With the exception of Aaron Curry and his immediate relatives, I doubt anyone on this Earth wanted the Lions to draft the linebacker from Wake Forest more than I did. After weeks of learning about the extraordinary young man, I became hopelessly enamored with the freakishly talented linebacker captaining the Lions’ defense—and his selflessness, humility, and commitment to public service spearheading the economic renaissance of Detroit. It got so bad that I penned an open letter to Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew, sent it to them, posted it here, disseminated it to the media, spread it around on forums, did whatever I could to convince anyone I could that Aaron Curry should be the cornerstone of the new Detroit Lions.
Further, while I readily admitted that the Lions’ quarterback situation needed to be addressed, few were as adamant as I that “addressing” the situation should not consist of slapping a pair of $72M handcuffs on one wrist each of the franchise and the fresh-faced Texan. Matt Stafford had all the earmarks of the classic #1 quarterback bust: high-profile recruit out of high school, big career numbers compiled at a major-conference power—and a dearth of actual achievement while he was there. He certainly didn’t live up to the outsized BCS-and-Heisman expectations. On top of all that, he left school as a junior--a classic red flag—and did so, presumably, to avoid being buried in what’s projected to be a tremendous 2010 quarterback draft class.
There’s no doubt that Stafford possesses all of the classic quarterback virtues: a big frame, a Howitzer of an arm, and a million-dollar aw-shucks grin. If it were 1969 right now, Matt Stafford would be a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame. However, the modern NFL quarterback has a different set of qualifications: impeccable decision-making, a quick, compact release, athleticism, leadership—and yes, marketability. In each of these new post-Bill-Walsh quarterbacking dimensions, Matt Stafford looked like—at best—the #2 signal-caller available. Especially in the months prior to April, selecting Matthew Stafford with the #1 overall pick seemed like folly on the grandest possible scale.
Nick Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press just published a big, beautiful two-part article about Stafford’s past, his grounded upbringings in the midst of extreme gentility, his incredible links to Lion Hall of Famers Bobby Layne and Doak Walker, and his legendary high school career in a state where high school football is a religion; re-writing it all here would in fact be folly on the grandest possible scale.
Suffice it to say, Stafford has been the Golden Boy with the incredible frame, arm, skills, temperament, and mojo from as soon as he was old enough to compete with others in contests of physical skill. From lighting up middle school with his 70-yard arm, to starting as a sophomore at one of Texas’s premier programs and bringing them a state championship, to starting as a freshman in one of the SEC’s premier programs—and holding that chair for three years—Matthew Stafford’s entire life has been building up to this. So, now that he’s arrived, does he have the tools to succeed?First, let’s look at his production in college:
The first thing that jumps out is something that Stafford fans have pointed to over and over again: his improvement from year to year. Each season, the number of attempts went up, the completions went up, the yards went up, the yards per attempt went up, the touchdowns went up, the passer rating went up, and the interceptions dropped or held steady. In each year, Stafford was asked to do more and more of the work, and in each year, he did markedly better. That’s definitely a great sign.
Looking a little more closely at his final year, we see some very respectable numbers: 61.4 completion percentage, 153.54 passer efficiency rating, 9.03 yards per attempt--all second-best in the SEC (Tebow had an edge in all). The 3,459 yards and 383 attempts were each far and away the most in the SEC, showing that Stafford represented a far bigger percentage of the Bulldogs’ offense than any of the other quarterbacks did of theirs. This lends credence to the oft-floated theory that Stafford didn’t have much in the way of a running game to help him out.
In order to judge for ourselves, we of course turn to the oracle which knows and sees all: the internet highlight reel.
These two clips comprise a fairly complete set of highlights for Matt Stafford’s final year of college. When the Stafford rumors really started to pick up, I sought out as much video as I could find, to “TV scout” Stafford to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, on first blush, my worst fears were realized.
Many of these “Matt Stafford highlights” are really Knowshown Moreno highlights. There are a LOT of WR screens, quick outs, quick slants etc., where Stafford simply zips it out to the flat or to the side; either the receiver or the downfield blocking then turn a routine play into a big gainer. Note that many of the actual passing plays came out of the shotgun spread alignment—for all the talk that Stafford played in a “pro style” offense, it looks like whenever the Dawgs wanted to go downfield, they went to the gun. Finally, carefully examine the opponent, score, and time on these plays. Many of the most impressive throws come against Central Michigan, Georgia Tech, and the like. Most telling, perhaps, is the Alabama game.
Now when it comes to college football, I bleed green and white, I follow the Big Ten, and I pay casual attention to the rest of the NCAA. Excepting bowl games, I typically watch two or three non-Big Ten college football games per year--and last year, ‘Bama at Georgia happened to be one of them. There was a huge buildup to this game. It was a marquee 7:45 pm matchup, both teams were undefeated and thinking BCS, and Georgia had issued a “blackout”—black uniforms, black shirts on fans in the stands, black face paint, black everything. It was absolutely a circle game for both squads. Said Georgia coach Mark Richt before the game:
"We are playing a great team -- a top 10 team and one that is coached by one of the finest coaches in America," Richt said. "They have been tested, they just have whipped everybody so bad it didn't seem like they were."
What happened? Matthew Stafford and the Georgia Bulldogs we completely blown out of their own stadium. ‘Bama absolutely whipped them in every phase of the game. To be fair, Stafford wasn’t really the problem--the ‘Dawgs defense was completely worthless that night, and several freak turnovers (see the 7:09 mark) dealt Matt Stafford a brutal hand to play. However, even in the midst of all that, I was still waiting for him to take his team on his back like a great college quarterback can. Instead, he stuck to the gameplan.
In the face of an onslaught where ‘Bama was scoring at will, Stafford was chipping away with screens and slants, watching his title season swirling down the drain. At halftime, it was already over. If you advance the video to 7:17, you’ll see a series of very nice 15-to-25-yard completions out of a variety of sets. Stafford plays with urgency, accuracy, and you can see him willing his team to win. Unfortunately, it was already 31-0. ‘Bama was already rotating in their second-stringers, essentially ceding first downs to the Bulldogs. I came away from watching that game thinking Matt Stafford had gamely brought his B+ knife to a 22-man gunfight.
At this point in my predraft research, I was dead set against Stafford. He seemed to have Tim Couch written all over him--and if the Lions were to whiff on another quarterback, all the positive momentum generated up until this point would be wasted, Schwartz would already be a dead man walking, and the next three years would be just another long, slow rake across the coals. However, while the national media was convinced that Stafford was the no-brainer pick, the news out of Allen Park seemed to point to either a left tackle or Aaron Curry. Matt Stafford then had his Pro Day, and the consensus seemed to be vague positivity: those who were already sold saw nothing to dissuade them, and those who were convinced he was a bust saw nothing to convince them otherwise. ESPN and Scouts, Inc.’s Todd McShay:
McShay was absolutely correct with his last point on that clip: far more important to the Lions than Stafford’s scripted Pro Day workout was his own private workout with the Lions. As McShay said, the Lions flew a “cast of thousands” down to Athens to put Matt Stafford through his paces their way. As Jim Schwartz put it prior to the event:
"There's nothing wrong with us saying, 'We want to see the come-back (route) thrown into the wind, but also with the wind.' You can direct that. You can put him in some situations and throw some curveballs at him, see how he reacts and how he handles that. Before we go down, we'll have it planned out. I don't see us communicating that to him. I see us hitting him with that at the last second. We don't want him to get ready for it," Schwartz said. "Sometimes, you can have a canned nature to the workout, it can be too scripted."
So the Lions went down to Georgia with the expressed intent of getting Stafford uncomfortable. They wanted to get him off rhythm, force him to improvise, test his instincts and his understanding, and see what he’s really made of. How did he do? Well according to a piece on SI.com:
“Sources described Stafford's workout as flawless, stating it was significantly better than his March 19 pro-day workout, also held at Georgia.”
My reaction to this was extreme skepticism. Of course, in a workout hosted by Stafford and his camp at Georgia’s facilities, and viewed only by the Lions’ staff, the reports would be nothing but glowing. The Lions, even if they weren’t interested in Stafford, had to build value for that pick if at all possible. They needed other teams to believe that they were sitting on a gold mine. If Stafford wasn’t the choice, the Lions needed to convince somebody else that he was worth it—or the Lions would be stuck paying cartoon money to a linebacker or lineman. However, if it WAS true . . . then the Lions were sitting on a gold mine.
I decided to take matters into my own hands, and sit down with the only “game film” I had: a DVR’d copy of the 2009 Capital One Bowl. Now, I knew going into it that this game is not considered Stafford’s greatest performance. I also watched this game on TV when it happened, and from what I remember of Georgia’s offensive possessions (in between hanging out with my family and playing Assistant Grillmaster to my man Jim, who was hosting a party), my general impression was “not impressed”. Still, I figured I’d get right to the heart of the matter, and chart the performance.
With an arm-breakingly large tip of the hat to Brian at MGoBlog--for both the inspiration and the permission--I used his Hennechart (or “Threetsheridamnitchart”, as it’s been rechristened) concept and grading scale. Here’s Brian’s Hennechart legend, which explains exactly what all these numbers and abbreviations mean. Finally, let me add the caveat that I counted every time the ball left Stafford’s hand in passion as an “attempt”; thanks to plays called back on penalties, screens reclassified as laterals, and other gray areas, there are differences between the numbers I’m putting forth, and the official stats. Since I was really anxious to see if my hunch from watching the highlights—that Georgia runs a “pro” offense but only really throws from a spread--was on target, I broke it down by formation:
|single back 3WR||0||1||1||0||0||0||0|
Yikes. This was the last thing I wanted to see: Nearly every passing attempt came from the gun, with three or more receivers on the field. Georgia was doing a lot of lining up in a traditional pro set or I-form, then they’d run—or, a few times Stafford would then back up and take the snap from the gun. It would seem that if Georgia is typically this predictable—spread means pass, pro set means run—then it’s no wonder that their offense failed to meet expectations. I’m going to chalk this up to Georgia’s staff presuming that a lot of spread looks would flummox a Big Ten defense that only sees four or five predominantly-spread teams a year (cue a hearty roll of the eyes).
I decided to also break it down by, well, down:
This isn’t any great revelation; to be frank, Stafford wasn’t great in this game no matter how you slice the numbers. 9/32 throws being “inaccurate” means that almost a third of the time, his throws weren’t catchable, or were routine throws that required a circus catch. However, there is one thing that caught my eye: on second-and-short and third-and-short (I defined “short” as five yards and under), Stafford was either “dead on” or “catchable” with 6 of 7 throws. If you add second-and-long in to that total, Stafford came up with good, catchable throws in 11 of 15 reasonable passing situations. That’s when it occurred to me: those are the throws Joey Harrington couldn’t make.
Remember how infuriating it was that on second and third down, Mooch would have every target run curls, slants, and comebacks? Joey would have like four six-yard-deep options on 3rd-and-5, and invariably he was either inaccurate, or he threw it to Az Hakim, and therefore it would go incomplete. I don’t know how many drives got killed with a Kevin Jones run, then two incompletions. That was the entire point of the Walsh-style offense that Mariucci ran; short, quick, accurate throws put the skill position players in space with the ball. If Joey had executed the dink-and-dunk stuff with placement and zip, like Stafford, Mariucci’s offense would have been significantly more successful.Suddenly, I realized my problem: I was only looking for evidence to support my hypothesis! I came in looking for proof that Matt Stafford is the next Jeff George; a caveman with a rocket arm who can’t make decisions or execute a gameplan. Yet, all the evidence shows that at Georgia, Stafford rarely used that arm as a club—he often used it like a scalpel. Here he is running a 3-to-4 WR offense, being pretty efficient with his throws, executing the gameplan and moving the ball, and I’m complaining that he’s not spraying it all over the field like Kyle Boller!
I’m certainly not saying that Stafford is going to come in and shred NFL defenses apart with his psychic defense-reading and pinpoint accuracy. A lot of these throws are designed plays, screens and flares where Stafford isn’t making a read, he’s just pulling the trigger. However, that in and of itself—being a quarterback who can successfully pull the trigger on second and third down—means that a top NFL offensive coordinator like Linehan ought to be able to use him, right now, just fine. With an unstoppable deep threat in Calvin Johnson, and a short-range broad side of a barn in Brandon Pettigrew, Matthew Stafford should have all the tools he needs to perform at a serviceable level in the NFL right away.
It’s certainly not all sunshine and lollipops here; I found very little film of him executing an NFL offense from under center. He also was mostly uninspiring in his final game as a Bulldog, when he knew the entire football world was watching closely. However, I also saw a lot more touch, a lot more quick throws, a lot more short-range accuracy, and a lot more athleticism than I was expecting. He played behind a makeshift line his final year at Georgia, and he made a lot of plays happen after things broke down—or, importantly, as they were breaking down around him.
I’m not convinced that he’ll be the next Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, but I now believe the potential is there. Think of it this way: if he can top a 65 passer rating, he’ll be the best quarterback on the roster. If he can be better than Charlie Batch, he’ll be the best quarterback the Lions have drafted since Rodney Peete. If he can be better than Scott Mitchell, he’ll be the best Lions quarterback since the man who set the bar for his high school over fifty years ago: Bobby Layne. Since Stafford already did what Layne never could—lead Highland Park to a Texas State Championship—I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’ll be better than Scott Mitchell.