By: Jamie Samuelsen
The most frustrating part of the Lions maddening 4-9 season is that nobody seems to know exactly what’s wrong. You can blame the secondary, but the secondary wasn’t the issue in Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Packers. You can blame the running game, but the Lions didn’t have any semblance of a running game in 2011 and made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. You can blame the coaching and the play-calling, but the coaching and the play-calling have put the Lions up by at least ten points in each of the last three games, all losses. You can blame the lack of overall talent on the roster, but this is virtually the same roster as last year.
And you can blame quarterback Matthew Stafford.
That seems strange when you look at the numbers and see Stafford second in the NFL in passing yardage. He has an outside shot at a second straight 5000-yard season (given the way the Cards are playing, he may get there this weekend in Arizona). And when you reflect of the history of the men who have quarterbacked the Detroit Lions, you feel sheepish even raising any questions at all. Stafford is simply the best quarterback that the Lions have had in at least forty years and he’s probably the best since Bobby Layne.
But those are the facts and the figures of Matthew Stafford. He passes the paper tests with flying colors. It’s the eye test that becomes a little more difficult.
Here are some of the comments or critiques that I’ve heard about Stafford this season.
1) He must be injured.
2) Last season was a fluke; he’s really not that good.
3) He’s a modern version of Scott Mitchell who put up one big year. (Yes, I’ve really heard that.)
4) He can’t be expected to perform without Jahvid Best or some home run threat in the backfield.
5) His mechanics are awful. He side-arms the ball too much.
Some of those are fair. Some are preposterous. For the record, I don’t think he’s hurt. We’ve seen Stafford hurt before, and he’s not playing like it this season. I also don’t think that last season was a fluke. 5000 yards is 5000 yards. The list of quarterbacks who have accomplished it is short and star-filled (Brees, Brady, Marino, Stafford). You have to have some ability to throw 5000 yards. You have to have gobs of it to do it twice. Stafford has gobs of ability. And no, he’s not Scott Mitchell. I covered Scott Mitchell. I interviewed Scott Mitchell. I even used to stick up for Scott Mitchell. Matthew Stafford is no Scott Mitchell.
But I do think the critiques about his mechanics are fair. Sure, sometimes Stafford has to throw off his back foot or throw side-armed to complete a pass the way he did on Sunday night. But other times, he just seems lazy in his approach. And as a result, sometimes his passes go a foot right or a foot left when they should be right on the money. Last season, they were mostly perfect. This season, his completion percentage has dropped from 63.5% to 60.4%. His touchdown passes have dropped from 41 to 17. Part of that is the fault of his receivers (both drops and injuries). But part of that is on Stafford for missing some easy passes or not making the difficult ones that he needs to make.
After the Lions lost the 35-33 debacle to the Colts a week and a half ago, Stafford addressed the media in the press room at Ford Field. He was asked about Titus Young and whether or not he expected Young to return to the Lions roster. Stafford dismissed the questions saying simply, “I’m just a player on the team.”
The meaning of the quote was harmless. He was trying to say that he’s not in charge of player personnel and that those questions are better directed to GM Martin Mayhew or head coach Jim Schwartz. But it struck me as a little more loaded than that. To be a quarterback on a title team, you have to shoulder everything that goes along with being a leader. It’s not just enough to be a “player on the team.” If Stafford looks at this season with any sort of satisfaction, then he has some serious growing up to do. Back-to-back 5000 yards season are the sign of a talented player. Back-to-back playoff seasons are the signs of a winning player. Stafford has shown that he has the talent. But there may be some more work to be done if he wants to take that next step.
True, he could use some good fortune of which the Lions have had none this year. True, he could use a healthy corps of running backs and wide receivers. And true, his guys could catch a few more passes. But Stafford could also use hours and hours to work on his accuracy, his mechanics and his footwork. He is a franchise quarterback. Now he has to start playing like it. No pressure there.