Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco changed the way most of us look at him. Giants quarterback Eli Manning did it once and then did it again just to make sure it stuck.
Is it time we ask Detroit’s Matthew Stafford to follow suit and prove he’s an elite NFL quarterback before his bloated numbers mesmerize this fantasy football-crazed world any further?
No one has thrown more passes (1,390) for more yards (10,005) than Stafford has the past two seasons. But the Lions are 14-19 in that span, including a blowout playoff loss to New Orleans during the 2011 season.
In 2012, the Lions were the most disappointing team in the league at 4-12. Stafford came within 33 yards of back-to-back 5,000-yard seasons, but his touchdowns fell from 41 to 20, his interceptions rose from 16 to 17 and his passer rating was a subpar 79.8.
Yet the Lions gambled $53 million that Stafford isn’t just an average guy in a quarterback’s nirvana. With two years left on his rookie contract, Stafford got another three seasons added with a guarantee of $41.5 million, including $27.5 just to sign his name.
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski took a lot of grief in 2012 when he ranked Stafford as the 14th-best quarterback in the NFL. This year, Stafford fell to 16th behind Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Flacco, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Matt Schaub, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo.
“What stood out studying Stafford was he was not as efficient under center as he was in the shotgun,” Jaworski said. “He seemed to struggle to read coverage as effectively. Too many forced throws. Overall, he just threw too many passes with poor balance and bad footwork, with a tendency to fall away from the throws.”
Stafford and Lions coaches have defended the knock on Stafford’s mechanics for over a year now. Stafford said Tuesday that he respects Jaworski’s analysis but doesn’t need it.
“I’m my own worst critic,” Stafford said. “Except for some of those guys are pretty bad. No, I’m just kidding. But no, I understand those guys have a job to do, they’ve got to talk, and in the offseason there’s not a whole lot to talk about, and I understand that.”
The next step in Stafford’s journey comes Sunday at home against the Vikings. Receiver Calvin Johnson, who had an NFL-record 1,964 yards receiving a year ago, remains the No. 1 target. But look for running back Reggie Bush, signed this offseason, to catch about 80 balls this season. He’ll be a great option for Stafford to dump the ball off to rather than consistently forcing things that aren’t there down the field.
Elite or not, the Vikings enter the game with a healthy respect for Stafford’s powerful right arm.
“He obviously has a very good rotator cuff and shoulder structure because he throws the ball about 1,000 times a year,” defensive end Jared Allen joked. “He’s a good QB. He obviously has weapons around him, he knows what he’s looking at, knows coverages, knows that offense, ball is out quick, he knows when to take a chance, he knows when to escape and keep plays alive down the field. He has a ton of strengths. … You throw for 5,000 yards, I don’t think you need to take a next step. You’re doing pretty good.”
The Lions’ receiving corps will feature Patrick Edwards and Calvin Johnson out wide and former Viking Nate Burleson playing in the slot. But don’t overlook No. 4 receiver Ryan Broyles.
Coming off his second torn ACL in two years, last year’s second-round draft pick is ahead of the rehab curve. He played only 30 preseason snaps, catching two balls for 32 yards. Once he’s fully healthy, “chain mover,” as quarterback Matthew Stafford calls Broyles, will be a major option when Johnson is covered.
• • •
Being from the tough-guy town, it figures the Bears would have not a quarterback controversy but a middle linebacker controversy heading into the first game of Brian Urlacher’s retirement.
Rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic, impressive during the preseason, apparently has to step aside for a now-healthy D.J. Williams, a veteran on a one-year deal who missed the preseason because of a calf injury.