New Lions coach Jim Caldwell is 'a guy that calls it how he sees it, doesn't matter who it is, where it is, what it is, and that's something you respect,' quarterback Matthew Stafford says. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — Matthew Stafford has been dissected from head to toe, although not literally. Actual dissection remains prohibited in the NFL.
Some of it is just plain silly, such as Mike Ditka’s insistence Stafford’s backward-cap look is a sign of slovenliness. Stafford’s cap certainly isn’t the problem, but his head and his toes? That’s where the work begins, the most important work of Stafford’s career.
Some of his protection is gone, even as the Lions keep collecting pieces to help him. The only NFL coaching staff he’s known is gone. Justifications for his sometimes-erratic, unorthodox throws are gone. And most important, the air of inevitable greatness is gone.
Stafford is smart, sometimes too smart. But he has to know if he truly plans to be great, his game needs a make-over, no matter how annoying it is to hear. Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi aren’t publicly picking apart Stafford as they install a new offense, but they’re challenging him on the field and in meeting rooms, and it’s overdue.
Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan coddled Stafford, or at the very least, didn’t push him hard enough or hold him accountable enough. And I sort of understand why. With a downtrodden team, Stafford was the shining hope, the No. 1 pick from the same Texas high school as Bobby Layne. He was The One, and when he was flinging and zinging, he was brilliant, such as his 5,038-yard 2011 season when the Lions made the playoffs.
At 26, Stafford is still young enough to become The One, but he has to acknowledge he doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, I’d argue Stafford is the biggest-salaried, big-name NFL quarterback who remains ill-defined. Supremely talented with a much-envied arm, but what has he really accomplished? It’s not all his fault, but the Enigma Era needs to end. And so far, Stafford is embracing the Caldwell approach.
“Everybody’s different, and there’s no question (Caldwell)’s direct, he’s honest,” Stafford said after practice this week. “He’s a guy that calls it how he sees it, doesn’t matter who it is, where it is, what it is, and that’s something you respect.”
The R-word comes up a lot around Caldwell, and that’s important. Before anyone fully commits to changing, they have to respect the man demanding it.
Every NFL guru in North America has scrutinized Stafford’s throwing mechanics and footwork, turning Stafford Study into a cottage industry. And the response from the Lions under Schwartz generally was: He’s an improviser, a gun-slinger, he had no choice.
As the Lions offense fell apart, Stafford didn’t have a choice at times, throwing sidearm, off his back foot and his tippy-toes, whatever it took. Taking risks and showing guts are admirable traits, but not nearly as sound as throwing accurately and taxing your mind. Last season, the collapse from 6-3 to 7-9 can be linked to a lot of things, and Stafford was a big culprit. In the first nine games, he completed 61.4 percent of passes with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In the seven-game free-fall: 54.4 percent, 10 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.
Enough of the excuses. At that stage, it didn’t matter that a hobbled Calvin Johnson was the only legitimate receiver. The Lions weren’t just losing games, they were losing their quarterback, who seemed determined to try every throw into every coverage, reckless or not.
During the OTAs the past couple weeks, Lombardi’s emphasis, executed by quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter, has been to refine Stafford’s footwork, and theoretically, address his accuracy issues. By all accounts, the Saints-style attack is more complicated, more precise and more demanding of the quarterback.
“It’s a play-intensive, verbiage-intensive offense, and it’s something that’s gonna take time,” Stafford said. “But that’s what the offseason is for. Making sure we’re lining up correctly, running correct routes, and mastering it as we go.”
For years, Stafford had a significant margin for error. Hey, the Lions were bad, so he could grow into the position. Hey, Calvin could make him look good. Hey, he didn’t have enough receivers, or running backs, or tight ends, or blockers.
That’s over, and I think, deep down, Stafford is OK with it. He might be irked by the perception he’s unsound, but he can’t argue with the numbers. His record as a starting quarterback against teams that finished with winning records is 2-28, and he has been to one playoff game in five seasons. Again, it isn’t all on him, but in the NFL, responsibility usually gets pinned on two people — the coach and quarterback.
Feets don't fail me
At the risk of conducting another Stafford psyche study, I’d suggest things have come too easily for him, and it has stunted his growth. He was the best quarterback in high school, the best in college at Georgia. His arm compensated for mistakes, and as smart as he is, he didn’t seem to obsessively study the game. It’s unfair to make the comparison, but I’ll do it anyway — watch how Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees run a team, with a self-assurance that comes not necessarily from physical talent, but from tireless preparation.
“He’s really remarkably bright,” Lombardi said of Stafford. “Like most quarterbacks, when his feet are right, the passes are usually right. He’s grasping it pretty quickly.”
The installation will take some time, and Lombardi wasn’t pleased with the offense’s sloppiness this week. But the Lions expect this to work and work quickly, no free passes for anyone. If Stafford wants to be more than just a prolific-passing oddity, he has to be fully committed to it, from his head to his feet.