Fixing The QBs: Can Matthew Stafford overcome a lack of mechanics?
Four quarterbacks have thrown for more than 4,950 yards in a single season in NFL history: Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford. Brees and Stafford are the only ones to do so in more than one season, and both did so in 2011 and 2012. (Brees also did so in 2008.)
Passing yards in a season are hardly the best barometer of quarterback success, but there’s one thing we can say for sure: Stafford is the only guy on that list to be considered a relative disappointment while he was doing it. In 2012, for example, he threw for 4,967 yards on an NFL-record 727 attempts on a team with one of the worst pass defenses in the league and a barely existent run game. The Lions were in shotgun an astonishing 71 percent of all plays, and they’ve led the league in shotgun percentage in each of the last three seasons.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan commands a high-volume passing offense in which Stafford is directed to get the ball to Calvin Johnson as often as possible, which makes sense, as Johnson is the NFL’s best receiver. But when Johnson doesn’t get the ball, bad things tend to happen — Megatron led the league in Football Outsiders’ season-cumulative efficiency ratings, but Titus Young was second on that list among Lions receivers, ranking 55th, and he’s no longer with the team for a variety of bizarre off-field reasons. Tony Scheffler ranked 43rd in those same metrics for his position. Brandon Pettigrew was Stafford’s most-targeted tight end with 101 throws, and he ranked dead last in FO’s metrics. Stafford threw for just 20 touchdowns on his 727 attempts, leaving him with a 2.8 percent touchdown rate — to put that in perspective, Aaron Rodgers led the league last year with a 7.1 percent rate.
Two things are clear when it comes to Matthew Stafford as he gets ready for his fifth regular season — he’s thrown as many passes through his first four seasons as anyone ever has, and he’s done it in some pretty unconventional ways. Stafford seems unconcerned about the mechanical issues that seem to bedevil him, according to many experts.
“I focus on fundamentals and mechanics every time I step on the field,” Stafford recently told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. “When everything is right in front of you, you want to be as good as you possibly can. It gives you the best chance of being accurate and making plays. But we play in a league where it’s not always perfect. We’ve got to make plays. I understand that. People are going to say what they want to say. I’m trying to win games for this team and it’s definitely something I’m always working on.”
Stafford also has a reasonable explanation for some of the throws he makes — the sidearm wobblers, the ducks that fly after he’s thrown them off his back foot and the sometimes inexplicable reads. Things break down, and you have to improvise.
“I’m obviously not a robot back there,” Stafford continued. “I see things, they happen a certain way in my head and it dictates a certain response in my body. I’m not thinking before the snap that I’m going to throw this one sidearm or I’m going to throw that one sidearm. It’s just a feel for the game. There are definitely times when everything was right in front of me and maybe I didn’t do the best, and there are times when I did it the other way and it was good. It just happens that way.”
What Others Think
Others aren’t convinced. Even when the NFL’s best encounter adverse situations, the experts say, those quarterbacks have a reliable base of mechanics that allow them to be consistent under duress. ESPN’s Ron Jaworski recently ranked Stafford 16th overall among starters in his “Jaws QB Countdown,” and spoke to Stafford’s special arm talent and his frustrating inconsistency.
“I’ve always loved Stafford’s willingness to pull the trigger. He’s aggressive, with an attacking mentality. It reminds me of when I played with Dan Marino. Marino said if you see the back of a defender’s jersey, you turn it loose. Stafford has that mindset. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you’re throwing to Calvin Johnson; a lot of trust there, a lot of confidence that he will make contested catches. I felt the same way when I threw to six-foot-eight-inch Harold Carmichael.
“What stood out studying Stafford was he was not as efficient under center as he was in the shotgun. He seemed to struggle to read coverage as effectively. Too many forced throws. Overall, he just threw too many passes with poor balance and bad footwork, with a tendency to fall away from the throws.
“There is absolutely no question that Stafford is a very special arm talent. There are not many that throw it like he does. He has a chance to be a top-10 quarterback. The Lions may disagree, but he needs more consistent mechanics to play at a higher level week in and week out.”
While Stafford’s mechanical inconsistency will eventually hold him back from being a top-3 quarterback until and unless he fixes it, I’m far more concerned with some of his reads, and his seeming belief that he can fire the ball past what he sees on a regular basis. Coverages are too complex in today’s NFL to get away with that stuff, and when it comes right down to the main issue with Stafford, I think it’s more in his head than his arm or feet.
Reading In The Red Zone
When you throw 20 touchdowns in 727 attempts, you’re going to come under fire for your red-zone performance. Indeed, Stafford threw 93 passes in the red zone last season, tied for fourth-highest in the league with Peyton Manning, behind Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. Stafford threw 15 touchdown passes from the opponents’ 20-yard line and in. On the same number of passes, Manning threw 27.
From the start of the 2012 season, things did not go well for Stafford, as he threw three picks (and almost a fourth) in the first half of the season opener against the St. Louis Rams. Detroit won the game.
“Matt wasn’t playing poorly, he just made a couple bad throws,” head coach Jim Schwartz said after the game. “A couple … they weren’t really bad decisions, he knew what he was doing, it was just … trying to squeeze the ball into a little too tight of an area. They were playing a sort of bend-but-don’t-break style of trying not to give up big plays, trying to make us burn a lot of clock trying to shorten the game. We fell into that.”
Schwartz also said that Stafford played very well late in the game, and that’s true — but let’s get forensic on those three picks, and what they tell us about Stafford and the Lions’ passing game overall.