Kessler being ranked above four starting quarterbacks is an unexpected result, especially when you consider the contract status or draft pedigree of the guys below him. There are warning signs, however, that the pounding Kessler has taken this season has started to wear on him. The rookie was hesitant to pull the trigger against the Cowboys, and the erratic Browns running game leaves him in too many third-and-long situations.

Even in Brock Osweiler's better games, like the Texans' Week 8 win over Detroit, he throws some passes that miss the mark by wide margins. The Texans' passing game has grown less effective in each season of Bill O'Brien's three-year tenure. Seven quarterbacks have started for O'Brien in that span, and it's wild to think that Ryan Fitzpatrick was his most efficient option.

In this season of upheaval, the only thing to expect down the stretch is more change. Give the people what they want.

Print