Reactions are always so extreme when it comes to quarterbacks.
Two years ago, Matthew Stafford was a so-called “china doll,” unable to stay on the field because he was so injury prone.
A year ago, the perception totally changed when he joined Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady as the only players to pass for 5,000 yards in a season, all while leading the Detroit Lions to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade and playing all 17 games.
Now, things have flipped again just as quickly. After an up-and-down season personally that included his team taking a plunge to 4-12, questions and concerns have returned.
Is Stafford really the franchise quarterback as many were starting to view him?
Former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski’s recent rankings would suggest Stafford is not that man, at least not based on what he showed in 2012.
Jaworski, an analyst for ESPN, ranked Stafford as the No. 20 quarterback in the NFL.
“Stafford was a big faller this season, dropping from No. 6 to No. 20,” Jaworski said. “The big numbers are there, but the volume of passes is so high in Detroit, it masks his problems a little bit. I truly think Stafford needs to get back to the fundamentals.”
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew concedes that Stafford went from “outstanding” in 2011 to “solid” in 2012.
But Mayhew said there were reasons for the regression, most importantly a depleted group of receivers that finished the season without wideouts Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
“A lot of timing was off,” Mayhew said. “You’re playing with a different caliber of players out there on the field. The injuries had an impact on his game, I think.”
Here’s a statistical comparison of Stafford between the last two seasons:
• Quarterback rating plummeted from 97.2 (fifth in league) to 79.8 (22nd).
• Total passing yardage went from 5,038 to 4,967.
• Touchdown passes dropped severely from 41 (third in league) to 20 (tied for 19th).
• Interceptions went from 16 to 17.
• Completion percentage fell significantly, from 63.5 percent (fifth in league) to 59.8 percent (18th).
• Pass attempts rose from 663 to an NFL single-season record of 727 (57 more than any other quarterback).
• Sacks were reduced from 36 to 29.
Quarterbacks, of course, are judged largely by victories, and Stafford didn’t deliver enough. A loss at Arizona was the direct result of his three interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns and one that set up another score.
Stafford certainly wasn’t at his best week in and week out, but it wasn’t all bad. Somebody had to be passing the ball to Calvin Johnson during that record-breaking season.
On the night Johnson surpassed Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards in a season, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer tweeted, “Taking nothing away from Megatron’s incredible night, but these passes he is catching are very well located. #TakesTwoToTango.”
Nevertheless, the great debate about Stafford’s apparent lack of development over the last year centers on his passing mechanics.
Jaworski has been extremely critical of Stafford from this aspect.
“To be consistent in your success, you must be consistent with mechanics,” Jaworski said in his end-of-season evaluation of Stafford. “Your arm slot, your footwork need to the same, again and again.
“Sure, you need to adjust your delivery every once in a while to get the ball out in the face of a pass rusher, but with a clean pocket, you need to be mechanically sound. Right now, Stafford just isn’t.”
Lions coach Jim Schwartz will argue that point.
To some extent, it seems to be an issue of old-school quarterback philosophy vs. new school.
“I think his mechanics are very good,” Schwartz said of Stafford. “We took a lot less sacks this year. Part of that is him being able to get rid of the ball quickly. Some of those throws require that he couldn’t get up and deliver a ball in classic form.
“He doesn’t have mechanical problems. He’s very creative as a quarterback, throws the ball from a lot of different angles. In most ways, that is very, very helpful to us. Sometimes that’s exactly what he needs to do to get it done.”
Mayhew added that Stafford faced more interior pressure this season, which forced him at times to throw the ball from different angles to avoid pass rushers.
“When he’s throwing side-arm around somebody, there’s a reason he’s doing that,” Mayhew said.
Mayhew added, “He’s a phenomenal player. Good teammate. Guy’s got tremendous skill level, great arm talent. He’s our guy.”
Stafford turns 25 in a month, with the equivalent of just three seasons of NFL experience because of injuries his first two years.
The road to stardom and championships typically doesn’t come without a few bumps and detours.
Quite possibly, that’s what 2012 was for Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be better for it in the future.
“I don’t think it’s a wasted year,” he said. “We definitely let some opportunities slip by, had some close games that we lost.
“You still learn from every situation. Good, bad or indifferent, we’ll learn from it.”