Now that Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has agreed to a lucrative contract extension, his fans, teammates, and coaches will no doubt expect him to take his team to that mythical "next level." Stafford certainly has the raw talent to do just that -- he threw for 4,967 yards in 2012, behind only Drew Brees, and he's got one of the best raw skill sets in the game today. However, there are all kinds of things on tape that remind us that Stafford is still just 25 years old, and the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft has regressed mechanically despite his impressive statistics. This was especially apparent in 2012, when Stafford threw sidearm, shot the ball into tight windows with curious reads, and displayed some very inconsistent footwork. Stafford has led the NFL in pass attempts in each of the last two seasons, which means that there's a very large sample size to work with when evaluating his mechanics.
Safe to say that those in the know -- even those who like Stafford's potential and marvel at his arm strength -- are pretty concerned. Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski took Stafford to task for his mechanics in his "Jaws QB Countdown," and he's not alone.
“I’ve always loved Stafford’s willingness to pull the trigger," Jaworski said. "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.”
Stafford's mechanical issues are easy to see on tape, and they mirror some of the same issues that Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears has never been able to consistently overcome. Like Cutler, Stafford will make stick throws when he shouldn't because he has such a great belief in his arm. Like Cutler, Stafford will go through stretches where he throws absolutely flat-footed, and when that happens, he's not using his lower body to drive his throwing action. If you're going to ask a guy to throw as often as Stafford does, especially without the benefit of a cohesive running game, any mechanical glitch will be amplified by the sheer repetition the quarterback must undergo.
I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup about Stafford's issues in one of our December, 2012 podcasts, and Cosell pointed specifically to the lower body as a root cause.
"I was very fortunate in my career to get to know Bill Walsh and to spend a lot of time with him," Cosell 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 is 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 off-season, 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.
However, the Lions don't seem to see any problems with the way Stafford is doing things -- or, at least, that's what head coach Jim Schwartz said at his season-ending press conference.
“I think his mechanics are very good," Schwartz said on Dec. 31. "We took a lot less sacks this year. Part of that is him being able to get rid of the ball quickly. Some of those required that he couldn’t set up and deliver a ball in classic form. We’ll look at everything very hard but he doesn’t have mechanical problems. He’s very creative as a quarterback, throws the ball from a lot of different angles and in most ways that is very, very helpful to us. Some think that’s exactly what he needs to do in order to get it done. Like I said, our sack numbers were low. Our interceptions per pass play were near the bottom of the League or top of the League, however you look at it. I think we were fourth in interceptions per pass play. His completion percentage was down a little bit this year. I think it went from 63 to about 60. But also he had to deal with a whole new cast of skill players and that was something that he did. He works very hard at his mechanics and he has very good form and part of his ability as a quarterback is his ability to create and throw on the run. But there’s always ways that we can improve.
One way in which Stafford can improve is in his ability to read defenses, especially defenses that disguise their intentions at the snap. That was a major issue from Week 1 of the 2012 season, when Stafford threw three interceptions, and could have easily thrown more. From my game recap:
On the first pick, Stafford tried to throw to his right with tight end Tony Scheffler as the target. But rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins jumped the route, picked Stafford off at the goal line, and ran it out to the St. Louis 34-yard line. Stafford tried to finesse the throw and didn't seem to recognize that Jenkins had established inside position on the play. Then, with 7:17 left in the second quarter, Stafford threw his second pick on a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew which was intercepted by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
To complete his reverse hat trick, Stafford threw a pick-six to cornerback Cortland Finnegan with 1:31 left in the first half on an attempted pass to Calvin Johnson. Unbelievably, it was almost worse. With 25 seconds left in the first half, Stafford almost had another pick, when he threw deep to Scheffler. The ball was dropped by Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher, but it was another ball that Stafford had no business throwing.
If Fletcher had held onto that one, Stafford would have racked up a full 25 percent of the 2011 interception total ... in just 30 minutes and 21 passes.
"The one where I was throwing on the left side to Pettigrew, that one was a good play; (the) guy undercut it," Stafford said after the game. "Really, the goal line fade, same kind of thing. You look at tape and those guys have been turning their backs the whole time. Thought the back shoulder would be there and the kid [Jenkins] did a good job. Like I said, I didn't throw great passes.
"Cortland Finnegan, he's a high-priced free agent and he showed why. It was a heck of a play getting all the way out to a comeback outside from the slot. It's going to happen. Obviously you don't want to have three — you don't want to have three in the first five games and you don't want to have three in the first half of the first one. But the guys, we believe in each other. I believe in all the guys in that locker room that we can get it done no matter what happens to start the game. That's all we did. We went out there and put a little bit of a second-half together and got a win."
Yes, the Lions won that game, 27-23, but when giving contract extensions to franchise quarterbacks, one must consider that wins aren't always perfect indicators of long-term success. This is a team that needs to establish a consistent path back to mechanical success with its most important player (Calvin Johnson notwithstanding), and until that happens, there's no way Stafford will be able to live up to his new contract ... because he's still busy living up to the old one.