Detroit Lions QB Matt Stafford: An Analysis of Sidearm Passing

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Detroit Lions QB Matt Stafford: An Analysis of Sidearm Passing
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I grew up watching Minnesota’s Fran Tarkenton throw some of the more unusual forward passes that you could possibly imagine. It wasn’t pretty, but those wounded ducks always seemed to find their target.

More recently, we’ve all witnessed Brett Favre’s ability to throw a football in some—shall we say—creative ways?

Favre and Tarkenton were the rare exceptions when it comes to a QB effectively delivering the ball from virtually any arm angle. Matt Stafford? Not so much.

In 2010, Matthew Stafford threw a sidearm pass in the third quarter of a loss to the New York Jets. The pass went incomplete and I remember wondering if there was something wrong with his shoulder.

A couple of plays later, Stafford would leave the game and subsequently finish his season on injured reserve. I’ve always wondered if that one wayward sidearm throw was a manifestation of the shoulder problem that would ultimately require surgery. Only Stafford and the Lions' coaches know for certain.

Having watched Stafford closely throughout the 2011 training camp, I never saw him throw another pass with that sidearm motion. Not even when goofing around.

During the Lions' five-game win streak to open the 2011 regular season, Stafford never threw a sidearm pass that I am aware of. Then, in Week 6, Stafford could be seen making several sidearm attempts against San Francisco, who harassed him relentlessly.

I decided to go to the DVR and watch Stafford’s delivery in the 49ers and Falcons games for some clues.

Here’s Stafford’s seven drop-downs from the 49ers' game:

  • Q2, 14:31: On a second down and eight play, Stafford is blitzed by OLB Aldon Smith. A sidearm toss to Burleson goes for four yards.
  • Q2, 4:01: On a first and 10, Stafford hits TE Brandon Pettigrew over the middle for seven yards. Stafford isn’t under pressure and steps into the throw. The sidearm motion makes his follow-through very awkward. The play is nullified by a defensive holding call.
  • Q2, 1:35: On first and 10, Stafford sidearms a pass off his back foot. The two yard pass, intended for Burleson, is dropped by Aldon Smith, who had a certain interception.
  • Q2, 1:11: On third and 17, Stafford throws a screen to Pettigrew that gets blown up by OLB Donte Whittner for a four yard loss.
  • Q3, 11:57: On first and goal from the six yard line, Stafford is under heavy pressure from Justin Smith after a play action fake and sidearms the ball in the general direction of Burleson, who is open in the right flat.
  • Q3, 7:10: On first and 10, Stafford feels pressure from NaVorro Bowman from the blind side and delivers a screen to Best that goes for a loss of one yard.
  • Q3, 6:34: On third and 11, Stafford gets outside the tackle box under moderate pressure and throws the ball away. The sidearm pass doesn’t go past the line of scrimmage. Intentional grounding is called.

In the Atlanta game, Stafford got back to proper mechanics for the most part:

  • Q4, 13:39: On third and three, Stafford is being rushed and tries to fit a sidearm pass into TE Will Heller on the right sideline. Incomplete, but probably the only sidearm pass that Stafford should have made.
  • Q4, 1:53: On fourth down, Stafford sidearms a five yard pass to Pettigrew to keep the Lions' final drive alive.

Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz acknowledged Stafford’s mechanics in a weekly radio interview on WXYT-FM (97.1):

“He’s had a couple of those, but I don’t know if it’s any more, going back.”

Schwartz went on, “He made a couple of those, particularly on some of his play action passes, where he’s gotten them underneath. He’s also had some balls tipped, and I think…two in a row tipped that were high passes. He wasn’t sidearm at all. A lot of times, he’ll drop down on some tight end screens and some play actions, get rid of the ball quicker, get them underneath some outstretched arms.”

Finally, Schwartz added, “But I think Matt’s got really good mechanics. I think he’s always thrown good, accurate passes. I don’t have a whole lot of worry about it. But he has dropped down before, maybe a little bit more lately. But it’s not like something that’s an every time thing.”

In my opinion, with only one exception, Stafford should have passed the ball from his usual high release point. Stafford has this great little “flick” on those quick, underneath patterns that is usually very effective.

Are these drop down, sidearm throws merely a bad habit? I, for one, hope so. Our expectations for Stafford might be unreasonably high at times, but if Stafford is going to have an off day, I’d rather it be due to anything other than bad mechanics.

We have to face it, Matt Stafford will never be a Fran Tarkenton or Brett Favre. Lions' fans don't necessarily need a regular dose of Stafford the great. Stafford the good will suffice.

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