O'HARA: Stafford's progression will be key to Lions 2014 success

Posted Jul 21, 2014

The Lions will count on Matthew Stafford to continue to improve his play in 2014.

If he wants to rely on statistics to chart how his career has progressed in five seasons with the Lions, Matthew Stafford can look at the yards he has passed for, the touchdown passes and even the interceptions.

The bottom line on his five-year log has some big numbers – yes, interceptions included – especially considering how injuries limited him to only 13 games in his first two seasons.

Stafford is about to embark on what many analysts consider a critical year for him and the Lions under new head coach Jim Caldwell and his staff. It cannot be overstated how devastating last season’s collapse was, and how it ramped up the pressure  on the Lions to win this year.

A lot of that pressure falls on Stafford, just as it does every year on every quarterback in the NFL. It goes with the territory of playing quarterback, something Stafford readily accepts. So do questions about his mechanics, and whether they’ve kept him from getting maximum results out of what truly is an elite passing arm.

Winning is the magic elixir for all ailments. It heals everything. With losing, the doctor is always on call.

In charting his career arc to evaluate where he has gotten better, Stafford does not look at stats or any particular area or time span – from game to game, season to season or even from opening day as a rookie in 2009 through the final game of last season.

Every quarterback will say it’s an ever evolving position.

“Absolutely,” Stafford said. “That’s such a good question, and it’s so hard to answer. If you say, ‘What do you think you’re better at now than when you first came into the league?’ I’d like to say everything.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: Gavin Smith)

“That’s what I’d like to say – that I’m a little better at everything. Very rarely is there that one thing that I just sit there and grind on, because there’s so much to playing this position that if you just set your eyes on one thing, I think you may miss out on others.”

Stafford spread his hands wide to make a point.

“Playing football is like this,” he said, demonstrating the wide span of details involved in the position.

With the Lions’ first training-camp practice a week away, the pages on the calendar are starting to turn even faster to get to opening day. For the Lions, that’s a Monday night game against the Giants at Ford Field on Sept. 8.

There is a lot of work ahead in training camp and the exhibition season, and many issues must be settled before the season starts.

Among those issues: whether the secondary has been upgraded; if the pass rush will be better; if the offensive line can hold up as well as it did last year when it had new starters at three positions; if the addition of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron will force defenses to take some attention away from Calvin Johnson and upgrade a receiving corps that suffered through another plague of dropped passes.

Stafford also has a place in that work project. On the surface, his stats from last season – 29 TD passes, 19 interceptions and 4,650 yards passing – represent a good performance.

And frankly, the opinion expressed often here is that he has elevated the quarterback position in Detroit to a point where a 29-19 split of TD passes to interceptions could be considered an off year. If only the likes of Rusty Hilger could have been so bad.

The Lions have ridden Stafford’s arm hard. He leads all active quarterbacks in per game averages of passing yards (286.2), attempts (40.9) and completions (24.3).

Stats aside, Stafford’s performance last year fell off in the last seven games, as the Lions went 1-6 to miss the playoffs. He had some crucial picks – notably in losses to the Ravens and Giants.

The biggest criticism directed at Stafford is that inconsistent footwork leads to an inconsistent passing motion.

Stafford has a quick trigger, and he reacts when he sees a receiver break open. But there are times when he could exercise a little more patience.

“There are definitely times when it’s a reaction game, for sure,” he said. “You’re in the middle of a drop. We call it being ‘hot off the three technique.’ In the NFL, you’re hot off maybe a blitzing cornerback, or a blitzing linebacker in a certain protection.

“What’s your plan when the right guard falls down or trips on the center’s feet? That kind of thing – it’s a reaction game.

“There’s no question there were times when the pocket was really good in front of me, the guy was open on time and I wasn’t as good as I could possibly be.”
Stafford has ultimate faith in his ability to throw the ball. He has told receivers to be on high alert even if they think they’re covered because if a defensive back’s head is turned he’ll throw the ball before the defender can react.

Tate talked about Stafford’s arm strength last week in an interview on ESPN’s First Take program. Tate’s comments also included his comparison between Stafford and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, his former teammate.

“They both throw pretty balls,” Tate said. “I would definitely say Matthew Stafford’s balls get there way quicker. I like Stafford’s touch. He can place a ball wherever he wants. He can throw me open.

“I’ve been in practice, running a seam route, where I thought I was covered. He puts a ball up and over my left shoulder and. ‘OK, I was open all of a sudden.’
“There are going to be small windows. There are going to be guys there ready to hit you, but he can place a ball. That’s going to help my chance of making a play and saving me a headache.”