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The Ups and Downs of Matthew Stafford's Rollercoaster NFL Career

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The Ups and Downs of Matthew Stafford's Rollercoaster NFL Career
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In 2009, Matt Stafford stood on the stage at Radio City Music Hall during the NFL draft, a Lions cap on his head and a jersey in his hand, ready to take on the world and change the fortunes of this long-suffering franchise.

In 2013, Stafford watched as Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler knelt down to kill the clock in Week 17, ending the Lions' disastrous 2012 season.

Those two moments are perfect examples of the highs and lows which comprise so much of Stafford's career.

Stafford has battled injury, thrown the ball a record amount of times, and led the team to its first playoff appearance since 1999 and a four-win season right after it.

It's been a rollercoaster worthy of a Six Flags theme park.

 

2009—The Rookie Loop de Loop

You know the feeling you get when the rollercoaster you're on suddenly goes upside down? The one where you feel like you've lost all weight and gravity has stopped working?

Welcome to Matt Stafford's rookie season.

It wasn't just Stafford's rookie year—newly minted head coach Jim Schwartz had been tapped to fix a franchise in a tailspin for too many years. He quickly named Stafford his starting quarterback—not surprising given his main alternative was Daunte Culpepper and Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick—going all-in on what he hoped would be a new direction for the franchise.

The Lions were coming off an 0-16 season, the only team in NFL history to have lost all their games.

They needed a fresh start.

What they got, at least in Week 1, was the same old, same old.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Stafford had a rough game against the New Orleans Saints, who would go on to win the Super Bowl. While he did run the ball in for a touchdown, he seemed a bit overwhelmed in his first game, throwing three interceptions and completing just 16 of 37 pass attempts.

Of course, this season featured such receiving stalwarts as Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt and Derrick Williams. Calvin Johnson was in his third season but missed several games due to injury.

So it's not as though Stafford had the best supporting cast in history.

Stafford would notch his first victory in Week 3, when he threw for 241 yards and a touchdown to beat the Washington Redskins, 19-14.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Looking more confident as the season went on, Stafford threw for 296 yards and a touchdown (with one interception) before having to leave the Week 4 game against the division rival Chicago Bears.

In the midst of that game, Stafford suffered a knee injury and—in what would become a running theme for the early years of his career—had to leave the game, though the outcome of it was already well decided.

Stafford would then miss the next two games, both resulting in losses. One thing was clear while watching backups Culpepper and Drew Stanton flail around the field while Stafford was out—the Lions needed their No. 1 pick on the field.

The highlight of the season for Stafford came in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland ran out to an early lead, scoring 24 points in the first quarter, but Stafford rallied his team and by halftime, had his team trailing by only three points.

By the time the end of the fourth quarter rolled around, Stafford had the Lions down by six and was moving them down the field on an 88-yard drive.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With just two second left, Stafford (who had already been intercepted twice) was picked off by the Browns' Brodney Pool. The call was nullified by a pass interference call and the Lions had one more shot.

However, Stafford had gotten hammered on the play and was injured. By rule, an injured player has to come out of the game for one play and it looked like Stafford's day was done.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Except the Browns called a timeout. As that constituted a play, Stafford was able to return. I say "able to return" because he had to talk his way back onto the field after separating his left (non-throwing) shoulder.

In extreme pain, Stafford returned to the field and threw the game-winning touchdown, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week honors—as well as the respect of teammates and fans across the NFL.

As it happens, this was a game in which the rookie was "mic'd up" for NFL Films, and you can get a good sense of the type of leader he was (and is) on the field.

The entire clip is impressive, but more than anything else, the sequence when Stafford is hurt leaves you with a tremendous amount of respect for Stafford as a competitor. Hurt or not, he wants to be on the field and doesn't want to let his teammates down.

You can fast forward to 4:06 on the clip and watch from there if you only want the injury stuff. My favorite moment is when Stafford, on his back on the sideline, hears a whistle and immediately says "Hey that's a timeout, I can play right?"

Despite the doctors trying to dissuade him, Stafford was having none of it. If they needed him to throw the ball, he was throwing the ball.

Stafford's touchdown to tight end Brandon Pettigrew tied the game, and as kicker Jason Hanson lined up the game-winning extra point, Stafford ran off the field, his left arm hanging limply at his side.

Stafford had become the youngest quarterback to ever throw five touchdowns in a game, and he threw for 422 yards, which at the time was a rookie record.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

While Stafford returned for the Thanksgiving game against the Green Bay Packers, he was clearly still off his game and threw four interceptions, including a game-clinching pick-six to Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.

The Lions were eliminated, and after a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Stafford was placed on injured reserve for a knee injury.

Stafford's rookie season had all the ups and downs you could ask for, but for the Lions it was still a tough one. You could see the promise of their young quarterback and the team, but it was clear that they needed to add more weapons around him.

 

2010—Ride Out of Order

Things started off badly for Stafford and the Lions and then stayed that way for almost the whole season.

Stafford was sacked late in the first half by defensive end Julius Peppers, who had beaten Jeff Backus on the quarterback's blind side. The ball came out and Stafford—and Peppers—landed together on the grass with Stafford's shoulder pinned awkwardly.

Stafford left the game with a Grade II shoulder separation on his throwing arm. Unlike his previous shoulder injury in 2009, this was not one he could play through and Stafford would not return until after the bye in Week 8 against the Washington Redskins.

Stafford returned and looked very good against the Redskins, leading the Lions to a 37-25 victory on the strength of a 212 yard, four-touchdown (and one-interception performance).

Unfortunately, Stafford's season ended the following week against the New York Jets.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Stafford was actually hurt twice in the game—first early in the second quarter when he was hit near the sideline. After that, he clearly looked off and winced once late in the first half after throwing the ball.

He stayed in, though, until late in the fourth when the Jets' Bryan Thomas tackled him from behind, causing a Grade III shoulder separation on the play.

While the Lions played coy for a long time, Stafford was eventually placed on injured reserve for the second time in two seasons.

 

Injury Prone or Unlucky?

As Stafford rehabbed his shoulder, many reporters—and even some fans—began to wonder if Stafford was just one of those players who cannot stay healthy.

Two appearances on injured reserve in two years? That's a concern.

Looking back on it, the injuries were concerning—especially two blows to the same shoulder, one which he needs to throw—but they were far more a matter of bad timing and bad luck than anything else.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I always considered injury-prone to mean someone who can never shake the nagging injuries and misses games because of it. An injured shoulder, one which is separated? That's not injury-prone.

That's bad luck and poor protection in at least one case. It's not a conditioning issue, which is at the heart of so many "injury-prone" players.

However, that wouldn't stop the questions during the 2011 offseason, not after so many injuries his first two years. Another year of injuries and doubts might be confirmed.

Stafford was going to have to have a great season to allay those fears.

 

2011—The Heights aka I Can See My House From Here

The 2011 season was one which showed us everything the Lions had expected of Stafford when they took him first overall in 2009.

It also saw him throw for 663 times and over 5,000 yards, the fourth quarterback in NFL history (and the third that season) to do so.

The Lions suffered from injury problems in the backfield, which put the onus of moving the ball on Stafford and Johnson, and more often than not they responded.

Overall, Stafford's completion percentage was excellent (63 percent) and his touchdowns to interceptions were tremendous (41-16).

Most importantly, Stafford was healthy (or as healthy as any NFL player stays during the course of the season).

While having him throw more than 600 times wasn't ideal, it worked and Stafford led his team to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since 1999 after clinching a spot with a 38-10 win over the San Diego Chargers.

Stafford played well in his first-ever playoff appearance, though the lack of a coherent running game ended up killing the team, as did the collapse of the defense in the second half.

After the season, Stafford won Comeback Player of the Year awards from both the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers Association, along the way not only becoming the fourth quarterback in history to throw for 5,000 yards as mentioned above, but also the second quarterback in history to throw for over 5,000 yards and over 40 touchdowns.

While the Lions were disappointed by their early exit, things were looking up for them going into 2012 and Stafford was on fire.

 

2012: Off the Rails Again

After a phenomenal 2011, the ride came crashing to a halt for both Stafford and the team in 2012.

Week 1 kicked things off with a win over the St. Louis Rams, but one which happened despite three interceptions by Stafford, including a pick-six by Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Stafford looked off, as if he wasn't seeing the defense. On both the interception by Finnegan as well as the one to rookie Janoris Jenkins, Stafford just didn't seem to notice the defender underneath the route of his receiver.

This would become a theme for Stafford in 2012, as he threw 17 interceptions during the course of the season, many of them resembling the ones from Week 1.

Stafford also continued to throw the ball—a lot. He averaged 45 tosses a game, and more than once topped 50 and even 60 throws as the Lions' run game often struggled.

He also focused almost exclusively on Calvin Johnson.

Of his 727 targets, 204 went to Megatron. The next closest in targets were the now-departed Titus Young with 56 and Brandon Pettigrew with 59.

Well, Joique Bell had 69 targets out of the backfield, but you get the point. Second place isn't even close.

Listen, if it works, you stay with it, and clearly given the injury to Nate Burleson (broken leg), the rawness of Ryan Broyles (who had his own injury issues) and the general incompetence of Titus Young, Stafford had very few consistent weapons.

That said, if a defense knows where you're going about 30 percent of the time, you've done some of their work for them.

Stafford's mechanics also looked off. Now, he's always had a bit of a sidearm delivery and it hadn't been a factor.

This past year, that sidearm seemed more pronounced, with his release point lower and many of his throws hurried.

More pronounced angle, different release point

If you have time and everything else is humming along, you can overcome some mechanical issues.

In 2012, not everything was humming along.

No run game, no receivers worth anything who weren't named Calvin Johnson and a slide backwards in mechanics combined to form a season which was all over the place for Stafford.

He came close to topping 5,000 yards again, but his touchdowns fell by half and his completion percentage dipped to 59 percent (though, in his defense, 727 times is a lot of throwing).

Worse, the team around him fell apart and the Lions tumbled back to earth and a 4-12 record.

Despite this, Stafford continued to show many times that he had the talent we saw in 2011. Sure, he failed to throw five touchdowns in a game this past season, but he averaged 310 yards a game and was again healthy for the course of the season.

Despite struggles, Stafford provided plenty of highlights

It's hard to define exactly what went wrong with Stafford in 2012. There were just too many factors outside of his control—the lack of a running game for much of the year, the minimal receiving talent, the questionable secondary which put him behind too often.

Yes, he seems to have mechanical issues, but those can be exacerbated by a bad supporting cast.

On top of it, the Lions had a tough schedule, with four of their first six games on the road, including trips to play San Francisco and Philadelphia.

The NFC North games were, as always, tough, but the Minnesota Vikings were a surprisingly hard team to play.

All of which are factors which cloud just how much of Stafford's struggles were his own doing.

As we move through the 2013 offseason, the Lions are preparing to give him more support and get the team—and Stafford—back on track.

While the ride so far has been frustrating at times, it has also been exhilarating. Stafford has put his injury concerns behind him and has proven time and again what an intense competitor, hard worker and talented athlete he is.

In the end, even if his career hasn't quite been all Lions fans may have hoped for, it's a ride none of them would get off of.

How confident are you in Stafford? Let us know down in the comments.

Check out the B/R NFC North Facebook page. Like us and keep up with everything NFC North on Bleacher Report! Follow me on Twitter at @andrew_garda

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