Prior to tearing ligaments in his middle finger in a Week 14 contest against the Chicago Bears, Matthew Stafford was having a stellar season. He finished the season with 4,327 yards, 24 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions (22 of his touchdowns came before week 15). The injury certainly affected his game for the remainder of the season, but Stafford finally put most of his critics to rest in 2016 – including me. He has also gained the respect of former great NFL quarterbacks.
However, there are still those who will argue if Stafford belongs in the upper echelon bracket of NFL quarterbacks. Whether you’re Tom Brady or Brock Osweiler, there is always room for improvement. Here are a few things that I believe Stafford can still improve on in order to take his game to even greater heights in 2017. I’ll even back up some of my claims with facts and statistics.
5. Build early leads and sustain them: The Lions were the “Cardiac Cats” of 2016, and that was due in large part to Stafford’s clutch play in the fourth quarter. Stafford led Detroit to eight comeback wins. Remarkably, the Lions won just two games by seven points or more. It made for exciting television, but that is living dangerously. In 2017, Stafford and Detroit should work on two things: building early leads and also closing teams out before the final two minutes of a game. Any semblance of a running game sure would help Stafford drain the clock.
4. Continue to improve in the red zone: Stafford was actually pretty phenomenal from the 20-yard-line and inward. According to Pro Football Focus, he threw 17 touchdown passes to just three picks. However, he completed just 57 percent of passes, while those elites named Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees all completed more than 60 percent of their passes. Stafford also completed just 53 percent of his passes from inside the 10-yard-line. All of his aforementioned colleagues were again over the 60 percent mark. I loved Stafford’s red zone game this past season, but he should continue to focus on it to truly elevate his precision.
3. Keep raising his football IQ: NFL quarterbacks must diagnose so many things pre-snap: coverages, audibles, mismatches, blocking schemes, etc. The team must count on Stafford’s decision-making and discipline. He is entering his ninth season at the helm in 2017 and has probably seen everything a defense will throw at him; but the game is ever-evolving. The quarterback must continue to be a student of the game this offseason. That means consuming and breaking down as much film as possible, running route trees with his receivers, having one-on-one sessions with Jim Bob Cooter and more. Stafford strikes me as the kind of guy to take his craft seriously, but he needs to always be willing to learn.
2. Win on the road: Follow along with me. According to The Football Database, Stafford has a career record of 51 wins and 61 losses (including postseason). His career record on the road is 20 wins versus 37 losses (.350 win percentage). Now, please try to wrap your mind around this obscure statistic. Stafford is 2-26 on the road against teams that finished with a winning record. Obviously, the Lions need to play better against top foes as a team. Stafford should not shoulder all of the blame, but something needs to change.
1. Beat top-tier teams: Continuing on Stafford’s career win/loss record, he has just a mere five wins against 47 losses versus teams with winning records. Again, this is not all on Stafford. Football is a team game overall, but as the team leader it is up to him to figure out how to beat playoff-type teams. Let’s also recall that of the nine Detroit wins in 2016. Not a single one of them was against a playoff team. But until Detroit proves it can hang with the big boys, this will be the narrative of Stafford’s career.