Elite or Not Elite: That Is the Question About Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2012

You can tell news is slow because we've hit the point in the NFL year where people are creating controversy just to kill time.

Case in point: Marshall Faulk saying Lions quarterback Matt Stafford is "not elite" because he "needs to see more timing throws."

Here's the whole quote, courtesy of Justin Rogers at MLive.com:

"I need more than one year," Faulk said despite having Cam Newton on his list. "Listen, I was told by another quarterback, they need to see him throw some timing routes. I just want to see timing routes. I like Stafford, I like what he brings to the table, but I need timing routes. Matthew Stafford is at home -- he knows what I'm talking about. Calvin Johnson bails him out a lot."

I love that Rogers points out that right away Faulk's criteria is already applied inconsistently. That's beautiful—in part because it's one less thing for me to do today.

And no, Marshall—NOBODY knows what you're talking about.

I'm going to show you today why Faulk is looking at the wrong criteria.

Before we get to Stafford, let's finish parsing this comment by Faulk. "He was told by another quarterback"—so what I'm hearing, right at the start, is that he hasn't actually done his own work here. He's being told by someone "hey, this is a thing."

Now, instead of saying "so I looked at the tape and wow, he doesn't/does do what the other player told me" Faulk just needs to see it happen at some point. What I'm hearing here is "I have no clue if he throws timing routes or not, but someone told me he needs to do more, so, yeah that's what he needs."

If you haven't stopped listening to Faulk before that, you probably tuned right out there.

Finally the whole "Calvin Johnson bails him out" thing. Sure, Johnson makes some mind-numbingly awesome grabs. On the other hand, how many of those throws are put in some bizarre placement because Stafford knows only Johnson will get them?

Johnson isn't the only reason Stafford threw for 5,000 yards, and he isn't the only reason Stafford is successful.

Rogers mentions some other sites and analysts who have Stafford lower than one might expect.

Here's what they're all missing.

First, let's define elite. Some time ago I had a conversation with longtime NFL writer Dave Goldberg about the concept of an elite anything. We decided this: it's too subjective.

Is elite over a career? Over a season? A week? Is it about numbers or rings or Pro Bowls or GQ spreads?

So, from the start let's say this: there is no elite. There is exceptional. Awesome. Fantastic. Tebow-like.

It's a term we in the media like to run into the ground, maybe because we're too lazy to come up with adjectives, maybe because it starts arguments.

So let's replace elite with top tier. Further, let's define top tier as someone very productive on the field, with obvious leadership skills, who wins more than he loses, has tremendous mental toughness and has the overall physical tools you look for at the position in question.

So Brees, Rodgers, Brady, the Mannings for sure. Rivers and Roethlisberger, arguably. Ryan, not a chance.

Where does Stafford fit, according to the (purely subjective in many ways) criteria and why?

Yes, he is productive on the field, when he's on it (more on that shortly). Last season was a phenomenal achievement. Sure, he threw the ball more than any other quarterback, but you never hear that as a negative when it comes to Drew Brees who was a close second this year with 657 attempts and has thrown well over 600 times four out of the six years he has been in New Orleans.

So if we're going to complain about Stafford having to throw too much as a reason for having so many yards, that sticker needs to apply to Brees even more.

However, how many attempts you get isn't on my list as a positive or negative. Brees and Stafford don't get dinged for it because why would they anymore than Rodgers for not throwing 600 times?

Stafford is productive, period.

In terms of physical tools, Stafford is one of the best.

Recently Greg Cosell at NFL Films wrote an analysis of Stafford and Cam Newton. He said he was impressed with their play last season—and became doubly impressed when he watched their film again more recently.

What stood out to Cosell was Stafford's arm strength, even as far back as the 2009 NFL draft.

As I was preparing for that year’s draft, I remember watching Stafford and then immediately putting in a tape of Mark Sanchez. The difference in the way they delivered the ball was unmistakable from film study. There were throws Stafford could make that Sanchez couldn’t, and more importantly, wouldn’t even attempt because he knew he couldn’t. That’s the element that is always overlooked by those who minimize arm strength: The confidence and willingness of quarterbacks like Stafford to pull the trigger on tight window throws that demand velocity. Those throws are often the difference between winning and losing, but few recognize that because there is no quantifiable means by which to evaluate throws that are not made by quarterbacks with lesser arm strength.

He's right. I remember watching footage of Stafford's Pro Day on NFLN and coming away as impressed as I had been when watching his games. I saw Sanchez's Pro Day up close as a member of the media.

Sanchez looked great, had very good zip on the throws and showed good arm strength. In shorts with no pass rush. When you looked at Sanchez's tape, you could see that he just didn't have that top tier arm strength that can make a great quarterback.

I respectfully disagree with Greg about needing the arm strength to be great. However, if you don't have the strength, you have no room for error.

Back to our discussion, Cosell goes on to say that there were times last season when the arm strength made a huge difference, that Stafford attempted throws that a weaker armed quarterback never would.

Which leads to his overall confidence. At times, Stafford looks shaken—in that respect he is still a young quarterback and it is definitely one of the knocks against him in my book. He'll get there though.

I have no doubt about it because most of the time he is supremely confident and even when he has a few bad beats, he shakes it off and gets back on the horse.

A great quarterback has to have the confidence that he will make the right decision. In fact, he doesn't even think it—he knows it at such a base level that it just is. It just manifests in him.

Any quarterback has that if they made the NFL as a starter. Some don't have the mental toughness to hold onto it when things go south.

Stafford does. He makes his mistake, shrugs and moves on. Short term memory.

So we have productivity on the field, top end physical tools and mental toughness checked off.

What about leadership? Well, that's always hard to qualify from a distance but Stafford has certainly started growing into the role. You can see him taking control on the field and you hear about him leading in practice and in the locker room. He's brought the team back from the brink—which is part mental toughness and part leadership. It's great if falling behind doesn't rattle you,  but does you no good if everyone else falls apart.

Week 3's win over the Vikings in overtime is a good example of this. The Lions had a horrific first half, falling behind 20-0 while Stafford was sacked (twice) for the first time in the young season. The timing of the offense was way off, and even with an adjustment after the first quarter, the team just could get it going.

Yet despite the hostile Metrodome crowd, despite constant pressure from Jared Allen and the Vikings' defensive front, Stafford remained cool and, along with the staff, made halftime adjustments which brought the team back.

He saw a hole in the middle of the Vikings defense and used tight end Brandon Pettigrew to exploit it. That, along with three great throws to Calvin Johnson (two for touchdowns and one to set up a game winning field goal in overtime) turned the tide.

So I'd check that off, too.

If there is one thing which truly holds Stafford back in my mind, it's his injury history. I'll be honest, not that long ago I was thinking that if Stafford didn't stay healthy for a season soon, the Lions might need to pull the plug.

The first two seasons of Stafford's career were great examples of "if only."

Perhaps if we were talking a third or fourth round draft pick, we might even write last season off. we don't with Stafford because this was what he was supposed to do.

He's fulfilling promise. We knew going in that he had the ability and so, it's unlikely 2011 was a fluke.

We need to see him stay healthy though. We need to know that he can be depended upon all season long without fail and isn't a permanent resident on each year's injured reserve list.

As far as that is concerned, the jury is still out.

He had a great start last year, though.

So in my estimation, Stafford falls just shy of top tier. If he keeps playing well—he doesn't need 5,000 yards a year either—and stays healthy for another year or two, he'll be in that top group.

I won't need to see any timing routes to convince me of it either.


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