It's not any kind of a shocking revelation at this point to describe Matthew Stafford's 2012 season for the Detroit Lions as a let-down. Coming off a fantastic 2011 season, Stafford was primed to enter that ever-coveted "elite" status, and join the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at the top of the mountain. That was the narrative for Stafford entering the 2012 season.
But that didn't happen.
We saw regress and a disappointing season from both Stafford and the Lions, who finished the season at 4-12.
The Lions are a combined 22-42 over the past four seasons since drafting Stafford No. 1 overall back in 2009 out of the University of Georgia. The Lions 10-6 team back in 2011 looks to be more of the exception than the rule, considering they have just 12 wins in the other three seasons combined under Stafford.
While Stafford did miss time with injuries and didn't start all of these games, it's still not the kind of success you want to see four years after taking a quarterback No. 1 overall. Especially considering you have the games' best wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, who's coming off a record-breaking season in 2012.
There are three "red flags" with Stafford that the Detroit Lions will have to consider as they prepare for the 2013 season and beyond.
The first is coming to grips with Stafford's record against winning teams.
In case you haven't read this fantastic piece from Scott Kacsmar titled, "Where Can the Detroit Lions Improve Most for 2013?", you should do that as there is a ton of great content in there.
One of the most interesting pieces from that article is the chart below that breaks down every game Stafford has played against a team that finished the season with a winning record.
Spoiler: It's not pretty.
As you can see, Stafford is 1-23 in his career against teams that finished the season with a winning record. That could be easy to brush off if it was a second, maybe even third-year player, but a No. 1 overall pick that's four seasons into his NFL career? That's more than a coincidence and it's given him enough time to make some kind of a conclusion. It's going to take some serious attention from the Detroit Lions before they think about a price tag for an extension for Stafford.
Stafford threw 36 touchdowns in those 24 games, including 29 interceptions. When you're playing a team with a winning record, or eventual winning record throughout the course of the season, those are the "big" games. The ones that you circle on the calendar each year. When your quarterback isn't performing in those games it's going to lead to certain questions, and those questions are valid when your quarterback is one of the highest paid in the league at his position.
That leads into our next red flag with Stafford: Price tag.
Thanks to the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, Stafford was in a pretty good spot financially (compared to current No. 1 picks) after signing his rookie deal. Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal with $41.7 million guaranteed back in 2009.
Just for comparisons sake, Cam Newton was the No. 1 overall pick for the Carolina Panthers back in 2011. This was the first year they used the new CBA agreement.
Newton signed a four-year, $22 million deal, which was fully guaranteed.
Granted, it's not Stafford's fault he was an incoming rookie when a broken system was in place and that he benefited from it. But that shouldn't add any more pressure to him than any other No. 1 overall pick in recent years, even including the guys coming in under the new CBA. The problem is as we close in on the last couple of years of that rookie deal it becomes a pretty substantial cap hit to the Detroit Lions.
According to Spotrac.com, Stafford is a $20.8 million cap hit for the Lions next season and 19.3 million in 2014. Those are pretty substantial hits for a player coming off the season he just had in 2012, which wasn't great. It would be crazy for the Lions to consider cutting Stafford because of these cap hits, but it does mean an extension could come sooner rather than later. An extension could lock Stafford into a realistic contract through his prime and provide cap relief for the team over the next two years.
In this article with USA Today, Lions president Tom Lewand confirmed that there have been discussions surrounding an extension with Stafford.
"We've still got some discussion to have, but at some point in time we'll either get a deal done or we'll focus on football, said Lewand. It's a different dynamic when you have two years left on a contract versus one.
Most of them get done with a year left. And we've worked through a lot of those issues and continue to do that, want to continue the dialogue."
Stafford could be in line to see an extension in the same neighborhood Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers recently received. Romo signed a seven-year deal that gave him $55 million in guaranteed money, Flacco received $52 million guaranteed from the Ravens and Rodgers got $62.5 million guaranteed from the Packers.
Stafford would be somewhere in that neighborhood.
That's an awful lot of money to handout (again) to a player that's coming off a down year, but is also inarguably your quarterback of the future. It's an interesting situation to follow. Finding the terms of that agreement and how much last years' play plays into it will be an interesting thing to watch if they come to an agreement before the 2013 season begins.
Either way it's a big decision with a lot of money at stake.
The third "red flag" for Stafford has to do with decision making.
Of the Lions 12 losses in 2012, only three of them were by more than one possession. That means that in nine of their losses in 2012 they were in the game at the end with some kind of a chance. Four of the losses were by a field goal or less.
Stafford has to play better and make better decisions late in these games. You don't lose that many close games without there being something wrong with your quarterback's ability to finish games. Whether it's completely fair, right or wrong, Stafford wears this on himself because if they're winning games, people will overlook mediocre statistics. Just ask Eli Manning. He's got two rings, has only thrown more than 30 touchdowns once in a season (2010) and it wasn't even a season he won either of his Super Bowls ('07, '11).
Here's a look from Stafford on three plays on the same drive late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers. These plays are from the second meeting between these two teams last season in which the Packers won the game 27-20.
This first play is on 1st and 10 from the Packers 44-yard line. You can see the routes from the tight end and running back.
Once Stafford drops back you'll notice that he's got a defensive tackle with daylight between them. At this point he's got two choices. He can immediately get the ball out to his outlet receiver, which looks to be the running back (who's not looking at him and is "questionably" defended by the linebacker), or he can slide to his left to avoid the pressure and then pickup the tight end that's breaking into open space on that side of the field.
He chooses to go with the outlet receiver and throws an inaccurate pass that leads to 2nd and 10.
On 2nd and 10 you'll see the two middle linebackers blitz the A-gap to try and put pressure on Stafford.
The line actually does a good job of picking up the blitz but Stafford double-clutches and gets the ball out late to his receiver.
This ball should have been a pick-six but it was dropped by the defender. Stafford makes another inaccurate pass on third down and it sets up a 4th and 10 for the Lions.
You'll notice the routes being run by Calvin Johnson and Tony Scheffler on this play. If it's a big situation on 4th down late in the game and you have to pick up 10 yards, it'd make sense to throw it to the NFL's best receiver, right?
Not only does Stafford not throw it to Johnson, he forces it to Scheffler into tight coverage with five Packer defenders in the area. Johnson wasn't exactly open either but if you're going to force it to someone why not force it to the physical mismatch you have on every play with Johnson, especially if it's a "chuck it up and let them make a play" situation?
These plays are just a few small examples of the kinds of things that Lions fans consistently saw from Stafford last season. He has all the ability to be an elite NFL quarterback, but he's got to show late in games that he can make plays that win games for the Lions.
The "red flags" of Stafford's record against winning teams, current and future contract numbers and decision-making/play-making being sub-par late in games, it's an interesting offseason and decision for the Lions to figure out the best way to approach not only "when" to get a new deal done, but exactly how much that contract will ultimately be as well.