Matthew Stafford is by far the most frustrating quarterback in the NFL to watch. On one day, he’ll look like a hands-down top 5 elite quarterback. On others, he’ll play like a rookie, making terrible decisions regularly and throwing the ball into double or even triple coverage.
It isn’t just the hand cannon Matthew Stafford has for a right arm that makes him a special talent. It’s his ability to make throws that call for a combination of arm strength, accuracy, and touch that literally no other quarterbacks on the planet can make. More so, it’s the fact that we’ve seen him play well for long stretches of time. We’ve seen Stafford play the position the way it’s supposed to be played. We know he can read the field. We know he can put the ball where the design of the play calls for instead of forcing it. We know he can stare down a blitz and still step into his throw, firing a strike into a tiny window for a completion as if the rush isn’t even there.
Stafford is not afraid of making mistakes, which is an important and unteachable skill. He’ll throw an interception then come back the next play and fire a strike into a tight window for a 25-yard completion as if it was nothing. Quarterbacks need to have short memories to be successful, and Stafford certainly has one. Yet because Stafford has failed to completely harness his talent, and at times, has looked absolutely awful under center, he continues to leave fans of the quarterback position longing for more.
Stafford has his fair share of issues, none of which are secrets. Issue #1 is that he trusts his arm too much. This leads to him forcing lots of passes. Issue #2 is his reliance on Calvin Johnson. Too often, instead of reading the coverage and finding the open receiver, he’ll throw the ball up and give his super-human wide receiver a chance to make a play no matter how many defenders are near him. Issue #3 is his mechanics. His footwork is sloppy and inconsistent. His arm slot is often unnecessarily low. He’ll even throw the ball sidearm at times like Dennis Eckersley. Perhaps the biggest issue with Stafford, though, is that he often gets away with these bad habits because he’s such an arm talent (and because of Calvin Johnson). This only reinforces his bad habits.
The first two issues, trust in his arm and reliance on Calvin Johnson, are okay problems to have. The last thing the Lions want is for Stafford to lose confidence or not get the ball to his best receiver. The footwork and mechanics have to be overcome, though.
Stafford regularly falls away from passes, even when he has a clean pocket. Instead of setting his feet at the top of his drop, he’ll backpedal and then throw off his back foot. Doing this hurts his vision because it closes off most of the field to him. If he’s looking to his left while backpedaling, that is really the only direction in which he can throw without having to stop and reset his feet. If he were to spot an open receiver on the other side of the field while backpedaling, he would have to stop, shift his body weight, and then throw. By that time, either the pass rush has more time to get to him, or defenders have more time to react to his open receiver. This is why setting your feet as a quarterback and maintaining a balanced throwing base is so important. It opens up the entire field because it takes less time for the quarterback to shift his feet and release the ball when he spots an open receiver.
The ability to complete passes from off-balanced positions and from different arm slots are both valuable assets to have. But these skills need to be used as contingencies; when it’s the only way to get the ball off and complete a pass. They aren’t sustainable methods if used on a regular basis.
The frustrating thing about Stafford is that in 2011, his first full season as a starter, it looked like he was developing into a mature quarterback. But his mechanics have seriously regressed over the last 2 seasons. This has decreased his consistency. Hopefully Stafford doesn’t really believe that his mechanics are fine (as he’s indicated in the past) because he has the opportunity to be a special quarterback in this league for years to come. But if he doesn’t fix his sloppy play, the Lions will continue to be mired in mediocrity.