At their best, Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick rank among the NFL’s top quarterbacks, a notch below the elite-level stars.
They excel in much different ways, with Stafford standing in the pocket to exploit a secondary with his rifle arm, and Vick scrambling around to frustrate defenses.
Neither, however, has been living up to expectations early this season. Stafford brings the reeling Detroit Lions, losers of three straight, into Sunday’s match-up against Vick’s turnover-prone Philadelphia Eagles.
Which quarterback is going to snap out of it first?
Stafford ranks No. 19 in the league with a QB rating of 81.6 while Vick is 24th at 77.8. At those rates, both of their teams are likely to be left out of the playoffs.
“It’s a humbling business,” Stafford said. “You’ve just got to be tough enough as a team and as a person to battle through it.”
What’s strange about Stafford’s performance in these first four games is that he is statistically comparable — or better — to where he was a year ago at this point when the Lions were undefeated.
In 2011, he had completed 100 of 161 passes, 62.1 percent, for 1,217 yards after four games.
This year, he’s hit on 114 of 173 attempts, 65.9 percent, for 1,182 yards.
The difference is in the finished product. Stafford had 11 touchdown passes, eight to standout receiver Calvin Johnson, and three interceptions through four games last season.
This year: three TDs, none to Johnson, and four picks.
“We’ve been moving the ball well,” Stafford said. “We’ve just got to put the ball in the end zone. That comes with making plays. We’ve had opportunities to make plays. For one reason or another, haven’t made them.
“Once you start making plays, they come in bunches and you get rolling.”
Of all the statistical analysis these days, the one that remains most baffling about this Lions’ 1-3 start is a quite simple — Stafford and Johnson not connecting on a touchdown yet.
Fantasy football owners are shaking their heads. Maybe it’s the latest version of the Madden Curse.
“Obviously, you want to throw him the ball, get touchdowns on the board,” Stafford said. “We’ve got to find ways to get it done, whether it’s Calvin or (Brandon) Pettigrew, Nate (Burleson) or Titus (Young). Whoever it is doesn’t matter.”
Stafford and the Lions’ supposedly high-powered offense have been contained by the extreme bend-but-don’t-break schemes being employed by opposing defenses so far.
The Eagles, however, have two experienced and talented cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who like to play man-to-man coverage and do it very well.
Could this be the week the Lions finally get some of those looks, creating the potential for a few much-needed big plays in the passing game?
Stafford stopped and crossed fingers on both hands when asked about the possibility.
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “We’ll see.”
In Vick’s case, it’s all about the giveaways. He personally has 11 of them — six interceptions and five fumbles — in five games.
As a result, Philadelphia is tied for the second-worst turnover margin in the league at minus-7.
Considering the importance of that stat when it comes to winning or losing, the Eagles are fortunate to have a 3-2 record. The three victories have been by a total of four points.
“If we can just eliminate our turnovers, the sky’s the limit for this team,” Vick said during a conference call with Detroit reporters. “But the last thing I want to do is go out on the field thinking about turning the ball over.
“I’ve just got to find a way to protect it. At some point, it’s all going to come together for us.”
Vick might not have the same worries this week. The Lions’ defense created turnovers last year at a high rate, but that trend hasn’t carried over.
No team had fewer takeaways (three) or interceptions (zero) entering this week than Detroit.
“We need to get to the ball, get a great pass rush, cover guys, and the turnovers will take care of themselves,” safety Erik Coleman said. “We have to put our hard hats on, put our heads down and just work.”
Every game is already starting to have that “must-win” feel for the Lions. The Eagles aren’t quite so desperate yet, but they will be if they don’t clean things up soon.
Maybe this is the week Vick holds on to the ball and everything does fall into place for him. Or maybe it’s time for Stafford to find Johnson and his other playmakers in the end zone a few times.
Their teams certainly are counting on it. Neither is going anywhere until it happens.