Time was running out on the Detroit Lions' first-team offense Saturday night. One minute, 20 seconds remained before halftime at Invesco Field, after which coaches planned to start substituting backup players for the remainder of this preseason contest.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford had led the Lions to a touchdown on one drive, but two others stalled in the red zone. Who wouldn't want to end the night with a touchdown?
Stafford seemed to have that opportunity on first down from the Denver Broncos' 11-yard line. Receiver Nate Burleson was running a fade route into the end zone, and anyone who has seen Burleson play knows he can leap for a back-corner score as well as anyone. I'm sure Stafford was tempted, if ever so briefly.
But here's what happened: The Broncos had Burleson in bracket coverage -- one man short and one man deep. It would have required an extraordinary two-way effort to dial up a touchdown. What did Stafford do? He threw it away.
I'm going to be careful about reading too much into one preseason pass. But watching it brought to mind a conversation with Stafford during this year's training camp tour. When I broached the 20 interceptions he threw in 10 games last season, Stafford said: "A lot of times, they were just me trying to make a play when it wasn't there."
Learning to give up on a play is one of the most difficult lessons for a young quarterback, particularly those like Stafford with big arms and huge ambition. But because he lived to play another down, as coaches like to say, Stafford kept the Lions in position to put three points on the board. (They actually should have had a touchdown on the next play, but tight end Tony Scheffler dropped a perfect pass.)
As we discussed earlier this month, the Lions are counting on a substantial jump from Stafford in his second season as their starter. In order to meet that expectation, he must dramatically lower his interception rate -- one that was actually higher on a per-game average than the NFL leader (Jay Cutler with 26). Stafford, in fact, was one of two quarterbacks in the past 10 years to throw 20 interceptions in less than 400 attempts. If you view the world in a 16-game spectrum, consider that Stafford was on a 32-interception pace if he had played the entire season.
There are two ways to view that performance. The Lions, as you'll see in a bit, believe Stafford was the victim of being on a bad team with inferior talent that was behind too often. Others, most notably our friends at Football Outsiders, cast serious doubts about his long-term viability based on the interception rate and 53.3 completion percentage.
Football Outsiders (FO) rates quarterbacks in a system that compares them to the NFL average. On that scale, Stafford ranked No. 40 among quarterbacks last season. Former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell was the only quarterback ranked behind him. In its 2010 Football Almanac, FO notes that only one established quarterback -- the Washington Redskins' Donovan McNabb -- had a worse rookie season based on that ratings system.
I'm willing to give Stafford a one-year pass on his completion percentage, even though we discussed this issue before the 2009 draft. I know what my own eyes told me about the Lions' slick-handed receiving corps last season. But he and the Lions must take an active role in lowering his interception rate, and during my visit to Detroit, here is the way I understood their strategy.
Stafford studied each interception during the offseason. His conclusion: The biggest problem was impatience on third-and-long. Indeed, if you look at the chart accompanying this post, you see nearly half of his interceptions came on third-and-5 or longer.
"I've got to be better at trusting our backs," he said. "You just throw a checkdown and let them run and try to go get the first down, knowing that the best teams in the league convert 35 percent on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of that as much as possible."
That approach makes a lot of sense, and Stafford's analytic approach is one of the reasons coach Jim Schwartz is so enamored with him. When you talk to Schwartz about Stafford, you find a deep loyalty and a bit of sensitivity to criticism of a rookie's performance on a 2-14 team.
Ask Schwartz how Stafford could throw fewer interceptions, and this is what you get: "It's putting more talented players around him. It's playing better defense and being a better team."
Schwartz spoke for some five minutes about Stafford. Read some excerpts below and tell me if it doesn't sound like a coach who considers Stafford his best asset rather than a potential liability.
"Generally, the quarterbacks that throw a lot of interceptions are on losing teams," Schwartz said. "I don't know what came first, the chicken or the egg. But I'll tell you a good recipe for throwing an interception: Be down by 17 points with four minutes to go in the game and so you need three scores and you don't have a whole lot of guys that you can go to and get open.
"And as a result, the defense knows you have to throw it. You can't be smart and make good decisions because that's going to cause you to lose the game. You need three scores in four minutes. You've got to get a chunk. You can't say, 'The route we wanted wasn't there, so let's take the checkdown, keep the chains moving and let's go.' You're going to run out of time. A lot of that happened last year.
"Also, we had a lot of situations that was third-and-extra long. Penalties, sacks, lost yardage plays, whatever it was. ... That's a good recipe for throwing interceptions.
"And Matt had a lot of those when he tried to make something happen and he didn't. And in all honesty, we weren't good enough as a team. There are some teams that are good enough. They get to third-and-20 and they run a draw. And they'll say, 'Maybe it pops through, but we're not going to make a mistake and we'll punt if we have to.' We weren't in that place as a team.
"... Matt knew where we were as a team. Part of this is his awareness, part of this is putting better players around him, giving him answers, guys he can go to with the ball. And then feel confident and all those people stay healthy. If you do that, I think you'll see his interception numbers drastically decrease. He's an accurate passer. He's smart. Generally, interceptions that are the fault of the quarterback are from an inaccurate throw or poor decisions. The other ones, they are put in a bad spot."
Whew. Well, the chart shows us that 14 of Stafford's 20 interceptions came when the Lions were trailing; seven were during desperation mode in the fourth quarter. Are these reasonable explanations for the highest per-game interception rate in the NFL last season? Or is it excuse making from a team that has invested $41.7 million? We'll soon find out. The second-year jump is an essential part of any elite quarterback's growth.