Sunday, March 10, 2013

Originally published 030813 Rotoworld online.

(wanted to share this good article with our readers)

Matthew Stafford passed for the sixth most yards in league history in 2011. He threw for the eighth most touchdowns.

On the surface, he followed it up with an equally worthy 2012. His 4,967 yards were second in the league, and yes, seventh in league history. His connection with Calvin Johnson — 122 catches for 1,964 yards — was the most prolific of all time. He averaged over 310 yards per game for the second consecutive year — at the age of 24. 

But there were times in 2012 where Stafford didn’t appear to be quarterbacking as much as fly fishing. Marionetting. Paperboying. Soulja Boying. Whatever you want to call it. Contorting his body in Houdini-like fashion seemed almost as important as completing the pass.

It made for a lot of incompletions. 292 of them to be exact. More of Stafford’s passes hit the ground than Josh Freeman’s (252), Ryan Fitzpatrick’s (199) and Brandon Weeden’s (220), among others. Stafford’s 59.8 completion percentage was off 3.7 percent from his 2011 mark, and 0.2 below the “acceptable” threshold of 60.0.

He turned the ball over 21 times, including 14 times over his final eight games. The Lions, of course, went 0-8 during that stretch, sputtering to a disastrous 4-12 finish one year after going 10-6 and making the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.

What Went Wrong

How could a player who appeared on the verge of unheard of greatness as a 23-year-old quarterback stumble so badly in a year where he had the most prolific receiver in the 92-year history of the NFL?

For starters, Stafford had to do too much. Thanks to a disastrous running game and a defense that couldn’t get anybody off the field, Stafford attempted 57 more passes than anybody in the NFL. But that’s not all. His 727 attempts were 36 more than anyone else had ever dialed up in — here’s that phrase again — league history. He seemed to feel the pressure most at the beginning of games. 12 of his 17 interceptions came before halftime, while his QB rating was a full 15.5 points higher after the break (87.0 to 71.5).  

Suddenly, you can see why Stafford didn’t get much bang for his 4,967-yardage buck. His 6.8 yards per attempt — which like his completion percentage was 0.2 below the “acceptable” threshold of 7.0 — was a woeful 21st in the NFL, and nearly an entire yard worse than his 2011 mark. Jake Locker, Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck were among the quarterbacks who averaged more yards every time they dropped back to attempt a pass.

But it wasn’t just his running backs and defense that laid too much on Stafford’s plate, but his pass catchers. That might seem hard to believe considering his yardage total, but it’s equally hard to believe just how much went wrong for Stafford’s receiver corps.

In Week 7, he lost his nominal No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson to a broken leg. Burleson may be old, slow and one-dimensional, but he’s also damn reliable, and averaged 5.2 grabs per contest over Detroit’s first five games.

But Burleson’s injury wasn’t necessarily a death blow. That’s because the Lions had the most productive receiver in NCAA history — Ryan Broyles — available to take his place in the slot. Finally 100 percent recovered from the torn left ACL he suffered his senior year at Oklahoma, Broyles didn’t miss a beat, averaging 3.6 catches between Weeks 8 and 12. Not electric, but enough to cover for Burleson’s loss. Broyles had his best game in Week 12, catching six passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. 

So naturally a week later he tore his right ACL. Like Burleson, he was out for the year. With Burleson and Broyles both down for the count, it was time for mercurial second-year pro Titus Young to step up. There was just one small problem: As of Week 11, he was also out for the season.

Unlike Burleson and Broyles, however, Young wasn’t hurt. Dissatisfied with his role in the offense, Young intentionally lined up in the wrong spot multiple times in the closing moments of Detroit’s devastating Week 11 loss to the Packers.

That would be the same devastating loss where Stafford missed six of his final seven throws as the Lions desperately tried to overcome a one-score deficit. The same devastating loss that dropped the Lions to 4-6 and effectively out of the NFC playoff race. The same devastating loss that left the Lions with no choice but to send home Stafford’s only viable deep threat outside of Calvin Johnson.

Things were so bad for the Lions at receiver that by the next time they played Green Bay in Week 14, they were starting Kris Durham. Signed off the street just five days earlier, Durham ran the wrong route on Stafford’s lone interception of the evening, and committed a costly fourth-quarter drop in a game Detroit went on to lose 27-20. For good measure, Durham was responsible for another wrong route interception — this one of the “pick six” variety — in Arizona one week later.    

Stafford’s lack of weapons at receiver was evidenced in part by how little damage he did outside the red zone. In 2011, he had 12 touchdown throws of 20 yards or longer. In 2012, only five.

Dumb Luck

If the ravages of injury and incompetence weren’t enough for Stafford’s receiver corps, there was some dumb luck thrown in to boot. A big part of both Stafford’s “real life” and fantasy regression was a fluky-bordering-on-comical decline in his touchdown rate.

There’s no arguing the main reason Stafford’s TD total dropped from 41 to 20 was because his play simply slipped. But you know what didn’t help?

Calvin Johnson getting tackled at the one-yard line an unfathomable six times. Those six plays weren’t the difference in either Stafford’s or the Lions’ down year. But they are emblematic of a season in which everything that could go wrong did. A season where Stafford set the single-game record for passing yards without a touchdown (443 in Week 16).

From Titus Young becoming the NFL’s answer to Aldrich Ames, to the best receiver in the NFL not being able to gain three freaking feet six freaking different times, Stafford didn’t catch any breaks. Coupled with his undeniably worse play, it made for the most disappointing 4,967-yard season you’re ever going to see.

On Film

Mechanically, Stafford defined his season on his very first drive, if not his first throw. On his first dropback, Stafford rolled right before sidearming a bullet to Calvin Johnson for a four-yard gain. 11 plays later on a first down from the Rams’ three-yard line, Stafford failed to set his feet on a quick slant, tossing a bullet interception to Janoris Jenkins. His first of 17 picks on the year had been intended for Tony Scheffler.

Stafford’s season went on to be embodied by those three Ss: Sidearm, Sloppy and Scheffler.  

Stafford’s arm talent is considerable. It’s elite. There’s not a single throw he can’t make. If only he wouldn’t insist on trying to make them with all manner of arm slots. At times, Stafford legitimately resembles Byung-Hyun Kim. Stafford’s ability to throw sidearm leads to the occasional breathtaking completion. A bullet through an impossibly tight window. His reliance on it, however, gets him into trouble. As you may have guessed, underhanding a ball through three defenders isn’t a very high percentage throw.

Then there’s the matter of Stafford being able to make any throw. Again, that’s good. The problem is, he believes any receiver can make any catch. The NFL is not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to make daring throws into tight spaces. But for Stafford, it’s a way of life. In 2011, it paid off in making him look like a poor man’s Kurt Warner. In 2012, it made him the NFL’s answer to Landry Jones. Stafford loves throwing high and over the middle of the field. That’s great when he’s throwing to Calvin Johnson. Not so great when he’s throwing to Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew.

Stafford threw either behind or above his stiff-hipped tight ends an incalculable amount of times. He never missed by much, but Johnson was only his receiver capable of making the spectacular play after Young and Broyles went down. Far too many drives were killed because Stafford had too much faith in his arm, and by extension his unspectacular receiver corps. Jumpballs to Scheffler, Pettigrew and Durham regularly turned into picks.

Then there’s the matter of his horrid footwork. For every time Scheffler didn’t make a play on a catchable ball, there was a time Stafford dialed one up that not even Megatron could catch. Stafford’s overthrows were legion, and almost always a result of failing to set his feet or throwing off his back foot.

Stafford’s unique arm talent means he can sometimes get away with this. But in 2012, he seemed to think “sometimes” was “all the time.” Stafford wouldn’t be Stafford if he started trying to emulate Tom Brady’s perfect motion, but he must be less cavalier, and more patient, with the ball in 2013.

On the bright side, Stafford never misses low. He threw maybe a handful of balls at his receivers’ feet all year. His arm strength is evident on each and every throw. He’s also a better scrambler than he’s given credit for. Stafford is not Aaron Rodgers, but when the pocket collapses, the play is not over.

He’s fearless. Disintegrating pockets don’t bother Stafford. He’s willing to get hit if hanging in one second longer means even a small gain. He never locks onto one receiver. There were times in 2012 when Stafford should have only thrown but Calvin Johnson, but that’s not his M.O. Just like he thinks he can make any play, he thinks he can make them to any receiver. As we just went over, it gets him into trouble with bad personnel, but it moves the chains with good personnel. Defenses can’t ignore a single receiver, even if it’s Stefan Logan or Will Heller. Stafford will throw to them.  

What Could Still Go Right

When assessing the travails, disappointment and divine comedy of Stafford’s 2012, there’s a few things you need to remember. Chiefly, he just turned 25. He’s made only three more career starts than Sam Bradford. He’s made 12 fewer than Josh Freeman. When Stafford breached the 5,000-yard barrier in 2011, he did so in his 29th career game. When Drew Brees first reached the 5,000-yard plateau in 2008, he was playing in his 107th career game.

Stafford is only 19 months older than Andrew Luck. His career is still in its infancy. A lot went wrong in 2012, but we’ve already seen so much go right. He has a building block in Calvin Johnson that’s the envy of the NFL.

But as Stafford proved in painful and prolonged fashion last season, no one can do it alone, and any turnaround is going to start with an improved supporting cast. The Lions have done all they can to surround Stafford with weapons, but their best laid plans have gone awry. Forget the second-round pick they wasted on Young, or the jury still being out on Broyles. Ignore Scheffler’s painful limitations. The issues go beyond the receiver corps. Injuries have knocked Jahvid Best out of the NFL, and made Mikel Leshoure plodding and one-dimensional.     

Former undrafted free agent Joique Bell did his best impression of a playmaker out of the backfield last season, but is not someone who threatens defenses. He maxed out his potential by Week 14, and was phased out down the stretch. The Lions have to get someone who can make plays at running back to take some of the pressure off their quarterback. Maybe it will be through the draft, or maybe it will be through agency. Quite possibly, both. Signing Reggie Bush would be an excellent start, but one back — especially one who’s been known to get nicked — isn’t going to cut it. The Lions need to find two legitimate playmakers to complement, or possibly supplant, Leshoure. Defenses can’t be sitting and waiting on Stafford dropping back like the inevitability it was in 2012. 

Then, of course, the Lions must address receiver. Burleson will be back, and eventually, so will Broyles. But if Calvin Johnson thought he drew a lot of double teams in 2012, wait until we get to 2013. Detroit simply can’t keep propping up the best receiver in the NFL with the likes of Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. Another early draft pick must be used on a receiver. Money must be spent. Perhaps an old friend — Greg Jennings — will be willing to come over from Green Bay if the price is right. A possession receiver who still manages to threaten beyond the first level of the defense, Jennings would be a dream bookend for Megatron if he could stay healthy.

If Jennings proves too costly, even someone like Brandon Gibson would be a major improvement over what the Lions have now. Stafford has as much raw ability as any quarterback in the NFL, but we saw how far his raw ability alone could take him in 2012. It’s a given that Stafford can’t be as loose with the ball or as sloppy with his footwork in 2013. 

Our Best Guess For 2013      

Stafford is by no means a lost cause. His good attributes far outweigh the bad. He just needs to do a better job of realizing his teammates’ limits as well as his own. 

Maybe he’s not the next Kurt Warner, but the next Dan Fouts or Warren Moon. A prolific volume passer who can never quite get his team over the hump. Either way, Stafford’s arm is an all-important part of the solution in long-suffering Detroit, not the problem.   

There will be more growing pains. What Stafford did wrong in 2012 can’t be corrected overnight. But it’s absurd to believe the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft has already peaked, or isn’t capable of piloting a perennially competitive team. He’s only nine months older than Russell Wilson for pete’s sake. With a few more weapons and a lot more diligence about his mechanics next season, Stafford will be back to where he was this time last year: a mid-20s quarterback who’s already proven he can throw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. 

If you’re ready to give up on that, the joke’s on you.

Again thanks to Rotoworld and Patrick for allowing us to share this with you...
Patrick Daugherty is a football and baseball writer for

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