Matthew Stafford attempted an NFL-record 727 passes last season but logged only 20 touchdowns. (Greg Nelson/SI)
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.
The first interception came with 7:54 left in the first quarter, with the Lions at the Rams’ three-yard line. It’s first down, and Stafford takes a quick drop and immediately throws an interception to cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who is playing in his first NFL game. This was clearly a quick read in which Scheffler was intended to use his size to beat the defender physically, but with an underthrow and converging hooded coverage, it didn't work out that way.
I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who produced Jaworski’s quarterback ranking segments and also produces the network’s NFL Matchup show, to help us break these plays down.
Pick #1: Stafford takes a two-step drop and underthrows his target against an adjusting defense.
Cosell on the first pick: “To me, the pass to Scheffler was not a read problem. It was a pre-determined throw based on the coverage, and not an incorrect throw based on the coverage. He has a 6-foot-5 athletic tight end against a 5-10 cornerback. That was the matchup they wanted. But Jenkins never turned his head … the whole point of the back-shoulder throw is that the defender doesn’t see it. But Jenkins stayed square to Scheffler and never turned his body, and you combine that with the fact that Stafford threw it too far to the inside. The defense won, and Stafford made a badly inaccurate throw.”
The second interception came with 7:17 left in the first half. The Lions had the ball with first-and-10 at the St. Louis 16. Stafford was targeting tight end Brandon Pettigrew from the left slot, despite Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar moving out to Pettigrew’s alley before the snap. Stafford made the throw, and Dunbar easily jumped the route. To me, this was a clear case of a defense reading a tendency and the quarterback failing to pick it up. It looks as if Stafford is seeing Pettigrew open and missing the fact that Dunbar is all geeked up to jump the route.
Cosell wasn’t so sure.
Stafford misses a linebacker cheating to the seam, and pays the price.
“This is an example of a play that looked like a bad read, but my guess is that because he has a big arm, he thought he could get that in there. That doesn’t make it OK, but I don’t think he was fooled by the defense. He saw Dunbar move before the snap, and he thought he could get it in there anyway. It’s something he does, and it can be both a positive and a negative. You have to make certain throws, but it comes down to situations, and you don't want to see those kinds of 'maybe' throws in the red zone.”
The final pick came with 1:36 left in the first half. The Lions had first-and-10 at their own 23. Stafford had Calvin Johnson outside right, and Pettigrew in the slot. At the snap, slot corner Cortland Finnegan blew right by Pettigrew -- the guy you’d think he’d be covering -- to get to the sideline so that Bradley Fletcher, who had Johnson up top, would have help with the underneath concept. Safety Quintin Mikell, who Stafford may have thought would head over to cover Johnson deep, instead stayed up top. It was a brilliant disguised coverage, and Finnegan was rewarded with a 31-yard touchdown return.
Slot cornerback Cortland Finnegan looks to be abdicating his responsibility, but he's really baiting the QB for a big play.
“I really believe that because Finnegan was inside the slot receiver," Cosell said, "Stafford did not factor Finnegan into this play. I’m not in Stafford’s head, but … it was a right-side read, and he saw Finnegan inside. It’s possible that it was inverted Cover 2, and Finnegan was the underneath outside defender. ... He’s throwing to Calvin, so it could be a coverage designed for that -- ‘Let’s show him the throw, and then, let’s take it away.’ They could be baiting him, too.”
To the point of Stafford’s mechanics, Cosell put it succinctly.
"I was very fortunate in my career to get to know Bill Walsh and to spend a lot of time with him,” he said. “And he drilled home to me the importance of 'Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics.' And it starts with footwork. He used to say that he could see a quarterback's game from the waist down and tell you if he had a good game. Matthew Stafford is an elite arm talent -- we know that. I didn't just break any news there. Everybody in the league would tell you that. But if you have poor mechanics on a consistent basis, and if you continually change your arm angle when you don't need to, and if you continually throw off-balance with your feet improperly set when you don't need to, there's no way you can be consistent. I really believe that he needs to be taken back to school in the offseason, and they have to get him to play with better footwork. That's where it has to start, and once that happens, I think everything else will fall into place."
Do I believe that the Lions see no issue with Stafford’s inconsistency? I think that Schwartz and his coaches tell Stafford things they would never tell the media, and that’s as it should be. Schwartz also knows that he has a young quarterback who can make some incredible plays and has a good head on his shoulders, despite the occasional veer from the norm. It’s important to remember that despite the fact that he’s entering his fifth season in the league, Stafford turned 25 in February. When the Lions selected him with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, they’d earned that position by being the only team in league history to lose all 16 games in a season the year before.