Matthew Stafford's Contract Extension and the Merits of Paying Him Big Money
News broke this week of a big contract extension for Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions. The big-armed quarterback signed a three-year, $53 million extension, according to ESPN.com that ostensibly locks him up through 2017.
Social media had a field day.
Matthew Stafford ranked 15th in the NFL in Total QBR last season (58.9)…he’s only been in the top 10 once in his 4-year NFL career.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) July 10, 2013
Matthew Stafford set to sign three-year extension with Lions but will be forced to give half of his money to Calvin Johnson— Evil Mike Tomlin (@EvilMikeTomlin) July 9, 2013
Matthew Stafford's record against teams with a winning record: 1-23. Yep better lock that guy up!— Faux John Madden (@FauxJohnMadden) July 9, 2013
Despite the snark levels on display, this was actually a good deal to make for both parties.
On the one hand, Stafford has security for the next five years with the opportunity to sign yet another big deal when he turns 29. He is now the sixth-highest paid quarterback in the league based on average salaries.
Is he the sixth-best quarterback in the league? No.
Does he have the potential to get there soon? Absolutely.
That is why the Lions had to make this deal now. They capitalized on a down year from Stafford to sign him to a deal that could have been far more expensive a year from now.
Just look at the cautionary tale of Joe Flacco. The Baltimore Ravens could have locked him up to an extension prior to the 2012 season, but they concluded he was too rich for their blood. He proceeded to tear through the NFL playoffs like a bull on parade, annihilating the competition en route to a Super Bowl championship and game MVP honors.
When the champagne dried and the confetti was swept away, Flacco held all of the leverage in contract negotiations. Baltimore did not even make a public effort to lower his price tag. Ozzie Newsome's hand was forced and Flacco signed the richest deal in NFL history at the time, averaging over $20 million per year.
From that perspective, Stafford's $15.1 million per season seems like a relative bargain, at least from a talent and potential standpoint.
Stafford is just 25 years old, still years away from his prime. He possesses the best arm talent in the league with the potential to grow into a Top 5 quarterback. The Lions needed cap relief.
This deal had to get done. Detractors might say he was not worth it, but that is simply not the case—at least not without a crystal ball or sports almanac from the year 2016.
Numbers Never Lie
The biggest knock on Stafford has come from those decrying his win-loss record, particularly against teams over .500 throughout his career.
It is now well-publicized that he has that horrific 1-23 record against such teams through his four-year career. Apparently, Stafford plays all 22 starting positions.
True, he has not been at his best in many of those games. The Lions have only averaged 20.1 points per game on offense in those contests, a relatively low number given the fireworks Stafford and Co. are capable of producing.
Stafford has suboptimal numbers in those games, namely a 36:29 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It doesn't help that the defenses listed in many of those losses were top caliber, but his performances could have been better.
But Detroit has allowed 28.7 points per game in those games as well. However good your offense is, overcoming four-plus scores on average is a tall order. Stafford could have played better, but that is a lofty expectation of any quarterback. Those losses fall on his record, just like any other quarterback, but they are hardly all his fault.
Folks are quick to forget he is just one year removed from throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns en route to a surprise playoff berth. Sure, that came in a post-lockout season, which apparently caused defenses to implode. But Stafford ranked in the top five in yardage, touchdowns, completion percentage and NFL rating that year.
It might have been a torrential downpour of offense that year, but every quarterback had the opportunity to rise with those flood waters and Stafford wound up near the top.
Of course, he fell off that pace in 2012, regressing in every important statistical category save yardage, which was only so high last season because he put up a record number of pass attempts, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Then there is the argument that Stafford is nothing without the man, myth and legend that is Calvin Johnson.
Of course, what quarterback wouldn't try to get the ball to their best receiver? Johnson happens to be the best receiver in the game, and Stafford smartly utilizes him as much as possible. But is he really the only reason for Stafford's success?
When you take Johnson's gaudy numbers out of the picture, Stafford still threw for 6,360 yards and 41 touchdowns over the past two years (per Pro Football Focus, subscription required). Those are higher totals than Mark Sanchez had throwing to his entire team during that span.
Taking that further, Johnson has caught 218 of a possible 350 passes thrown his direction over the past two seasons, good for a 62.3 percent completion rate. Stafford's completion percentage on aimed passes to the rest of the team was 66.5 percent.
Even if we take running backs out of that equation—their targets are generally around the goal line, thus making for easier completions—Stafford still managed to complete 63.2 percent of passes to anyone not named Calvin Johnson.
Of course, the caveat with all that is the way other players were targeted. Not all targets are equal.
Johnson was targeted far deeper on average than everyone else, a big reason why he has averaged 16.7 yards per reception over the past two seasons. The other receivers and tight ends on the team combine to average just 11.8 yards per reception in that time span.
Stafford has also been known to force the ball to the best receiver in the league. We should expect a dropoff in completion percentage as a result.
The point here is to examine his effectiveness when taking Johnson out of the equation, at least as much as we can given he does draw a ton of defensive attention. Stafford is really no worse when throwing to other members of his team. Those members include guys named Titus Young, Mike Thomas, Tony Scheffler, Will Heller and Kris Durham.
Speaking of those other receivers and tight ends, Stafford saw a revolving door at those positions in 2012, which certainly contributed to his regression.
In 2011, three receiving threats played over 900 snaps—Johnson, Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew—whereas only one played over 800 in 2012—Johnson. Nine other receivers or tight ends wound up playing over 200 snaps, significant playing time for the dregs of the depth chart.
From Titus Young constantly grousing and eventually sabotaging plays to injuries across the board, the only real constant was Johnson. Of course, if you are going to want one constant, you want it to be your best player.
Stats Are for Losers
For all the statistics that prove Stafford is not nearly as bad as some have portrayed, there is merit in criticisms aimed in his direction.
Stafford's biggest issues stem from lazy or just plain bad mechanics at times. If you watched enough Lions games—perhaps as a Lions fan, or, maybe, you were looking in to see how well your fantasy players were doing—you might have been aghast at some of the back-foot or side-arm throws Stafford put up.
His decision-making has been called into question at times, too, namely when he throws into triple coverage with the hopes Megatron will get up and catch it.
Yahoo's Doug Farrar had this to say about Stafford shortly after he signed that extension:
Stafford's mechanical issues are easy to see on tape, and they mirror some of the same issues that Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears has never been able to consistently overcome. Like Cutler, Stafford will make stick throws when he shouldn't because he has such a great belief in his arm.
Like Cutler, Stafford will go through stretches where he throws absolutely flat-footed, and when that happens, he's not using his lower body to drive his throwing action. If you're going to ask a guy to throw as often as Stafford does, especially without the benefit of a cohesive running game, any mechanical glitch will be amplified by the sheer repetition the quarterback must undergo.
Invoking the name of Jay Cutler might send shudders down any Lions fan's back. Farrar is absolutely right, however—Stafford is talented, and he is self-aware enough about it to let it affect his mechanics. He possesses the best arm talent in the league and he knows it.
I always said Matthew Stafford has one of the Top 3 strongest arms I've ever seen. It's his rock for a head that concerns me.— TC (@ThePigskinGuy) July 9, 2013
Fortunately, these aren't talent issues—mechanics and decision-making can improve. Unfortunately, Stafford and Jim Schwartz apparently don't see an issue with his mechanics—a dangerous line of thinking. Great players are constantly trying to improve.
Perhaps, this is why he has not improved, according to PFF's grading criteria, where he has ranked 13th and 15th in the league the past two seasons respectively. For him to take that next step toward superstardom and help his team start winning playoff games, he will need to work on his game.
That is if he truly want to get to the Super Bowl and eventually earn that third massive contract.
The bottom line here is that the Lions had to lock Stafford up, and it was never going to be a cheap proposition. Sure, they took a risk by giving him $41.5 million guaranteed in the extension—he did miss a boatload of games during his first two seasons because of injury—but that number falls just below Tony Romo's.
The embattled Dallas Cowboys quarterback got a huge extension of his own in 2012, despite winning one playoff game in his career. That simply heralded a trend we are now seeing played out—quarterbacks are going to be at an even higher premium going forward.
Comparing Stafford to someone like Romo or even Matt Ryan, who has seen plenty of team success, seems premature when you factor in their age.
When Matthew Stafford's three-year extension runs out, he will be Brandon Weeden's age (29). Food for thought.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 9, 2013
Ryan is 28 now, and he is next in line for a big pay day. Romo is 33, in the thick of his prime.
At any rate, this was neither a good or a bad deal for the Lions—it was simply the deal that had to happen. History will judge its merits.
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