Matthew Stafford threw 16 interceptions in 2011, 17 in 2012 and 19 in 2013. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Most of the candidates the Lions are vetting for their head coach opening have experience working with quarterbacks. But it’ll take more than improved footwork and mechanics for Matthew Stafford to maximize his potential, ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer said Thursday.
“I think it’s way more than finding a head coach that has worked with quarterbacks and understands technique and footwork,” Dilfer said on a conference call. “I have 10 of those on my staff (at ESPN) that I could throw to Detroit and would help them. That’s not the issue here. The issue is wisdom.”
In explaining how a coach can help Stafford develop, Dilfer recalled his experience from 2001-04 playing under coach Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Holmgren, of course, coached the Packers from 1992-98 and helped Brett Favre become one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks despite his knack for being a gunslinger, a label many have given Stafford in his first five seasons.
Favre finished his 20-year career as the all-time leader in interceptions with 336 as well as the most passing touchdowns, yards, completions and attempts. He and Holmgren also won the Super Bowl with the Packers in 1996.
“What Mike did with Brett was boundaries,” Dilfer said. “Brett Favre was as reckless as any quarterback ever early in his career. Mike wanted the good stuff that came out of Brett Favre, so he didn’t want to squish all that by turning him into a robot. He wanted all that to come out and to minimize the recklessness, and that was by creating boundaries and awareness, the awareness of the ramifications of what happens to everybody in the building when you get reckless.”
Holmgren, though, was an offensive-minded coach and former quarterback. The Lions are interviewing Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt Thursday; he has a history of helping quarterbacks. They already interviewed former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell; they have experience working with quarterbacks, as well.
Dilfer, who spent 14 seasons in the NFL and won the Super Bowl with Baltimore in 2000, explained that Stafford has “immense talent,” but the next head coach needs to set similar boundaries to prevent his reckless play. The Lions finished 7-9 in 2013 after closing the season 1-6, and Stafford threw 12 interceptions in those seven games, including eight in the second halves.
“A lot of times you think, ‘Oh, it was just an interception. We can overcome the interception,’” Dilfer said. “Well, there’s a bigger story to an interception in the fourth quarter that costs you a game. People lose jobs. It ruins the week for a lot of people. It creates a lot of negative energy in the building that shouldn’t necessarily be there.”
Stafford, who has thrown for at least 4,650 yards in each of the past three seasons, has taken heat from some analysts for his occasional side-arm throwing motion. But Dilfer said that’s something that “makes you laugh, makes you cry,” because Stafford has made some big plays with that form.
It’d be easy to find a coach who can improve Stafford’s mechanics, Dilfer said, but the Lions should look for the coach who makes Stafford fully understand his responsibility as an NFL quarterback.
“What’s hard is finding a coach that has the wisdom to create an environment that allows his natural ability to surface, and at the same time minimizing the recklessness and that’s great coaching,” Dilfer said. “And that guy’s out there, but they have to find him.”