Highlighting This Year's Most Intriguing NFL Preseason Storylines
Training camp season is now upon us as the NFL's offseason calendar continues to advance toward live-ammo warfare. And consequentially, a healthy score of casual fans are scratching their backsides and asking why they should care.
After all, it's training camp. Guys run around cones. Guys swat rubber pads. Guys complain about the heat while taking 20-minute water breaks under misting fans.
How could there possibly be any intrigue around anything so banal? Easy—because it's the NFL. And because it's one of our first opportunities to really see our offseason obsessions finally set in motion.
Tebow at tight end? Sanchez's rear end? Undrafted free agents with hilarious names? Oh, there's plenty of intrigue, folks.
Here's a look at some of the more compelling storylines heading into training camp.
Tebow the Beauty
Bringing fresh perspective to a media spectacle as microwaved as Tebowmania is like trying to find the one seat on a United Airlines flight that's not coated in pretzel crumbs, old man farts or Alec Baldwin's indignation—a monumental task for even the most ultraviolet-friendly class of superhero.
I mean, here's a guy (a quarterback?) who threw for 39 yards last year and tallied another 102 on the ground. He scored no touchdowns. He was essentially wiped from the playbook at one point.
And yet, despite failing to outgun St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker (42 passing yards) or outrun such track stars as Josh Freeman (139 rushing yards) or Andy Dalton (120 rushing yards), Tebow is the undeniable star of training camp season.
It's almost like someone keeps rigging the system, buried somewhere deep within the Vatican, that governs our sports-media talking points!
All barbs aside, Tebowmania does present a certain amount of intrigue this year. Sure, there were questions last year, and we somehow brought ourselves to consider the idea of Tebow supplanting incumbent starter Mark Sanchez in the same fleeting moment as we took to Google to investigate just what in the hell a personal punt protector was.
But this year, the sea has again parted, and there exist a handful of interesting possibilities on the other side.
Will Tebow play quarterback? Yes. That seems to be the obvious answer, especially in a Patriots offense that could benefit from a little more red-zone ingenuity and, you know, could also benefit from not ever rushing its Hall of Fame quarterback up the middle on a 4th-and-1 keeper.
If we've learned anything from Tebowmania, though, it's that obvious answers are no fun.
(Although we've also learned that, if you turn out the lights and say Tebow's name thrice consecutively, you can summon Him!)
So keep an eye out for where Tebow lands in camp drills. And between various fits on offense and special teams, there's a good chance he'll be run ragged showcasing the best and worst he has to offer. Tebow at tight end? Tebow at H-back? Tebow at team bus driver?
It's purely guesswork until Bill Belichick and Co. actually see him in action and measure his best fit on a roster that should again find itself favored to win the AFC East. My best guess? Well, there's a certain methodology even the sharpest football minds haven't yet acknowledged.
Let's assume the Patriots really are the Lannisters, as George R.R. Martin, the mastermind behind the A Song of Ice and Fire book series that has inspired HBO's smash hit television series Game of Thrones, readily admits.
Tebow is being married into the Patriots franchise on a whim, and there are countless permutations that could leave him wary of guest right. But there is a certain delicious novelty in someone who uglies up the game in such bold strokes as Tebow does, pairing up with a master craftsman who deals so decisively in gridiron generalship while still maintaining such lush and well-conditioned locks of hair even in the heat of battle.
So let it first be declared here, by the predictive methodology of Westerosi prognostication: Tim Tebow and Tom Brady will pair as a delightful odd couple that works in tandem to ugly up the beautiful and make the beautiful such a wonderful shade of ugly.
If popular sports media has decreed Tebow the sole deity of our football universe, then just as surely, they have pegged the center of that universe as New York City, or any destination lucky enough to be considered within commuting distance.
Somewhere, it's rumored that football is also played outside of the East Coast, but when you have the Jets, Giants, Patriots, Eagles and Redskins, why would you ever look anywhere else? Especially when we can spend the better part of the next six astrological ages debating which subpar passer will be crowned the Jets' latest starting QB?
This year, it's Mark Sanchez versus Geno Smith, in what will be widely viewed as the most prominent position battle in any NFL training camp. Sanchez, the incumbent starter, was more readily associated with a "buttfumble" than a forward pass in 2012. Smith, the Jets' second-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft, has already managed to present himself with the bristly public image of a lumberjack shaving his beard with sandpaper.
No matter what Smith does, he'll be the favorite, though. Why? Because, whether we admit it or not, we're rooting for Sanchez to lose.
Sometimes, when a player reaches a certain level of bad, and his reaction to it seems to be a postgame shoulder shrug followed by a ceremonious ass-shaking that would truly serve to produce a single tear from Mystikal's eye, it becomes less about rooting for the competition and more about rooting against the status quo.
Basically, I'm trying to say that Mark Sanchez is the gridiron embodiment of Cobra Kai.
It's not that we like young upstart Geno Smith so much that we want him to immediately succeed. He's still untested, raw and admittedly already drawing disapproving clucks from those with their eyes trained on the Manhattan microscope.
It's that, after so many pick-sixes and buttfumbles, with so little to show in terms of accountability, we just really, really want Sanchez to lose. So forget Daniel-san, and mute anything Mr. Miyagi has to say. Because our sole interest here should be standing together against the man who has so consistently managed to leg sweep football fans everywhere.
Oh, you think that sentiment is unwarranted? A volley launched for the sake of mentioning Ralph Macchio somewhere in this column?
Well, it's not. It's entirely justified. Sanchez was gifted the starting QB position on arguably the biggest stage in all of football, and has proceeded to treat it like a collegiate finite mathematics course after Joe Freshman concedes that a C-minus, barely passing grade is alright if it allows more room on the schedule for binge drinking in the cool R.A.'s room.
This is a guy who, simply put, refuses to rectify his mistakes and refuses to get better. So while it's easy to gang up on him, it's also fair game. Anyone who approaches the quarterback position with as much apathy as Sanchez, whether out of some misplaced sense of arrogant entitlement or a tendency to eschew game film for the complete Gossip Girl Blu-Ray box set, should feel the full brunt of fan and media criticism.
Take, for instance, a pick-six thrown in last year's Week 17 loss to the Buffalo Bills—Sanchez's 68th NFL start. Yes, that's over 50 games removed from his rookie season, in case you didn't want to do the math.
Here, the Jets line up with trips receivers left and a lone split end along the right sideline.
The gist of the play, a real Tony Sparano special, is this: the split end will look to beat press coverage on the outside with a 9 route. This should occupy the safety tasked with deep zone coverage between the right hash and sideline. You'll notice, of course, that the left corner is pressing the receiver, and the safety is only about 10 yards off the ball, so getting beat deep doesn't seem to be a huge concern for the Bills defense.
Ah, but it's really a Cover 1 look from Buffalo! The strong safety stays manned up shallow about 10 yards off the ball while the free safety rotates back to center field and backpedals, shading toward the Jets' lone "go" threat here.
The only two options "open" at this point are too early in their routes to realistically provide much of a target. Sanchez stays with his first option, waiting to see if his primary can shake press coverage on his outside to make himself available either down the sideline (after leaving the corner in his wake) or on a route adjustment that gives him more of an angle toward the right hash but still well short of the shading safety.
Sanchez's primary target decides to go for the home run and continues working upfield on his 9 route. And if he gets separation there, it's not a bad decision, and it doesn't invite a tempting deep target provided Sanchez is conscious of the deep safety rotation over top.
However, no separation is gained, the corner does a great job hand- and shoulder-checking the receiver downfield, and the primary option is essentially taken out of the play.
This brings Sanchez to reads two and three, combination 6 routes run five yards and eight yards off the line of scrimmage, respectively (though I'm almost certain the intermediate receiver should have taken his route closer to the 25-yard line and 10 yards off the line of scrimmage; he's far too close to the underneath option and is essentially just running himself directly into two linebacker zone drops).
So Sanchez, developing a mean case of happy feet at this point with his first few options covered or removed from the play by your pick of poor design or sloppy route-running, panics and tries to force the ball.
Veteran linebacker Bryan Scott, who has been reading Sanchez's eyes from the get-go, jumps the route before the ball even leaves Sanchez's hands.
And I do mean before the ball even leaves Sanchez's hands. This is just complete defensive confidence that Sanchez has failed to recognize the Cover 1 look and is intent on forcing the ball wherever he can. This, while his primary option fails to gain separation and his secondary options labor through their routes like a game of touch football after a chili cook-off.
You can see, though, that as Sanchez directs the ball straight to Scott—and it never had a prayer of reaching a player in a Jets uniform—that he actually does have a man open across the middle, though, and a sizable window to throw into.
Sure, the receiver likely gets walloped by the deep safety crashing back down inside once the ball is in the air, but you'll take 10 yards and a sore back over a pick-six any day of the week. Unless you're Sanchez, apparently.
It's impossible to get inside Sanchez's head here, but in all likelihood, he failed to recognize the safety rotation until it was too late. And, along with his receivers, he froze when faced with the challenge of beating Cover 1 with the current play design.
The lack of drive on the ball—he doesn't step into the throw at all, just kind of plants his leg and swings his hip in an awkward follow-through—furthers reinforces the void of Sanchez's confidence in making this throw, as well as highlights yet another mechanical flaw on Sanchez's part in this disastrous play.
In an ideal world, given the time Sanchez actually has on this play, he offers a pump fake or two in order to free up a target or to get defenders to jump or move. Even just a quick shoulder hitch couldn't have hurt here. That's what a mechanically sound quarterback would do, and that's what would free up either the split end or the option across the middle that opens up as Scott correctly guesses where Sanchez will force the ball.
But then, no one is arguing that Sanchez is mechanically sound, and more and more it's hard to argue the "quarterback" end of that description as well.
Because even likely failing to recognize Cover 1, even failing to do anything in his own right to affect defensive positioning, Sanchez has an open receiver—or at least an ability to create one—and plenty of space to step up and deliver the ball to him, with underneath coverage essentially picked out of the play by shallow routes anyway.
Worst case? He has the option to throw this one away and live to play another down. Instead, he panics and gift wraps a pick-six to a linebacker who was undercutting that route from the time he walked off the team bus.
If you watch enough All 22, you realize the Jets have many problems. Their offensive line is bad. Their receiving corps was putrid in 2012, often failing to make key in-play route adjustments and amplifying Sanchez's mistakes by combining a complete lack of awareness with a complete lack of athleticism (as a whole, of course, because no one is arguing that Stephen Hill, for instance, lacks athleticism).
But at the center of it all is Sanchez, routinely making rookie mistakes some 50 games after it stopped being excusable.
Some quarterbacks have bad mechanics. Some quarterbacks operate in faulty offenses. And while there are extenuating elements to consider in Sanchez's annual cannonball into the rock quarry below—chiefly, a porous offensive line and a group of receivers that looked to share one ACL between the five of them—it's still evident that Sanchez is approaching evolution with all the progressive tenacity of Mike Huckabee at karaoke night in a drag bar.
Whether or not Geno Smith is the solution remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: We'll have our eyes on him, and we'll be crossing our fingers in hopes of a depth-chart shakeup. Because the epicenter of the football universe really does serve whoever is the best around.
Undrafted Free Awesomes
One of the most underrated elements of NFL training camps is the undrafted free-agent factor. But more specifically, our endless obsession with a bunch of guys who, as a whole, are more likely to find themselves working junior varsity sidelines with coaching headsets than NFL sidelines with shoulder pads.
Every year, fans are unduly excited about a bunch of guys who couldn't even warrant a low-risk gamble with the 254th pick in a kickball draft. That's not to say, of course, that there aren't undrafted free-agent success stories. James Harrison doesn't care who picks him or where—he's just going to kick your ass anyway.
But it would be wise to temper expectations. Even if that guy is huge or that guy is a freak of nature or that guy jumped out of a swimming pool once! There's a reason these guys are jumping out of swimming pools and not, you know, highlight reels.
Most undrafted free agents will weed themselves out fairly quickly. Not big enough, not strong enough, just not talented enough. It's about as vanilla a process as there is, and the talent discrepancy shows quickly. You can pretty much boil it all down to a flow chart.
None of that is to say, though, that we can't have a little fun with them while they're here. Because undrafted free agents really are awesome, in their own kind of way.
First, the names. God, you have to love the names. I'm convinced some teams just need 15 bodies for camp and gauge signing targets not by film reel or scouting report, but by how awesome their names sound. (This is also my Madden drafting strategy. Hello, MaJarion Quick!)
Let's take a quick look at some of the best names in play as we begin to open camps.
Seriously, Rodrick Rumble? Sign that guy up now. Skip camp entirely and thank yourself for the jersey sales later.
Entertaining nomenclature aside, though, there are some interesting undrafted free agents with legitimate roster shots worth watching this year—the kind of talent that seems to have a leg up in defying the long odds so often presented to folks who never receive that draft-day phone call.
So while expectations should be appropriately tempered, and flow chart rules still apply, you should keep an eye out for a player like Bills wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who might be the closest thing to a superhuman talent that exists in this year's undrafted free agent class.
Rogers was widely regarded as a top talent at wide receiver in the 2013 draft class but found himself slipping off boards entirely due to perceived concerns surrounding his character and maturity.
So while those issues may manifest themselves early enough to bounce Rogers from a roster before he even has a chance to showcase his skills—and, reportedly, Bills coach Doug Marrone has already been in his ear about hot-dogging on the practice field, according to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News—it's worth noting that, from a pure talent perspective, Rogers is one of the most intriguing rookies in camp this year.
He just happens to have gone undrafted. What jumps out about Rogers, immediately, is his catch radius. At 6"2", 217 pounds, Rogers will hardly be the biggest receiver in the NFL, but 32.75" arms and 9.5" hands make him stand out as a bigger target than he may measure vertically, and for his size, the man is incredibly nimble
Take, for instance, this 23-yard touchdown Rogers scored against Oregon last September.
Rogers catches the ball on a quick bubble screen after the QB pump fakes to the flanker at the top of the screen.
Soon after the catch, Rogers finds himself surrounded by four Oregon defenders in a realistic position to make a stop and one in the process of being blocked out of the play. Let me reiterate: These are Oregon defenders. This isn't your second cousin's junior college roster. These are top college athletes who, at worst, will end up with the same undrafted free-agent designation as Rogers.
But thankfully for Rogers, the laws of physics don't seem to apply.
Rogers jump-cuts sharply to the right, immediately bringing two defenders to their knees. As the Ducks scramble to recover, Rogers shifts gears and heads toward the opposite sideline.
In doing so, Rogers creates enough space to take himself to the right hash without fear of being caught. The field has thusly been opened for a big gain at this point, with Oregon defenders primarily in trail or bad-angle positions.
As Rogers angles upfield, a safety emerges to stop his gain, which slows Rogers enough to allow the trailing defender to nip his heels. No harm done, though, as Rogers instinctually shifts his weight, drives his hips back toward the sideline and sidesteps the tackle attempt.
From here, again, it's open space, this time along the right sideline careening toward the end zone. Think about this: Rogers started this play on the left hash, essentially. He has weaved his way through half of the defense, to the opposite end of the field, in just under five seconds.
Rogers then has the raw strength to absorb contact from two defenders, and...
...carry the ball to pay dirt, embarrassing the vast majority of Oregon's defense in the process. In motion, it looks something like this:
That's what makes Da'Rick Rogers such an exciting prospect. He's exceptionally agile for his size, and when you combine that with his catch radius, he projects favorably as a possession receiver. Sizable targets aren't usually built to make these kinds of moves, but Rogers absolutely can and built his collegiate career around a number of similar highlights.
None of this is to suggest anyone will be mistaking Rogers for DeSean Jackson, but as NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller points out, Roddy White is an apt comparison, and Rogers will rack up yards after the catch in the pros (provided he doesn't piss off coaches in the evaluation process).
Bills fans may find themselves frustrated with some occasional drops, as Rogers is still a bit of a chest-catcher and fought receptions across his body a bit too often in college—something that just won't work in the NFL.
Rogers also has a tendency to leave his feet unnecessarily at times in order to absorb the ball at altitude, instead of snatching it down with his hands. Both of these are correctable and symptomatic of erratic collegiate quarterback play as well (though there is no qualifier that that part will change much in Buffalo...)
But make no mistake, Bills fans, Rogers isn't some James Hardy-type prospect who was primarily used in a "jump ball"-type offense, and has little route recognition or versatility to show for it. Tennessee Tech looked to Rogers on a number of underneath routes and screen designs, centering its offense around the concept of getting the ball into its star playmaker's hands early and often. And Rogers consistently produced.
He's fully capable of locating the ball at its apex, in contested areas of traffic, and has exceptional athleticism in finding a way to get to the ball before the defender is able to.
Rogers is an exciting, unique prospect, and in a relatively anonymous lineup of guys sure to be bagging groceries this time next year, you have to like his chances of standing out from the crowd—provided he works with coaches on his catching technique and consistently demonstrates a level of maturity that was too often lacking in his collegiate career.
Survivor: Revis Island
One of the ugliest moments of the 2012 NFL season came early in the year, as then-Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis crumpled to the turf in a fit of agony, having torn his left ACL in a non-contact injury.
The best cornerback, with strong arguments to made for "best defensive player" and even "best overall player" in the game, felled by ill-fated footing. For a squad that lacked equal parts talent and cohesion, it was a devastating blow, and easily the most costly injury of 2012.
But now, Revis is back (albeit in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform) and reportedly making great strides in his rehab, according to the Associated Press. And, consequentially, we can now say this with a straight face: We're excited to see a guy complete entirely routine drills in training camp.
Of course, there's still no guarantee that Revis will be able to participate in training camp; he's targeting a Week 1 return, and anything prior to that is entirely up in the air. But still, we should be excited. This is Darrelle Revis! When healthy, this is the best defensive back in the league. This is the guy who made the only Dick's Sporting Goods commercial that doesn't make me want to heat check my flat screen with the cable remote.
When Revis is healthy, the NFL is just better. It's a better league to watch, analyze, discuss. It makes wide receiver play better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). Generally, it just enhances the on-field product exponentially.
So, we should have good cause to keep a close eye on Revis in camp, monitoring his every sprint, every strafe, every dance with the Jugs machine. The Revis storyline is a particularly juicy one to watch as well, because in Tampa Bay, he may as well be playing on an island.
I'm not sure there is a team more consistently invisible from the national spotlight than the Bucs. It took a Super Bowl championship in 2002 for the world to realize they even existed. At least a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars can claim it makes headlines when the national media decides to get themselves in a tizzy over erroneous, overblown attendance concerns. The Bucs can rarely even claim they're in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Revis may as well be attempting his comeback in Abu Dhabi, and to that, I say: good. Good for us. Good for the Bucs. Good, because your average NFL fan is about to get caught napping on the Bucs.
Tampa Bay has steadily built a playoff-caliber—yes, I said, playoff-caliber—roster this offseason. This isn't to say the Bucs are playoff locks. Cam Newton is sure to capitalize on late-season momentum from 2012 and start the Carolina Panthers off on a good note. Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints won't stay down for too long. Oh, and there's some team in Atlanta that exists as one of the NFC's few real hopes in taking down the San Francisco 49ers this year.
But you look at the pieces that Bucs have added—Revis, Johnthan Banks and Dashon Goldson on defense, and reliable blue-collar guys like Tom Crabtree and Kevin Ogletree on offense—and you see Tampa Bay confidently building a rugged identity that plays to the strengths of stud roster cornerstones like Doug Martin and Gerald McCoy.
They're not signing guys "just 'cuz." They're signing guys who fit a very specific blueprint. And while many of their additions won't steal headlines now, they'll sure be responsible for making some in 2013.
The Bucs are looking, more and more, like a team that will be difficult to ignore, as much as we may want to. And Revis' recovery—every little step he takes in training camp—will play a huge role in that.
Call Them Favorites, Just Don't Call Them San Fran
Want to know the easiest way to piss off a San Franciscan? Easy! Refer to San Francisco as "San Fran." (And then tell them all about this new "hyphy" movement that Lil B has started, while complaining about housing prices in Texas and asking where the hell all the meat on the menu is supposed to be.)
Far less grating, and far more accurate, would be to point to Candlestick Park and announce, "that's where the NFC Championship Game will be played." Because that's what should happen. That's what likely will happen. That's the result of cultivating a roster that, on paper, has few, if any, significant weaknesses.
So the pressure's on you, San Francisco, starting with training camp. Everything comes with higher expectations this year; it's Super Bowl or bust. Every drill, every preseason matchup, every down of every quarter, San Francisco will be expected to be...well, perfect.
Sometimes, it's easier to be the underdog. Certain players thrive outside of the spotlight, and there is a certain hunger that drives evolutionary competition—the kind that bonds a locker room and betters a roster, through the platform of the age-old "us against the world" mentality alone.
San Francisco won't have that. And while they won't be complaining—how could you, when Colin Kaepernick is your quarterback, Patrick Willis is your franchise defensive stalwart, and every position is brimming with playmakers?—there will be a measure of expectation baked to a degree the 49ers haven't tasted in quite some time.
It will be worth watching how they respond to that pressure. Because Jim Harbaugh can create all the winning culture he wants, but when you're the undisputed best, the most talent-rich roster in the league, you find yourself under an excruciating amount of pressure to avoid even the most basic things: injuries, turnovers and negative-yardage plays.
Routine football occurrences that somehow weigh on the mighty more than the meek, because heavy as the crowned head may be, the shorn noggin' slated for certain coronation collects that much more sweat as the metronome of a slowly ticking play clock serves to remind that no Sunday is a certain thing.
And rest assured, there will always be certain predators out there waiting to feast on the corpses of the almost-weres, building their empires on teardrops and "told you so's."
This will be Kaepernick's first camp, preseason and regular season as day one starter. And while, ostensibly, that shouldn't have much of an effect on the 49ers' electric young signal-caller (we know he can play ball—he has nothing left to prove there) it's still a different kind of environment than he or several of his teammates are used to.
In San Francisco's case, the team has already faced its first major injury with designs on derailing a storybook season—Michael Crabtree, reborn a star with Kaepernick under center, has undergone surgery to repair a torn Achilles and is "several months" away from returning. "Several months," meaning: "your guess is as good as mine," in doctor talk.
Certainly, the 49ers' response to this adversity should serve as a litmus test for their response to the many challenges that will inevitably surface in conspiring against a year where the table appears set and a real run at a ring is more likely than ever.
Don't underestimate the pressure they will feel, though, to be perfect. We've seen it with countless teams past. For whatever reason, the best team on paper doesn't always (or often, even) seem to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at year's end. Whether that's just the cruelty of the football gods or a bad bounce of the ball, it remains the case that 18-1 will always equal second place, and being the best is always harder than it seems.
So call them shoo-ins, call them favorites...hell, call them maybe. Just be prepared for the heat, San Fran, because even in a city where it's always jacket weather, this has the making of a season's worth of sweating out all the little grating imperfections you never noticed before.
In the Year 2015
According to Paul Verhoeven's 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop, Detroit will be in shambles by the year 2015, overtaken by riots, looting and a criminal element constituting the majority. Half-man, half-machine crime-fighting cyborgs will be our only hope against the scum setting fire to the Detroit skyline.
It can't be a coincidence, then, that 2015 is the first year of a three-year, $53 million contract extension between Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions, that's authoritatively valued at well over a dollar. Will Stafford prove to be the root cause of the madness that consumes Detroit, reducing storefronts to rubble and forever sullying the image of Red Forman?
Quite possibly, but for now, we'd be wise to just focus on whether or not Stafford will embrace the Lions' show of good faith by, you know, actually fixing some of his recurring mechanical issues this year and guiding his team to something a bit more impressive than a 1-23 record against opponents with winning records.
One of the most underrated storylines of camp and preseason this year is the development of Matthew Stafford. Despite making top quarterback money, on the whole of his contract anyway, analysts like Ron Jaworski rate Stafford as a middle-of-the-pack QB. Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey highlights Stafford as one of the most mechanically flawed stars in the game today.
The statistics, film study and player analysis all bear it out: Stafford is a player who needs to make a significant leap in consistency and ability, and needs to make it soon. Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Scott Kacsmar has highlighted Stafford's struggles against winning teams and against the blitz. So while he may have thrown for 4,967 yards in 2012 and 5,038 yards the year before, what did he really accomplish in the process?
As dumb as the notion of a "QB wins" statistic is, Stafford becomes an interesting case study when you look at team performance versus his individual statistics. The plethora of interceptions (15-plus in every season where he has played more than 10 games) certainly jump out, as do three years' worth of sub-60 percent completion percentage.
But what surfaces most visibly, and what we should be monitoring for improvement during camp and preseason, are Stafford's oft-flawed mechanics. Schottey covers a score of Stafford's more cringe-worthy quarterbacking moments here, but just to provide an even wider lens magnifying Stafford's flaws, let's take a look at another textbook example of how not to complete a forward pass in today's NFL. This courtesy of a Casey Hayward interception in a November 18, 2012 game versus the Green Bay Packers.
It's a fairly basic look, as the Lions show heavy on their right side, suggesting a run look.
Stafford takes the snap and drops back to hand the ball off to the running back—except it's actually a play-action fake. Worth noting here that Stafford doesn't really "show" the ball as well as he could, and also does not stick with the fake long enough for a full, optimal sell.
The best play-action fakes practically put the ball in the back's chest before ripping it out and rotating the torso to get into a throwing motion. Stafford just seems to flash the ball here, and abandons the fake while the ball is still a good few feet from the back. It's not a wholly ineffective fake, and it's not to say that all fakes must put the bread in the proverbial basket, but it does feel incomplete on the whole.
At the bottom of his drop, Stafford is a good eight yards from the line of scrimmage. He also has a decent pocket to step up into, in order to fully drive whatever throw he decides to make.
Instead of stepping up, though, Stafford just kind of anchors at the depth of his drop and begins searching for targets. He seems to like Titus Young (remember him?) flashing open on a crossing route.
Stafford still has a workable amount of space in his pocket as he begins to execute his throwing motion, though his right guard is losing the battle by this point. He still likes Young on the crossing route but pays no heed to Hayward lurking underneath and daring him to make the ill-advised throw.
And once Stafford does, it's as easy as grabbing an uncontested rebound for Hayward.
Note Stafford's delivery here. You'll find the more you study Stafford, the more you realize Stafford's delivery can be unconventional. And that's not always a bad thing. But from a purely mechanical perspective, this throw is an absolute mess.
Stafford is anchored, having chosen not to climb the pocket, so he's basically twisting his hips into the throw instead of planting and driving through. His torso barely moves forward and his release point is an awkward 45-degree angle somewhere between an optimal ear-hole release and a less-conventional sidearm release.
Because of the combination of his statuesque positioning and his wide throwing angle with so little drive or torque behind it, the ball becomes a duck-hunting casualty as soon as it leaves his hand. Not every pass needs to be a perfect spiral, and a quarterback like Peyton Manning will float countless ducks into tight windows. But this is the worst kind of duck—immediately inaccurate, underthrown and lacking any touch or drive whatsoever.
(Beyond that, there is also the fact that Stafford is so locked in to Young, especially upon sensing his guard is losing the blocking battle and on the verge of inviting pressure into his face, that he completely neglects to account for Hayward.)
Simply put, these aren't the kinds of mistakes Detroit can afford from its top-earning quarterback. The good news is, they're all easily correctable. You don't really need to watch much tape to realize that Stafford has a ton of talent—something you can't claim as readily for a guy like Mark Sanchez.
Stafford has to make a concerted effort to correct these kinds of errors and correct them now, during this camp-to-preseason stretch before everyone starts playing with live ammo. If he doesn't, and if the Lions end up stuck with yet another underachieving quarterback, I'm not even sure Robocop can save Detroit.
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