COMMENTARY | The term "elite" is tossed around all too often in the current professional sporting landscape, but Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford seems to be on the verge of earning the distinction. His recent statistics would suggest that he is already one of the best QBs in football.
Stafford has thrown for 10,005 yards and 61 touchdowns over the past two seasons and helped the Lions offense to become one of the most dangerous aerial threats in all of football. He has a cannon for an arm, the best receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson and four years of development under his belt. The problem is that Stafford has been alarmingly inconsistent.
Injury problems from early in his career have largely been forgotten and rightfully so, but some glaring issues have popped up recently that are holding Stafford back. Last season he showcased a wide variety of arm motions. Stafford would throw with a traditional top-down release, side-armed and even quarter-armed. These variations resulted in less accurate passes and a lack of consistency.
Drives were all too often halted because Stafford would leave throws at the feet of his intended targets. It is great to know Stafford has the ability to vary his motion, but the inconsistent nature of this approach suggests that he should only use it in times of desperation. He is at his best using a traditional motion where he can set his feet, put his full body weight into a throw and ensure power and accuracy.
This is something that can be corrected very easily heading into 2013 and should help Stafford to regain some of the momentum he crafted in 2011. However, he must also find a way to cut back on some of the poor decisions he has made. Stafford has tossed 33 interceptions over the past two years and it has been a serious detriment to the progress of Detroit's offense.
The hope will be that an increased awareness and dedication to the running game will alleviate some of the pressure on Stafford. After all, it is hard not to throw a ton of interceptions when you are asked to throw the ball 727 times in one season. Stafford would greatly benefit from a consistent rushing attack that can give him shorter yardage requirements on later downs.
All too often last season Stafford was presented with 3rd-and-7 or 3rd-and-8 situations, allowing the defense to easily prepare for an intermediate pass and forcing the Lions QB to shovel the ball to underneath routes in hopes of gaining the extra yardage needed. The addition of Reggie Bush during this offseason will hopefully remedy this issue and bring balance to Detroit's attack.
2013 should also present Stafford an opportunity to find better diversity within the passing game. There is nothing wrong with constantly feeding the ball to the game's top wide receiver, but the Lions have other pass-catching targets that can be effective when Johnson garners multiple defenders in coverage.
Utilizing talent like Ryan Broyles, Nate Burleson and Mike Thomas will help to free up opportunities for Johnson and make Stafford's life a whole lot easier. It is a strategy that the best quarterbacks have already figured out.
That group of "elite" QBs is decidedly smaller than most may think. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are the obvious names and they all have Super Bowl rings to their credit. They have also figured out how to spread the ball around to multiple targets.
Does Stafford have to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2013 in order to be instantly given the label of "elite"? That seems to be the current benchmark for such a status, but it is not a perfect measuring stick. No one would claim that Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were not elite quarterbacks during their playing days. Super Bowl wins are simply a fast lane to the label.
Stafford must find ways to cut back on the mistakes and become fundamentally and technically consistent in 2013. That is how he will best help Detroit win football games and inch his way into the discussion with the Brady's, Manning's and Rodgers' of the world.
So what exactly is the verdict here? Will Stafford become elite at the conclusion of the season? The reality of the situation is that he is not in that discussion just yet. An unlikely Super Bowl victory would be a tremendous boost, but even then Stafford would still have more work to do. He has shown flashes and stretches of brilliance to this point in his career, but longevity is crucial.
Stafford is on his way to becoming an elite quarterback, but he is at least two years away from truly earning that title.
Nick Kostora lives in Michigan and has covered the Detroit Lions for 4 years. His work has appeared on CNN, Bleacher Report and more.
You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickkostora
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