It's been six weeks and Matthew Stafford deserves to be in the discussion for the best quarterback in the NFL.
That doesn't mean Stafford is officially an #elite quarterback. It doesn't mean he's better than Tom Brady or Drew Brees. It just means he's playing the best football of his career and is currently functioning like one of the best quarterbacks of the 2016 season -- so far.
Without Calvin Johnson, Stafford's completing 68.9 percent of his passes (second-highest in the NFL) and averaging 7.77 yards per pass (eighth). He's thrown 14 touchdowns (tied for third). His 106.0 passer rating is third in the NFL.
Those numbers come from a six-game stretch, but there's reason to believe that this might be Stafford's new norm. That reason is Jim Bob Cooter.
Meet Jim Bob Cooter, whose name is so perfect it's good for more than one quality spoonerism -- I prefer Bim Cob Jooter -- and none of them even come close to surpassing his actual name.
Cooter took over as offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season and has now held that position for 15 games. All of them have been started by Stafford. Under Cooter's direction, Stafford has completed 68.95 percent of his passes for 4,044 yards, 34 touchdowns, and eight interceptions for a 105.5 passer rating. That's nearly a full season's worth of data. Just for some context: In his previous 84 starts, dating back to his 2009 rookie year, Stafford's passer rating sat at 83.9.
Stafford has always put up huge numbers because he's thrown the ball a ton. Since 2009, Stafford's thrown the ball 3,903 times, which is the seventh-highest total among all other quarterbacks. Yet, Stafford is the only quarterback in the top-10 who's played in fewer than 100 games in that span, which means he's throwing the ball more on a per game basis.
Since the beginning of Cooter's reign, Stafford's turned into an efficient, relatively turnover-free quarterback.
By now, I'd say it's safe to say that the Jim Bob Cooter effect is real.
Of course, other factors besides Cooter could be at play. For one, Stafford's older and, in theory, more mature in terms of his development as a quarterback. He's 28, so he should -- again, in theory -- be in hitting his prime right about now. With that being said, there are some notable changes in the Cooter-era that can't be ignored.
For one, Stafford is not throwing the ball downfield like he did in years past. In 2014, 34 percent of Stafford's passes traveled at least 10 yards in the air. In 2013, that number was 35 percent. In 2012, it was 34 percent. In 2011, it was 35 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. In other words, it consistently hovered around 34-35 percent since Stafford got past his first two shortened seasons.
This year, that number dropped all the way down to 27 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. He's doing most of his damage closer to the line of scrimmage.
On passes thrown 0-9 yards within the line of scrimmage, Stafford's gone 78 of 105 for 702 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. And when Stafford has aired it out, he's not throwing many interceptions. Two of his picks have come on throws that travel at least 10 yards in the air. From 2011-2014, he averaged 10 picks per season on those passes. All of those numbers come from Pro Football Focus' database.
Cooter's approach -- not forcing the ball downfield and releasing the football quickly -- is limiting Stafford's mistakes. It's also helping the offensive line. Stafford has been under pressure on 27 percent of his dropbacks -- only six quarterbacks have a lower pressure rate per Pro Football Focus. On average he's releasing the ball, according to Pro Football Focus, 2.38 seconds after the snap. That's the eighth-lowest release time in the league among qualified passers. From 2011-2014, Stafford's average release time was 2.49. It's also possible Stafford doesn't feel the need to jam the ball deep down the field since Johnson isn't on the field.
Without Megatron, he's been forced to rely on more than just one playmaker. Stafford's spreading the ball around.
His primary target, free agent acquisition Marvin Jones, leads the team in every receiving category, but he isn't dominating the way Johnson used to dominate the stat sheet. Stafford's three primary targets: Jones, Golden Tate, and the ageless Anquan Boldin are receiving almost equal attention, in large part because the Lions are trotting out 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, and one back) 68 percent of the time. League average for 11 personnel is 58 percent, per Pro Football Focus.
They're all getting the ball.
As I wrote earlier this season, Jones' play so far this season has helped soften the blow of Johnson's departure. When he's been targeted on the home-run ball, he's been deadly. On passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield, Jones has caught 17 of 24 targets for 397 yards, per Pro Football Focus. The signing of Jones has absolutely played a role in Stafford's success.
The same can be said about Boldin, a move that didn't necessarily make that much sense when it happened. But Boldin has still found a way to be productive this late in his career, particularly in the middle of the field. Twenty of his 29 receptions have come in between the numbers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Not to get all essay-y on you, but in conclusion: Stafford's improved substantially because he isn't forcing the ball downfield, he's getting the ball out quickly, which helps his offensive line, and he isn't locking onto specific receivers. A lot of that has to do with the Lions' front office and Stafford himself. But it also has to do with Cooter. He deserves tons of credit, which will most likely result in a promotion at some point.
Which leads me to my final thought: At some point, the Lions should elevate Cooter to Jim Caldwell's position. Otherwise, they'll eventually end up losing him for nothing and be stuck with Caldwell.
For as long as Stafford is in Detroit, Cooter should be there too.
1. The three best quarterbacks by passer rating
Another strange development: Matt Ryan's 117.9 passer rating leads the NFL. A year ago, Ryan nearly fizzled because Kyle Shanahan couldn't figure out how to craft an offense around his personnel. A year later, Shanahan built the perfect system that involves both of his versatile running backs.
Anyway, that's not the only strange part of this season. Take a look at the other two members of the top-three in passer rating club: Sam Bradford (109.8) and Matthew Stafford (106.0).
2. The NFL's best point differential
Let's keep the weird thing going for a bit.
After starting 0-2 and firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman -- a move that looked like an act of desperation at the time -- the Bills have ripped off four straight wins behind an unstoppable running game. Suddenly, Rex Ryan doesn't look like a buffoon. When's the last time that's been the case?
The Bills just aren't 4-2, they also lead the league in point differential (+59). Yep, that's more than the Patriots' +58, the Eagles' +57, the Cowboys' +52, and even the unbeaten Vikings' +56 point differential.
Context is important, so let's remember that the Bills beat up on the 49ers this past weekend. But their wins against the Cardinals and Patriots (even if Jacoby Brissett was starting) should also be noted. By averaging a league-best 5.6 yards per carry, the Bills haven't needed to rely on Tyrod Taylor's arm, as he's attempted fewer than 30 passes in three of the Bills' past four games, according to STATS.
I have no idea what to make of the Bills. And that's the fun part.
Rex almost always is fun.
3. The Ravens' close games
The Ravens jumped out to a 3-0 record with a six-point win, a five-point win, and a two-point win. They fell to 3-3 with a one-point loss, a six-point loss, and a four-point loss.
They're setting records.
Since 1940, just seven teams have had each of their first 6 games decided by 6 or fewer points. The 2015 and 2016 Ravens are two of the 7. https://t.co/DMaOZCLheX— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) October 16, 2016
That's not a good sign. Their point differential is +2.
4. The Ravens' ineffective passing game
One reason for the Ravens' struggles is their ineffective passing game. They've attempted the most passes in the league, but average the least amount of yards per pass.
The Ravens have the most pass attempts in the NFL this season (265 attempts) but rank last in yards per pass attempt (6.0 yards/attempt)— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) October 19, 2016
Progress, I guess?
5. Landry Jones cannot replace Big Ben
So, Ben Roethlisberger tore his meniscus and is reportedly out several weeks. For dumb reasons, we're continually denied the ability to watch the Steelers' offense at full strength. Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year. Le'Veon Bell missed a portion of last season with an injury and some of this season due to a suspension. And just after he gets back, Big Ben goes down.
The Steelers have their bye after this week's game, which is the good news. They play the Patriots this weekend, which isn't exactly good news. The worst news is that they'll be relying on Landry Jones.
Jones is not good. He's hardly played in his four-year career, but in his limited time, he's been bad. Including his postseason snaps, he's thrown 61 passes, completing 34 for 524 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions.
This is how feel right about now:
I know it's not possible for like 20 reasons, but all I want is a world where the Steelers can trade for Philip Rivers.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) October 19, 2016
And now: A reminder that kickers are people, too
Steven Hauschka entered the NFL in 2008. Since then, he's booted 168 successful field goals. He's won a Super Bowl.
And we've all been misspelling his name this entire time.
It's not even his last name! Steven is actually spelled Stephen, and we only discovered this when a photographer for Q13 Fox in Seattle fact checked the spelling of his name. It's not Steven Hauschka. It's Stephen Hauschka.
So then, why did Hauschka create a Twitter account under STEVEN Hauschka?
My first and (probably) last tweet. Thanks for the support 12th Man. Go Hawks!— Steven Hauschka (@StevenHauschka) December 11, 2014
"Uh ... I just like to go by Steve," he told Q13.
Fair enough, Steve.
6. Le'Veon Bell is still incredible
At least the Steelers still have Le'Veon Bell, the most complete back in football. Need proof? Check out what Bill Belichick had to say about him this week, via the Patriots' website:
When a reporter began to ask about Bell on Wednesday morning, Belichick interrupted.
"Oh my god," Belichick said almost in awe of the fourth-year playmaker. "He's a tremendous player, great hands, catches the ball, very quick, makes people miss, strong, breaks tackles, excellent balance, tough, doesn't run out of bounds, fights for extra yardage, a great player. DeAngelo Williams, I mean he led the league in rushing the two weeks where he played earlier in the year when he had a lot of carries. He's had a tremendous career. Really one of the all-time great careers statistically. He's been tremendous. Again, they have a lot of depth at every position. They have a lot of depth at running back and it doesn't matter who's in there -- they're a problem. But [Le'Veon] Bell's as good as anybody we'll play."
Since returning from his suspension, Bell's rushed for 263 yards on 48 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Via the passing game, he's gained 177 yards on 20 receptions. So, yeah, Le'Veon Bell is back.
The only surprising thing is that he's yet to reach the end zone.
7. Blake Bortles is bad
As the quarterback of the Jaguars, Blake Bortles is required to throw the ball to the Jaguars' wide receivers. Except, for some strange reason, Bortles can't do that.
At least not well.
Blake Bortles has been awful throwing to WRs this season pic.twitter.com/6L6yUn2IKm— Mike Braude (@BraudeM) October 20, 2016
OK, some good news for Bortles: If there is ever going to be a week when he turns it around, it's this week. He plays the Raiders and their last-ranked passing defense.
8. Expect the Rams to blitz
If you're planning on waking up bright and early along with the rest of L.A. to catch the Rams-Giants game in London, at least you'll be rewarded with a ton of blitzes. Be prepared to watch the Rams blitz Eli Manning like crazy .
According to STATS, the Rams blitz 36.4 percent of the time. Those blitzes have netted eight sacks -- the most in the NFL.
Manning has been awful against the blitz this year, completing 32 of 60 passes for 348 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 54.0 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus.
9. The one positive of the 'exotic smashmouth'
Mike Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" has not done much of anything for Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has regressed in his second season. But his offense has at least worked for the running game.
The Titans rank second in the NFL in average yards per carry (4.9). Lost in the Titans' 3-3 start (because they're the Titans) is DeMarco Murray's resurgent season. A year ago, Murray appeared to be done after the Cowboys ran him into the ground in 2014. He's back, though, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
He plays the Colts this week. They're allowing 4.8 yards per carry.
10. A.J. Green can join Randy Moss
Bengals receiver A.J. Green is 394 yards away from hitting the 1,000-yard mark. When that happens, he'll join Randy Moss as "the only players with six straight 1,000-receiving yard seasons to begin a career," according to STATS.
Fantasy stat of the week
Don't start an Eagles running back. As CBS Sports' Jamey Eisenberg pointed out in his "Start 'em, Sit 'Em column," "No running back has run for more than 50 yards against Minnesota, including DeMarco Murray, Eddie Lacy and Lamar Miller."
You can read his entire column here.
This week's leftovers section is going to be a little bit different. Instead of actually listing out the leftovers, we're going to pay tribute to a leftover that's been making regular appearances in this column since last season, because for the first time in what feels like forever, it will not be back.
Frank Gore rushed for 106 yards this past Sunday night. And that ended the Colts' horrible streak. It was the first time a Colts player rushed for at least 100 yards in a single game since Dec. 16, 2012.
Congratulations to Ryan Grigson for the most amazing accomplishment of his tenure as Colts' general manager.
Best quote of the week (The Bennett Bros' space)
Brandon Marshall is the best.
Brandon Marshall full quote on Geno Smith: "It's amazing to see this guy grow and really, you know, punch adversity in the face." #Jets— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) October 19, 2016
Best bad quote of the week (Russell Wilson's space)
Here's Chuck Pagano a day after his Colts blew a 14-point lead to Brock Osweiler and dropped to 2-4 on the season:
"I'm encouraged," Pagano said, per the Indianapolis Star. "You guys probably think I'm crazy, but I'm encouraged."