Lions uncaged

>> 8.10.2009

So I’m sure folks have been wondering where my exquisitely detailed, play-by-play breakdown of the open practice at Ford Field—the “Lions Uncaged!” event--is.  It is here, at NetRat’s blog.  NetRat has been doing incredible work, watching all of the publicly available practices and taking extensive notes.   However, the annual open practice is supposed to be family-friendly, and so I brought my wife and progeny, not a stopwatch and clipboard.  As such, I have no forensic evidence for you—facts, stats, etc.—but I DO have circumstantial evdience: thoughts, feelings, impressions . . . oh, and pictures.

The drive to Ford Field could be described with a single word: “wet”.  It was an all-day soaker; in the hackneyed world of Ernest Hemingway I shouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed, let alone drive to Detroit in an attempt to have a LEGENDARY DAY OF FUN.  We parked in the structure, and then met some friends in the long, long, LONG line to get inside the stadium.  I should mention that this line was outside, in the rain, and it was raining, and it was outside.  We were all soaked in a matter of moments.

One of my friends had peeled off to go to a different gate, to get a better spot in the line for Matt Stafford.  I stupidly decided to try and take my two eldest kids there, too, but after five minutes of slogging through the downpour, I realized I’d led them the wrong way, so we simply turned around and went back.  When the gates opened, all of the fans who’d been waiting in the parking structure immediately ran across the street and cut in front of all of us poor suckers who’d been waiting in the line for 45 minutes, an hour, or more.  As we got in the door, my wife headed to the Calvin Johnson line, and I tried to hustle the two biggest kids directly to the Stafford line; it was already a doozy by the time we got there.

After about ten minutes, a Lions staffer walked the line, telling us it was already longer than they planned to let get autographs, and we may want to find another line.  After another 15 minutes or so, another person walked up and down the line saying that they’d only planned for about 160 autographs, and the cutoff for 160 was well ahead of us—however, we were welcome to say in line if we liked.  I’d been burned by this before: staff convincing me that I’ve got no chance for an autograph--only to have them extend the session after I give up.  We foolishly stayed, and after another ten minutes they closed the line.  Of course, they closed all the lines at the same time, so now we were out of luck entirely.  My kids were crushed.  We ran to the Calvin Johnson line to see if my wife had made it, but they closed it about ten people ahead of her . . . and that was it.  No autographs.

My oldest, when I explained what had happened, burst into tears.  She said, “You mean, we’re not going to get to meet the players?” I had to swallow hard; I didn’t anticipate this at all.  After hustling to get from Lansing to Detroit in time, after waiting in the rain for ever and ever, and after running through the halls of Ford Field to get in line, a scenario where we didn’t end up with anything simply didn’t enter into my imagination.  Well . . . there we were, so we tried to make the best of it.

Since we’d spent the whole time waiting for autographs, all of the prime close-up seats were taken, so we perched high in the end zone instead.  Now, this robbed me of being able to scout the line play, which was a bummer—but, it opened up a new world in terms of watching the quarterbacks.

We as fans are so used to the “TV angle”, the down-the-line-of-scrimmage-cam, that we lose appreciation for how wide the field is.  It’s 160 feet---that’s fifty three and one-third yards.  That’s right, folks--no matter what Tecmo Bowl taught us, the field of play is over half as wide as it is long.  A “30-yard-out” is really a 40-plus-yard throw, assuming the QB’s standing in the middle of the field.  When people say that arm strength “doesn’t matter”, to an extent, they’re right—the 50-yard sideline bomb is only deployed once or twice a game.  But where arm strength DOES matter is getting the rock to the receiver while he’s still open.  It’s difficult to explain without resorting to video clips I don’t have--but in watching the passing drills live, the differences between Stafford, Culpepper, and Stanton were remarkable.

When the ball leaves Culpepper’s hand, it does so with zip.  He, no doubt, has the arm strength to thread the needle.  In the 7-on-7 drills,  he appeared to have the best grasp of the offense.  I could see his eyes going to his second and third reads.  I could see him whipping through his checkdowns and making decisions.  He makes his reads, pulls the trigger, and does so with velocity--but still, it looks like he’s rushing everything.  I saw a frustratingly consistent lack of accuracy on the short stuff—not missing his receivers necessarily, but not putting it where they can easily catch it.  There were a lot of incomplete passes to open receivers 5-10 yards downfield; not what you want to see.

In the 11-on-11 stuff, he really struggled with the pass rush.  What was inaccuracy in the 7-on-7 work seemed to turn into ineffectiveness when line play was added back into the equation.  There was one play where Culpepper hesitated once, twice, and then Jared Devries beat his man around the corner; he pulled up and tapped Culpepper on the shoulder.  Nobody blew the whistle, though, so Culpepper stepped up and launched a bomb to Megatron, who got under it and hauled it in.  The place exploded--but in real life, this was a loss of eight, not a gain of six.  All in all, I would say that Culpepper was adequate; he never made a big mistake, but he didn’t move the ball that much, either.  He looked like a competent, mediocre veteran quarterback—exactly what the Lions needed him to be last season, instead of a turnover factory.

When Stafford throws the ball, it’s not much faster than Culpepper, but there’s a pop, a tautness that Culpepper’s passes doesn’t have.  The spiral is absolute, every time; it slices through the air.  There’s no Joey-esque duck-spiral-duck-quail-spiral-pheasant nonsense; The Truth’s passes in no way resemble game fowl.  Matt Stafford has an unreal arm, and he uses it effectively on dump-offs, go-routes, and everything in between.  There was one deep pass in the early 7-on-7 stuff where Stafford grooved this deep ball down the sidelines . . . thanks to my vantage point, I can’t tell you exactly how long the pass was, but it was somewhere between 40 and 60 yards.  The point here was that Stafford sailed a perfect, perfect spiral from the middle of the field, down the sidelines, to an open man—and the ball arced beautifully in the air, almost rolled over from the middle of the field to the sideline, like a curveball, and then dropped out of the sky, just inside the sideline.  The wideout wasn’t quite sure where the ball was, and his hesitation in picking it up was the difference between a jawdropping touchdown, and a pass that hit the turf a half a step ahead of the receiver—as it did.

It kind of hit me at that point: that’s what Matt Stafford needs to learn.  Not how to set his feet.  Not how to break down a defense.  Not how to grip the ball.  Not how to look off a safety.  Certainly not how to throw a picture-perfect deep ball.  Matthew Stafford needs to get reps in the offense, hone his timing, and develop a rapport with his receivers.  That’s it.  He can’t do it sitting on a bench, folks; he needs to be on the field.  I know it, Tom Kowalski knows it, and according to him, the Lions' coaches know it, too.  Say hello to your Week 1 starting quarterback.

Oh, for that matter, say hello to Killer (in the TV light):

Stafford’s far from perfect; as I said, he’s not looking at a lot of his third and fourth reads . . . at least, not that I could tell by watching his eyes from the end zone.  Then again, Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports reported the other day that Stafford fooled Julian Peterson with a no-look pass, so maybe I’m off in that assessment.  Stafford seemed to have fewer “little mistakes” than Culpepper—when he threw the ball to the right guy at the right time, it was there, quickly, and on-target.  However, Stafford also had more “where was that going?” moments; not many, but a few where the pass was either with a wrong route in mind, or to a receiver who ran the wrong route.  Given that Stafford ran almost entirely with the twos, I can’t be sure.

In terms of overall gameday effectiveness, I’d say that Stafford is roughly Culpepper’s equal.  Given that, I don’t see how anyone can continue to justify calling for Stafford to sit.  He’s at least as good as a guy who’s starting his 11th season in the league—and has been a starter, when healthy, almost that entire time.  That means that he’s already better than Joey ever was, or ever will be.  That means that he’s an average NFL starter, right now.  That means that he’s not a bust, he’s not a flop, and he’s not a waste of seventy million dollars—and, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be worth every penny.

Drew Stanton showed me a little bit of something; he had a great pump fake that lead to a completion, made a couple plays with his legs, and generally executed effectively.  Stanton was the only quarterback to convert in one of the situational drills (10 seconds left, 1 time out, 30-yard line).  However, the difference between his passes and Stanton’s was remarkable.

Stanton’s balls would, you know, get there and everything, but when he’d run the same drills right after Stafford, you could just see it: the difference in zip on the same passes could mean a step, or two, or three for a closing defender—the difference between a receiver turning it upfield for more yardage, and a safety swatting it away before the catch.

The NFL is a world of instants and inches—and if Drew Stanton wants to survive, he will need to develop a Kurt Warner-like holistic understanding of the offense and defense and keys and reads; he will have to learn to throw the ball well before his receiver gets to where they’re going.  Let’s hope for his sake that the Turk spares him one more season, and he can go into 2010 ready to honestly compete for a career backup gig (a la Charlie Batch).

Now, for some quick final impressions . . .

  • This guy, Adam Jennings, was everywhere.  Ones, twos, threes, and a favorite target of all three quarterbacks.  I don’t know what his chances are of making the team, but he certainly caught my eye.
  • Aaron Brown flashed real explosion working with the twos and threes; in live move-the-ball drills he showed a compact running style, great lateral burst, and bounced off of tacklers.  I know he infuriated The Grandmaster the next day, but if it comes down to Brown or Caseon on the final roster, I really hope it’s Brown—someone might pluck this kid off the practice squad, and we could lose out on a good one.
  • I passed Landon Cohen in the halls, and he’s RIPPED.  I mean, the guy is allegedly up around 305, but he can’t be more than five or six percent body fat.  It looked like he was wearing pads—but he wasn’t.  Unreal.
  • Grady Jackson, Jon Jansen, Daniel Loper, and Stuart Schweigart all stayed late afterwards to sign autographs.  I brought my two eldest down to the rail:

               Schwiegart saw my daughter holding out our football, and gladly signed it.  After he signed a few more balls and shirts, he took off his socks and shoes and wristbands, and called for quiet.  He then started asking trivia questions about himself (“What school am I from?”), and rifling pieces of his gear towards correct answerers.
  • Check out the difference in color between my authentic and my kids’s replicas!

  • We moved towards midfield for the end of the session (live 11-on-11), and I definitely noticed the offensive line getting a LOT of push up the middle; much much more than I have seen in years from a Lions' squad.  Check this out:

    The LoS is around the 30, the runner is at the 28, and he’s got a five-yard-wide hole up until around the 32. I don’t know if this is just significant because of the weak DT play, or if the Lions’ OL is really that improved, or a combination thereof.  Note the pressure the RE is getting, though—this was a pattern I saw over and over, the wide-set ends ‘pinching’ or ‘funnelling’ the runner to the middle, just as the defense was designed.   The DTs aren’t holding their ground—but all three LBs are patiently in position.  I think we’ll see this a lot; the defense will give up a lot of three-to-five yard runs up the middle, but the ‘backers will hold them to no more.

In my last post, I mentioned about how I thought the soul of sports is the young fan, sitting in awe and wonder of the spectacle of it all. Despite the filthy, naked greed on display--both by the organization in charging us four bucks for a bottle of water, and by fellow fans by cutting in line--and the awful time we had before, during, and after the ‘family fun’, this is what it’s all about:

A HUGE thanks goes out to my shutterbug wife, her incredible patience and understanding around this endeavor, and the excellent snaps she took without the aid of a zoom lens.


25 comments:

Anonymous,  August 10, 2009 at 2:07 PM  

But the question is, will they be any good this year?

Neil August 10, 2009 at 2:48 PM  

Even if it didn't quite go exactly the way you had hoped, you got to share this with your kids and that's pretty cool. That is the sort of thing that creates life long fans.

Also, whenever I read anything talking about how Stafford looks at camp in comparison with Culpepper, it just makes me want to beat the drum for Stafford all the harder. You and I have both been saying it all along, and now that it's here and Stafford is running right alongside Culpepper, it makes it all the more maddening that some people think that Culpepper should start while Stafford sits and jots notes on a clipboard.

Ty August 10, 2009 at 3:21 PM  

Anon--

It's a good question. Combining what I've been reading all offseason with what I've seen, I'm not wavering from my 7-win prediction--but I admit that's on the high side, and 8 wins is really my logical ceiling. This is really a 5-to-7-win team in terms of talent; anything better than that would be either due to incredibly good coaching, incredibly good fortune, or some combination thereof. You'll see quarters and halves where the offense looks unstoppable, and quarters and halves where the defense looks diabolical. However, for the most part, this team will be both dynamic and flawed on both sides of the ball. "Rampagingly mediocre", to borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert's review of Pulp Fiction.

Peace
Ty

Ty August 10, 2009 at 4:05 PM  

Neil--

I agree--and since I know I'm going to at least one preseason game, and maybe another regular season game, I'm hoping we'll get a more positive experience under our belts. Our kids won't shut up about Schweigart now; I really hope he makes the team!

I went to a party yesterday, and all the menfolk were standing around talking about Stafford, each trying to outdo the other at how vociferously they could pound the table about how he needs to SIT and LEARN. I'm just like . . . learn what?

Joey needed to sit and learn because he wasn't very good; throwing him out there was the worst possible move because he wasn't ready. Aaron Rodgers came from the same Jeff Tedford one-read offense, and he greatly benefitted from a couple years of sitting and being groomed. However, Staff is ready. He's been the man for three years at Georgia--as pressure-packed of a football gig as there is, outside of the NFL. If losing four or five of his first six games as a pro is going to permanently shatter his psyche, then he's not a franchise quarterback anyway, and he's already a bust.

Let the country boy grip it and rip it.

Peace
Ty

Jimmerz,  August 10, 2009 at 5:15 PM  

Ty, that definitely wasn't Ebert that made that comment about 'Pulp Fiction'. He loved the film - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19941014/REVIEWS/410140304/1023

I believe he even called it the best film of the 1990's (and I can't disagree).

Jimmerz,  August 10, 2009 at 5:32 PM  

How can you say Stafford isn't a bust and won't be a waste of seventy million dollars based on one no-contact practice against the worst defense in the league?

Weston Corbitt August 10, 2009 at 9:54 PM  

Ty

Nice article! It made me feel better about buying a Calvin Johnson jersey this summer (even if he is in a cast right now). Sorry about the autographs. I usually go to the Lions vs FOP in Coloma and they have unlimited autograph time. I got Shaun Rogers, Corey Schlesinger, Mike McMahon and a few more. Dominic Raiola was an a-hole to me when i was 14 so I've always had mixed feelings about him. I'm glad to see some youngster working hard to get playing time. Hopefully we can stay healthy and win some games early on. Go Lions!

Ty August 11, 2009 at 12:09 AM  

Jimmerz--

Good catch! It was actually Michael Medved of "Sneak Previews":

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075583/quotes

As far as Stafford judgment goes, I'm not just going off of one practice (which had multiple live, full-contact sessions, just so you know). I'm going off of the game tape I've watched--YouTube highlights, BitTorrent'd/DVR'd games, etc. I'm going off of his high school and college stats. I'm going off of what all the various scouts, talent evaluators, and draftniks said about him in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the draft. I'm going off of what the writers who have access to the Lions coaching staff have reported as to those coaches' reactions to his performance. Then, I'm taking that all, adding it up, and comparing it to what I saw in the flesh on Saturday.

I can absolutely, definitively, tell you the following things are true:

1) In terms of physically throwing the football, Matt Stafford is quantifiably better than Duante Culpepper. He has a deeper range, throws a prettier, more catchable ball, and puts more touch on passes throughout the range. Since Culpepper has always been regarded as being an extremely gifted thrower,this immediately puts Stafford in, at least, the top half of NFL starting quarterbacks in this arena.

2) In terms of decision-making and offensive execution, the area I (and most others) are most concerned about, Stafford appears to be roughly equal to Culpepper. It's true, I think Culpepper's well below average when it comes to this type of stuff. However, Culepper's a mature quarterback; he's been in the league ten years already, and a starter most of that time. He already possesses as much veteran wiliness as he ever will, but his throwing skills haven't yet diminished. Stafford, before taking a snap in an NFL game, is already at least that good.

These two things together--Stafford is more physically talented than one of the most physically talented quarterbacks in the NFL, and at least as savvy as one of the least savvy veteran starters in the NFL establish Matt Stafford's floor: he, at worst, will be an inconsistent-but-effective quarterback, who will be at least good enough that you can win with him, and sometimes even because of him. I'm going to call his floor "Byron Leftwich"--again, not stellar, good enough to make the playoffs, earn a second contract, and generally be pretty decent. IMO, if he pans out to that degree, he's not a bust or a flop.

Peace
Ty

Ty August 11, 2009 at 12:10 AM  

Please forgive the many run-on and repetitive sentences in the above comment. It is late, and I am tired.

Peace
Ty

Anonymous,  August 11, 2009 at 12:45 AM  

awesome. thanks as always.

Jimmerz,  August 11, 2009 at 8:44 AM  

Fair enough, Ty. I'm not as optimistic, but I've been trained to temper my expectations as I've been through this for 30 years. I seem to remember a similar reaction to Chuck Long after he was drafted.

Jimmerz,  August 11, 2009 at 8:50 AM  

Also, if he turns out to be Byron Leftwich, I would definitely consider that a bust. Leftwich was a bust as the 7th overall pick, so he certainly would be a bust as a #1 overall. For what it's worth though, from what I've seen from Stafford he seems more gifted in just about every way than Leftwich.

Ty August 11, 2009 at 10:28 AM  

Jimmerz--

I definitely remember Chuck Long being drafted, but I was four-and-a-half years old at the time. I remeber reading the Mitch Albom column about him shortly after the draft, but I don't remember anything but disappointment after that. From the Wiki:

"Drafted #12 overall by the Detroit Lions in 1986, Chuck was not quite the savior the Lions expected, though this had much to do with a porous offensive line. His best season was 1987, in which he threw 2,598 yards, 11 touchdowns and 20 interceptions."

That's what I'm talking about when I say 'bust'; Matt Stafford will not be Chuck Long. Leftwich ended up getting hurt too much, but look at his career numbers: 58.6 completion percentage, just under 10,000 yards, 54/38 TD/INT, 80.3 rating. That's covering starting every game he was healthy to play in his first four years in the league, plus 5 games (two starts) in the two years after that.

Those are average numbers, maybe even better-than-average for a first/second/third/fourth-year player. If Matt Stafford is "average", he's not Chuck Long or Tim Couch or Ryan Leaf or Joey Harrington--THOSE guys, IMO, are actual 'busts'. If Stafford is, as you say, more gifted in every dimension, then there's no reason he shouldn't be just as "above average" as Matt Ryan was last season . . .

Peace
Ty

Atti,  August 12, 2009 at 1:53 AM  

Ty,what camera does your wife use?

Ty August 12, 2009 at 11:37 AM  

Atti--

Good question! My wife's been hankering for a digital SLR for what seems like forever, but obviously they are quite spendy. However, professional photographers are always hankering for the latest and greatest, so the used market is well-stocked. I snagged a professionally used Fuji Finepix S2 Pro, one of the very best cameras available five or six years ago. It's still competitive with current DSLRs.

On the advice of several hobbyists--and the guy at the camera shop--I went with a "prime" (fixed) lens. It can't zoom at all, but you get great image quality for close-range shots, much better than a cheap zoom lens would get--and even "cheap" zooms are pretty expensive!

Peace
Ty

Anonymous,  August 13, 2009 at 2:58 AM  

Okay, finally figured out why I haven't been able to post comments,...I primarily use Firefox.

Ty, as usual, great piece!

I am really starting to get over my anger at not picking Curry #1 back in April!! Based on your comments about Stafford above and a YouTube highlight you posted on 7/29, I'm starting to believe that we have a special player on our hands. Of course, I'll reserve judgement until he plays a few games in the NFL, but so far I'm impressed.

As for that highlight, it was the first highlight posted and it was the pass at the 3:48 mark of that highlight. Allow me to set the stage; 3rd & 21 and Georgia is at their 46 yard line. Stafford is in the shotgun on the left hash mark and he drops back and lets go an absolutely gorgeous pass to AJ Green, who pulls it in along the right sideline at the S. Carolina 18. In the words of Gary Danielson or whoever was doing color commentary that day, the pass was "a 45 to 50 yard rocket".

Let's verify that comment. The pass traveled 44 yards down the field and the left hash mark is 33.3 yards from the right sideline. If you'll allow me to use my high school geometry,...(A squared plus B squared equals C squared)...that pass actually traveled approximately 55 yards. But Danielson's "rocket" description is right on the money because it had great velocity with little loft. And Green caught it over his inside shoulder - where only he could get it.

Like I said before, an absolutely gorgeous pass. And let me add, with that velocity and accuracy, that pass actually reminded me of many I have seen from a certain horse-toothed Denver QB who played in five Super Bowls and won two of them. I moved to Denver in 1994, so I had the privilege of watching Elway at Mile High Stadium and Invesco Field on numerous occasions. And IF Stafford's arm is in the same ballpark as Elway's, then we are in for a lot of fun.

Aterlay,
DenverLion

Anonymous,  August 13, 2009 at 3:01 AM  

Oh, and he let the pass go from the Georgia 38. That's how I figured out the 44 yards downfield.

Sorry for omitting that bit of info.

Aterlay,
DenverLion

Matt,  August 13, 2009 at 10:48 PM  

“In terms of overall gameday effectiveness. . .Stafford is roughly Culpepper’s equal. Given that, I don’t see how anyone can justify calling for Stafford to sit.” First of all, it’s hard to say the first part when he’s never, y’know, played an NFL game. I’ll “give that” to you anyway AND justify the philosophy that Stafford should sit at least until the bye. . .

First, remember the OVERWHELMING historical evidence. You can pretty much count on one hand the number of modern-era QBs who were drafted in the 1st round, thrown immediately on the field, and ended up having reasonably successful careers. Nearly all of them were not merely "unsuccessful" but colossal flame-outs. I don't care what tape, OTA, or camp you've seen, the odds are greatly in favor "Week 1 Starting QB Matt Stafford" being a huge bust.

More important than general historical trends, however, is Stafford's specific situation. It's simply not about how good he is right now, it's about how good he CAN be next season and for 5-10 seasons after that. Who cares if he's better than Culpepper right now? I coulda' told you that on Draft Day (and still would have picked a different player). The Lions, unlike, say, the Vikings, are not "just a QB better than Guy X" from being relevant in '09. Therefore, the team gains nothing in '09 by having Stafford start off '09.

So the gains of starting him Week 1 must go beyond the 2009 season. You say that all he needs to work on is timing and develop rapport (if the coaches know this, too, why isn’t he throwing to Megatron?). This after a missed training camp pass. He should probably get comfortable completing that pass in practice before trying it in a game. That timing stuff comes from rep after rep IN PRACTICE so that, in the game, it comes naturally (not the other way around). Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison are the most prolific QB-WR combo in NFL history because they ran the entire route tree before every practice and game, not because Peyton Manning started Week 1 back in 1998. Obviously, it’s not that simple, but you get my point. Certainly, there is no substitute for real game experience, but it also is not some magical knowledge-bringer. If you can’t learn and do it in practice, you won’t do it in games. Absolutely, you have to get in the game, but why Week 1?

But maybe Stafford is (or, by early September, will be) game ready. Is the rest of the Lions offense? Again, it doesn’t much matter if Stafford is better than Culpepper Week 1. Will the offense run better with him instead of Culpepper? Significantly better? Probably not. Chances are whoever is behind center @NO, MIN, WAS, @CHI, PIT, and @GB is in for a rough ride. Especially if the running game sputters or the o-line isn’t yet in synch or the receivers don’t have their option routes down, etc. Let Culpepper take those lumps. How is Stafford’s timing and rapport greatly improved by facing those pre-bye week opponents instead of post-bye STL, @SEA, @MIN, CLE, GB, and @CIN?

Overall, the rewards of starting Stafford Week 1, for both Stafford and the Lions, seem pretty low. Maybe his development is slightly accelerated and maybe the Lions get 7 wins instead of 5. What are the risks? Pretty high. Suppose he isn’t ready and Schwartz has to bench him for Culpepper. Ugh. Or suppose he gets pounded into oblivion a la David Carr. Double Ugh. I disagree with the assessment that a Week 1 starting QB who busts out was never a franchise QB anyway. It’s circular reasoning. Keep in mind that it’s not just about throwing a ball for 60 minutes on Sunday. Being the (rookie) starting quarterback for an NFL franchise is a lot more than that. Who knows what Carr might have been with a veteran mentor or what Philip Rivers would have been without Drew Brees?

Matt,  August 13, 2009 at 10:48 PM  

We DO know that going back to 1999, the NFL is worse than 50/50 at picking QBs in the 1st round. We also know that 16 of the top 20 passers (by yards) in 2008 did not start Week 1 their rookie season. The exceptions were Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco (that’s a pretty “exceptional” list).

Bottomline: Right now, is Stafford NFL ready and a step up from Culpepper? Maybe. Given that he is, would starting him Week 1 make a significance difference to the 2009 Lions or the future Stafford? Probably not. Could it ruin him? Definitely. The risks of naming him the Week 1 starter definitely outweigh the rewards. If I were Jim Schwartz, I would feel justified sitting him. . .for a little while. :-)

Sorry for the long, rambling rant. You know how I do.

Ty August 14, 2009 at 1:19 PM  

Had a 1000-word reply here. Windows Update Automatic Reboot ate it. Furious.

Ty August 14, 2009 at 2:21 PM  

Matt--

Thanks for granting me that he's probably about as effective on Sundays as Culpepper, even though he's never yet played on Sunday. My feelings about Culpepper's effectiveness are well known, and I've often said exactly what you did--Matt Stafford was better than Culpepper the day he took the podium.

I'm aware of the historical evidence: first-round quarterbacks often bust out. And yes, it's true, many of the quarterbacks that failed did so because they weren't ready to succeed yet. An example that comes to mind is the difference between Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers. Two easygoing big kids with HUGE arms, both played in Jeff Tedford's one-read offense at Cal, and both were generally pretty successful at a program without a lot of historical success--and a school where football is hardly the top priority.

The Ravens made a HUGE, splashy deal to move up in the top ten and select Boller--having anointed him the quarterback of the future, he was given every opportunity to win the starting job--and save his head coach's job. He failed. Aaron Rodgers fell from the very top of the first round to near the bottom, and Green Bay took him almost as an afterthought. He was immediately pronounced a 'bust' and forgotten about for three years--and with great coaching, no pressure, and a nice young supporting cast, he emerged from the cocoon a beautiful butterfly.

However, we've seen many examples over the years of first-round quarterbacks who started right away, and did see immediate success: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe, and Troy Aikman. The list gets bigger when you include those who saw lots of action right away, and took over the reigns in the middle of their rookie season: Jay Cutler, Byron Leftwich, Donovan McNabb, and Kerry Collins. Yeah, there were a lot of busts that started right away, too--but there were also a lot of busts that barely saw the field. Some quarterbacks need to develop, some are already there--just like at any position in any sport. Kobe came out of high school and needed a couple of seasons to become a full-time starter; LeBron came out of high school and killed it from Day One.

You are SPOT ON when you say that what will prepare Matt Stafford to win in the NFL is practice--that's exactly why I want him to start! During the regular season, the starter usually gets 70-80% of the practice reps as they install that week's gameplan. Why would you give those reps to Culpepper when you already know he'll be on the pine by Week 8, and gone at the end of the year? The future of the Lions franchise is Matt Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew, and handing off to Kevin Smith. Why not start that now, if you're going to wait until the bye? Why would you slow that down by making him throw to D.J. Boldin and John Standeford, when he--and everyone else on the field--knows he's already The Man? Ah, yes--because if you do, it might shatter his confidence.

Ty August 14, 2009 at 2:21 PM  

A bit of background: Matt Stafford played high school ball in Dallas, Texas--where high school football is the official state religion. At Highland Park, where he played, people hold their SEASON TICKETS for decades; it's like Lambeau Field, only in high school. In his four years there, the best seats his parents ever managed to get were on the 15-yard-line. He started on the varsity team from day one, and ultimately led Highland Park to a Texas State Championship. He was the #1 QB recruit in the nation, and went to Georgia, where shortly into his freshman year, he won the starting job. Have you ever watched SEC football in the south? Those people are CRAZY. Georgia's stadium holds over 92,000 people, all of whom are certifiable, and all of whom expect a BCS bowl every year. Playing in a half-empty Ford Field for a team everyone will consider lucky to win a single game will probably be the LEAST pressure Matt Stafford's ever faced!

You are absolutely right that what's important isn't this season, but the future. Where you say little can be gained by starting Matt Stafford for the first few weeks of the season, I say little can be gained by wasting a month of his development, pretending he's not already the best man for the job. And where you say much could be lost by starting him a few weeks early, I say much could be lost by running out last year's disposable quarterback to lead this year's "new" Lions.

It's true, Stafford might run out there and break the rookie interception record, like Peyton Manning did, and he might lead the Lions to a 3-13 record, like Peyton Manning did. And you know what? He could still end up just like Peyton Manning.

Peace
Ty

Matt,  August 14, 2009 at 11:43 PM  

I think the crux of the argument is this. . ."Where you say little can be gained by starting Matt Stafford for the first few weeks of the season, I say little can be gained by wasting a month of his development, pretending he's not already the best man for the job. And where you say much could be lost by starting him a few weeks early, I say much could be lost by running out last year's disposable quarterback to lead this year's "new" Lions."

Again, you're worrying about a month of development in what should/will be a 10 to 15 year career. I also think, given the schedule and the usual early season hiccups most offenses face (let alone ones with new HCs, OCs, etc.) that the first month of development will be mostly wasted. It certainly won't be as valuable as the second/third/fourth months once things are clicking better for the whole offense (regardless of who's at QB). Again, let Culpepper take those lumps.

Don't underestimate the impact a rough start can have on a QBs career. I am very familiar with Matt Stafford's background. It's a lot like Vince Young's (except Young stayed in state to attend perhaps the biggest football school in the country. . .who he led to a championship over perhaps the second biggest football school in the country). He wowed the league the 2nd half of his rookie season, then started out rough in Year 2, got hurt, booed, and benched and, possibly, considered suicide. I'm certainly not saying you have to worry about ALL THAT with Stafford. My point is simply that guys like Stafford and Young et al. are used to having things come easy. For many of them (and many other NFL players), the NFL is the first time in their lives they've really been tested and, if it goes poorly initially, they often crack. Far more often than they succeed.

You have cited a few (maybe THE few) examples of success. First of all, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco probably shouldn't be counted given that it's only been one season and, as has been well documented, their combined successed is the exception of all exceptions in NFL history. Either or both could still easily flame out or be great, so they can't be counted in either camp. Big Ben also isn't a valid example as the plan was not to start him from Day 1 (he didn't start until Week 3). It wasn't until both Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch went down that Big Ben became the starter (and, granted, he never looked back). So, that's 3 guys in 20 years. It IS intriguing that all three were #1 overall picks. Then again, so were Tim Couch, David Carr, and Jeff George.

As for the other examples, McNabb certainly is the real deal (and didn't start 'til Week 10), Cutler seems to be (Week 13), Collins (Week 5) was mostly a headcase until he got to his 3rd and 5th teams, and Leftwich (Week 4), IMO, is JUST on the right side of "bust" (4 teams in 7 seasons). If anything, these examples all support my philosophy that Stafford should sit at least until the bye. As for this comment. . ."there were also a lot of busts that barely saw the field". . .not if we're talking about QBs taken in the 1st round not named Matt Leinart. All 1st round QBs see the field, generally sooner rather than later, and either sink or swim. They don't just fade away.

As for rep percentages, they are easily adjustable as you transition to Stafford. Culpepper knows the deal and shouldn't have a problem with it. Slow transitions worked with McNabb, Cutler, Palmer, Rodgers, EManning, Rivers. . .and Culpepper? 8-o There's no reason to think it won't work with Stafford. In the meantime, maybe he starts throwing with the #1s in practice, at least occassionally, before he's expected to do it in a game.

Anyway, I think the historical evidence is undeniably on the side of sitting Stafford. As I said before, however, I don't think the historical stuff is the end-all, be-all of the argument.

Matt,  August 14, 2009 at 11:44 PM  

Back to the crux. . .let's do a little realistic floor/ceiling, starting with the assumption that we both share, that, ultimately, Stafford's got the goods. What's the worst thing that can happen if Stafford DOESN'T start Week 1? The development of the Lions QB for the next 5-10-15 years is delayed a month. What's the best thing that can happen? He watches Culpepper take the early season lumps, comes to the rescue after the bye, and leads the Lions on a wild card chase (successful? stay tuned), then continues his development in the future. Now, what's the worst thing that can happen if Stafford DOES start Week 1? The team goes 0-6 while Stafford gets pounded as the offense tries to gel. Schwartz is forced to bench him after the bye because he MUST try ANYTHING to get the NFL's only 0-16 at least 1 win in his first season. Confidence shattered, Stafford never realizes his potential. What's the best thing that can happen if he starts Week 1? Stafford comes to the rescue after the awful '08 season and leads the Lions on a wild card chase (successful? stay tuned), and continues his development in the future.

Basically, the ceilings don't change much whether he starts Week 1 or Week 8 or Week 1 2010, but the floors sure do. What great gains are made by starting him? What great losses are made by sitting him? If the best you've got is a month of development gained or wasted, I just don't think that reward outweighs the risk. I just don't see how anyone can not see how it's justifiable to sit him initially. ;-)

It's true, Stafford might run out there and break the NFL sack record, like David Carr did, and he might lead the Lions to a 4-12 record, like David Carr did. And you know what? He could still end up just like David Carr.

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