Win or lose, Lions will entertain
There's just enough optimism around the Detroit Lions to make fans nervous.
Then, Bill Ford Jr., son of the owner, lauded the front office and coaches -- but didn't guarantee their jobs beyond 2013, not after a 4-12 season last season and a 22-42 record since Matt Millen was served his papers. The Lions have a star quarterback, the best receiver in football, what appears to be a solid defense -- at least up front -- and both the benefit and burden of expectations that they'll return to the 10-6 playoff team from 2011.
And their fate will probably be determined by throws like this. Lions against the Houston Texans, last season. Third-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Matthew Stafford takes the shotgun snap and doesn't drop back. No, he drifts back, in the face of pressure that Stafford creates for himself because his linemen don't know where he is. Stafford slides three, four, five, six steps back and to the left, adding in a few skittish shuffles for good measure.
When Stafford decides to throw, he steps so far to the side that his feet are actually both touching the 10-yard line, spread apart as if he's trying to stretch. Stafford is neither throwing from a balanced position nor an unbalanced position; he's throwing from a position of no balance.
A quarterback will often throw from this stance in warm-ups to isolate and loosen up his arm, and, sure enough, as Stafford winds up his arm is isolated, angling down, as if carrying a grocery bag. His elbow almost touches his ribs instead of being extended beyond his ear. As he releases, all of the torque seems to come from his forearm, instead of his body. And yet the ball hums out of his hand with more velocity than seems possible, and it hits receiver Mike Thomas perfectly and on time and in stride -- in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
How long can Stafford get away with this? His fundamentals, which seem to rival Tim Tebow's in terms of scrutiny, are so strange that Stafford, one of the most prolific passers ever, has become a topic as much as a savior: If a team is consistently relying on a quarterback with an inconsistent motion, how can it expect to consistently win?
"Their entire team's success is on Stafford," an NFC scout says, noting the obvious.
After all, Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson are largely the reasons the Lions have been one of the most exciting teams the past few seasons, if you take away Ndamukong Suh's penchant for drawing fines. Last season, Stafford's 727 attempts and 435 completions led the league, and his 4,967 yards ranked second. Megatron, meanwhile, set a record with 1,964 receiving yards. That duo is almost enough alone to ensure that Sundays will be fun, if nothing else. The only question is whether the Lions will win.
"They don't have a running game," the scout said, "so it's all on the quarterback."
A study by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert showed that the Lions faced six or fewer "inside the box" defenders a league-high 855 times. Teams dared the Lions to run, and they couldn't, tying with the San Diego Chargers for last in the NFL with only four runs of 20 yards or more. Bush was signed to provide a threat out of the backfield and to relieve Johnson of pressure. Of course, Bush is far from a reliable starter, though he did play in every game last season for the first time since his rookie season.
Neither Stafford nor Bush will enjoy blocking from a well-oiled offensive line. Detroit's line lost three starters from last season. It's so green, in fact, that recently retired tackle Jeff Backus has been at minicamps instructing youngsters like 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff, his likely replacement. So far, it's hard to tell if the pass or run blocking will be improved.
"We're working mainly on the passing game stuff," head coach Jim Schwartz told reporters in June. "It's really hard to get running game, run blocks … accomplished."
He was speaking of the offseason rules on contact in practice, of course. But he might as well have been speaking for many in-game scenarios. As the NFC scout says: "They wish they could run but they can't. So they're going to throw it 30-40 times a game, and that's why Stafford gets hurt. The whole key for them is Stafford staying upright."
Stafford has battled various injuries over the years, and scouts have noticed that the wear of those injuries and of averaging 41 attempts per game have taken a toll. Watch highlights of his rookie season or even his college years, and you'll see a cleaner release. Stafford has never been a classic, over-the-top thrower like Peyton Manning, but his motion at times has dropped from three-quarters years ago to almost underhanded.
But Stafford might have the best pure arm in the NFL, which not only leads to many highlights but also over-reliance. Entering his sixth season, he's only a 59.8 percent passer and has a career yards-per-attempt average of 6.87. For a downfield passer, that's a mediocre number. Tom Brady, for example, has a career average of 7.52.
"Stafford's motion is fine," the scout says. "I used to be anti-throwing motions that weren't textbook. But after guys like Philip Rivers, I'm not anymore. As long as you're accurate and you get the ball out, it doesn't matter."
The Lions' defense figures to be better than last season's unit, which gave up 437 points, sixth worst in the NFL. Free-agent safety Glover Quin and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, the Lions' first-round pick, seem to be upgrades. But is the defense good enough to consistently stop Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson? The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings swept the Lions last season. So it's all on Stafford -- again. If he can remain upright, it will not only be fun to watch -- it might bring a return trip to the playoffs.
"If he's healthy," the scout says, "they're an eight- to 10-win team. If not, they're 4-12 again."