MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara: Matthew Stafford: QB Prodigy's Golden Arm Glitters for Lions

Posted Jul 24, 2012

First of a three-part series. Next: a quarterback’s development.

From the first time Matthew Stafford picked up a football, there was never any doubt about what he would do with it. He didn’t tuck the ball under his arm and run or drop-kick it across the yard at his family’s home.

The ball felt comfortable in the grip of his young hand. It felt like – well, like a quarterback gripping a football. It was no surprise that he did what came naturally. He threw it.

“I can’t remember the first time,” Stafford said during a break from a summer workout. “I just remember, we were playing in the back yard, and I was always the quarterback -- throwing it around, slinging it around.”

He’s never stopped throwing – through the back-yard games, youth leagues and high school in Dallas, a three-season college career at Georgia and three seasons with the Lions, where his breakout performance in 2011 has experts regarding him as one of the NFL’s great, young quarterback talents.

With the benefit of playing his first full season free of injury, Stafford’s statistics were among the best in NFL history: 41 TD passes and 5,038 passing yards, fifth-most in NFL history.

The roll call for the 5,000-yard club has an elite membership of four. Drew Brees has done it twice – a record 5,476 yards in 2011 and 5,069 in ’08. Next are Tom Brady, with 5,235 in 2011, Dan Marino with 5,084 in 1984 and Stafford.

Statistics are one measuring stick for quarterbacks, but they aren’t all that defines Stafford’s special talent that is unlike any other quarterback in Lions history. His throwing arm – the pure, natural ability to throw a football -- is what makes people predict that he’ll rise rapidly on the pecking order of his contemporaries.

Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ All-Pro wide receiver, said having Stafford as his quarterback was one reason he signed a long-term contract extension in March.

“Matt’s the hottest thing in it right now, I think,” Megatron said. “The kid has an arm. I see what he does every day in practice. I wouldn’t consider walking away from that. “It’s tough to get around a good quarterback -- especially one as good as he is.”

And Nate Burleson, the starting receiver opposite Johnson, said he learned early to be on the alert at all times because Stafford’s arm strength allows him to throw the ball through tight openings before a defender has time to react. Stafford has a cannon, and with laser sighting – with the versatility to it to make any throw necessary.

Stafford’s faith in his ability to deliver the ball in any situation at any time is apparent in this exchange during a summer interview:

Do you have complete faith that you can make any throw? “Yeah.”

You do, right? “Yeah.”

The one-word answers – “Yeah” – were instantaneous and firm, with no shrug or hesitation. Another question: does a play ever come in from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan that makes you wonder if you can make the tough throw required for the play to succeed?

“That never, ever, really crosses my mind,” Stafford said, again with no hesitation. “There are certain things you learn that are smart to do and not smart to do. But if a coach draws up a play in the dirt and says, ‘You’re going to have to throw it to this spot 50 yards down the field,’ I’m like, “OK, let’s go.’

“It’s not just trusting my arm. It’s trusting those guys (the receivers). “I think I can throw to any spot on the field -- sometimes to a fault.”

Stafford made his mark last season by leading the Lions to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since 1999. He led late, clutch rallies in three road wins – at Dallas, Minnesota and Oakland.

One sequence of plays in the Lions’ 28-27 win at Oakland in Game 14 showed how Stafford can deliver the ball in a variety of ways. The game-winning drive covered 98 yards on seven plays and ended in Stafford’s 6-yard TD pass to Johnson with 39 seconds left.

A quarterback can’t always drop, set, pat the ball and deliver – especially with defenders shooting gaps and receivers making adjustments to coverage.

These three plays stood out in the drive:

  • On first down from the Lions’ 18 and a hard rush coming from his left, Stafford winged a pass that Johnson caught just before he landed out of bounds on the left sideline. It was a 21-yard gain, but combined with his drop-back and throwing across the field, the ball probably covered at least 40 yards – and was on target where only Johnson could catch it.
  • Stafford and Johnson caught a little luck on a 48-yard looper down the middle, when Johnson reacted to the underthrown ball with two Raider defenders unable to cover him.
  • The game-winner. Johnson lined up to the right and cut left to the goalpost. Stafford backpedaled three quick steps and delivered a perfect pass off his back foot that Johnson caught chin-high near the back of the end zone. Linehan added an element that made the throw even better.

“He was expecting Calvin to do something a little bit different,” Linehan said. “He was able to throw that ball without having to reset and throw it. Had he reset, it would have been late.”

Stafford is a quartergack prodigy who had the resources and opportunity to develop his rare skill. Handing him a football was like giving a guitar to Eric Clapton, a baseball to Justin Verlander or hockey skates to Nicklas Lidstrom.

Linehan is a career offensive coach who has spent 11 seasons in the NFL. He was head coach of the Rams from 2006-08 and came to the Lions in 2009 – the year they drafted Stafford first overall.

The moment the scouting process began before the 2009 draft, Stafford’s ability was apparent to the Lions.

“A lot of it was born,” Linehan said. “When he was able enough to pick up a football, I think he had it.

“He’s got natural, God-given talent. But he was blessed with some great training, from great parents, great coaches at a young age. Then he picked a great school in Georgia. “You match that all together, it’s the perfect storm.”

Stafford’s father, John, has a football background and worked with Matthew. One thing everyone was smart enough not to do was try to change his delivery.

“It was a God-given ability to throw --- to be a natural thrower,” Stafford said. “I’ve never taken a football lesson on how to throw. I’ve never been to a quarterback camp, anything like that.

“The biggest thing for me was to watch the best in the world and try to do it like them. I was always the kid not watching the game for fun. “I was watching the game to see how Troy Aikman threw it or how John Elway threw it or how Brett Favre threw it.

“I picked up a couple things on how they did it. That’s how I learned. That’s how I tried to do what I do.”

Throwing as he backpedals, or off his back foot, is probably a skill he hasn’t copied. For those who wonder why he does it, the answer seems obvious: because he can.

“That’s just natural,” Stafford said. “No coach is going to see that and go, ‘This is exactly how we want to do this.’

“That’s just how I play sometimes. It’s not always a perfect pocket. It’s not always perfect timing. You’ve got to be ready to adjust. That’s part of playing quarterback.”

A transforming moment for Stafford came in the eighth grade, when his parents sent him to a football camp at Florida State. It was a camp for players at all positions, not quarterback specific for some self-anointed guru to remake every kid’s throwing motion. On the first day of camp, Stafford was placed with his eighth-grade peers. After one day, the coaches gave Stafford a playing-field promotion.

“I’d never thrown a high-school ball in my life,” he said. “I was playing with a Pee-Wee ball. They put a high-school ball in my hands. After the first day, I was playing with the 10th- and 11th-grade group -- throwing to guys going to Florida State.

“We were on a full seven-on-seven drill. I’m in eighth grade, throwing it around. “That was one day I remember, thinking, ‘Maybe I’m kind of good at this.’” He was right.