Adjustments and improvement is the key to success in the NFL. No one trick pony last, and defensive coordinators are too smart, and adapt to the new schemes/looks with the enhanced film study and game planning that we see in the NFL today. This season, three quarterbacks stood out to me the most in regards to adjusting and improving their play over the season. Those quarterbacks are Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins.
Oddly enough, these quarterbacks all had teams that were at or under .500 at the halfway mark into last season, and all three teams finished the season on 6-2 runs. Lets take a look into each case of these quarterbacks, what caused their game to go to a new level, and what the keys are to maintaining that success in the 2016-2017 NFL season.
Lets start with Russell. After their first 8 games, the Seahawks were barely hanging on with a 4-4 record. Including the controversial win over the Detroit Lions. Regardless, something wasn't clicking. Marshawn Lynch wasn't healthy and this offense just wasn't producing. After the meltdown against Cincinnati, the Seahawks needed someone to step it up and two men answered the call. The biggest factor in Russell's improvement was Doug Baldwin. Bringing in 28% of the team's receptions in the second half (compared to 19% in the first 8 games), Baldwin had 724 Yards and 12 TDs in the final 8 games of the season. Wilson's numbers didn't change much regarding his throws to other targets, but the increase of production with Baldwin really made the difference. Baldwin as a slot receiver is excellent in YAC and helped Wilson out with incredible effort after the catch. Not taking away from Wilson's second half at all, its important to note that Baldwin deserves just as much credit for the success. Russell played at such a high level in the back half of the season throwing 25 touchdowns to 2 INTs and it really came down to finding what worked and using it.
In Detroit, the panic was much higher as the 1-7 Lions are looking at another top 5 draft pick. New offensive coordinator, Jim Bob Cooter, was hired and the change was almost instantaneous. The first thing I noticed, is how much easier the Lion's schedule was in the second half. The Avg pass defense rank they play drops to 18 as they face only 1 playoff team in the second half of the season. Nonetheless, its the NFL and everyone is a pro. Of the three quarterbacks, Stafford improved the most in regards to completions to players that aren't his top target. In passes to people not named Calvin Johnson, Stafford threw for 74% compared to the 65% in the first half of the year. Also worth mentioning, Stafford had the top Red Zone Quarterback rating in the entire NFL last season at 118. (Russell was 11th). The key to Jim Bob Cooter's offense is the many different looks that he presents, especially with bunch formations. Causing confusion in coverage assignments, Stafford showed that he can read defenses, make decisions, and make good throws instead of the usual "Chuck it to Calvin and hope for the best" criticism that many give to him. Throwing 19 TDs to just 2 INTs and leading the Lions to a 6-2 finish has me confident that Stafford will find success without Calvin Johnson. Tate is excellent after the catch, Ameer Abdullah should play better and if other pieces can step it up, look for the Lions to claim their spot in the playoffs. The real big area of improvement I need to see from Matt is third down decision making. His QB rating on 1st and 2nd down are above 100, but drops to 65 on third down where he threw 8 of his 13 INTs on the season. JBC offense showed improvement in the decision making, but Calvin was a huge go-to on 3rd down, and that's the key for success in Detroit. Keeping drives alive on 3rd down.
Finally, Kirk Cousins. With a 112.6 Red Zone QB Rating, Kirk is 3rd in the NFL. Kirk's biggest improvement was his accuracy, which I believe came with confidence. Jumping from 66.9 to 73.6%, and a whopping 81% completion percentage to top target, Jordan Reed, Kirk did more with less as he threw the ball for almost 100 more yards with 70 less attempts. Also a key factor, Kirk is the only qb of the group to play harder pass defenses in the second half of the season. To be honest, aside from the NE and CAR games, Washington had a ridiculously easy schedule, and they may need to be taken into consideration on predictions for next year, because I doubt that will happen again. Nonetheless, Kirk played extremely better on all levels as he to only threw 2 INTs in the final 8 games to go with his 18 TDs. Cousin's success came with the rise in receptions to Jordan Reed who missed much of the first half of the season. Having Reed as a weapon certainly created more opportunity, and will be important in the continued success of this Washington team who haven't had a reliable tight end in a while. Grabbing 1st round TCU WR Josh Doctson certainly won't hurt as this offense only gets more and more dangerous as the Skins look to repeat in the NFC East.
To wrap it up, the stats really speak for themselves and I don't have to do too much. We saw the dynamic duo of player/player, and player/coach, as well as a player inspiring himself as his confidence and gameplay got stronger with each game. It speaks to the leadership and talent of these three to bring their teams back from the depths and into playoff berth (well, the Lions were close if not for Kam Chancellor and Aaron Rodgers). I have these three guys on the radar for quarterbacks who will rise above others and prove themselves better than the public think. Russell may earn his elite title, Stafford may finally give Lions' fans the success they dreamed of, and Kirk may rise a Washington team out of despair to become repeat champions of the Chaos known as the NFC East.
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