Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell recently said that Matthew Stafford is “improving steadily.” While Stafford’s statistics might show a downward trend from his breakout 2011 season, which contradicts Caldwell’s statement, Stafford did steadily improve on film between 2013 and 2014.
Stafford regressed from 2011 to 2013 because his mechanics got worse and worse. He was sloppy with his footwork and threw from different arm slots unnecessarily. Being able to throw from off-balance positions and different arm slots are nice luxuries for a quarterback to have when the pocket is collapsing around him. After all, NFL pockets aren’t always pristine. Quarterbacks don’t always have the ability to step into their throws or use perfect mechanics because of the pass rush. But Stafford was often throwing from these off-balance positions with no pressure around him. He would drift backwards and/or sling the ball sidearm inexplicably. This affected his accuracy, his ability to access the entire field, and his overall consistency.
In 2014, though, Stafford’s footwork improved. He was clearly making an effort to plant his back foot and step into more throws. His arm slot was more consistent. His play improved as a result. This was probably what Caldwell was referring to, and hopefully for the Lions, Stafford can continue to trend upwards.
The statistics might not have been dramatic enough to clearly show Stafford’s improvement. He threw for fewer yards, yards per attempt, and touchdowns in 2014 than in 2013. The Lions also scored 4 fewer points per game last season than they did the year before. But statistics are the result of many different factors. The Lions had no running game to speak of last season, and they faced several nagging injuries to Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and each of their 3 tight ends. Watching Stafford on film every week, though, revealed an overall-improved quarterback.
We’re not quite loaded on the Matthew Stafford bandwagon just yet. He still has lots of room to improve. At the end of the 2014 regular season, we even wrote that the Lions offense was too hit-or-miss, and Stafford’s game-management ability was a big reason for that. But Stafford is on the right track as long as he continues to work on this area of his game as well as his mechanics.
It seems like Stafford has been in the league for a long time. 2015 will be his 7th season in the NFL. But Stafford just turned 27 in February. He is still young and he has the talent to be an elite player. He has had many ups and downs throughout his 77 career starts in the NFL. So did Peyton Manning, though. From 1998-2002 (80 starts) Manning had good seasons, great seasons, bad seasons, and frustrating seasons. Part of this was the team around him and part of this had to do with his own development. Then he took off in 2003 and became the player we all know today.
This isn’t to say Stafford will become Peyton Manning. They are completely different types of quarterbacks. However, the start to the careers of both of these #1 overall picks isn’t that different:
Stafford: 77 career starts, 35-42 W-L, 131 TD, 85 INT, 83.6 rating. 0 MVP’s, 0 playoff wins.
Manning’s first 77 career starts: 40-37 W-L, 132 TD, 97 INT, 85.6 rating. 0 MVP’s, 0 playoff wins.
Stafford still has a chance to be great if he continues to refine his game.