The myth of Matthew Stafford's mechanics

Matthew Stafford's unconventional arm angles earn the fifth-year quarterback scorn, but his ability to freelance when a play breaks down has been more of a benefit than a curse for the Lions. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- You say mechanics. I say creativity. You see a pass sail out of the pocket. I see another that twists around the pass rush, underneath a defender and into the receiver's hands.

We could play this game all day. To be sure, I haven't charted all 1,863 pass attempts in the career of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But I'm willing to put forth a working theory about his much-discussed mechanics: That non-traditional approach has benefitted the Lions as much, if not more, than it has victimized them.

I understand the utopian desire to see perfect fundamentals. That's why Robocop and Ivan Drago made it to the big screen. I also get that people want answers when a quarterback makes a poor throw or has a lower completion percentage than desired (Stafford's is 59.8 in four seasons). Without a doubt, Stafford's more-than-occasional throws from unanticipated angles or with unexpected mechanics are an easy target.

But after spending three days at Lions camp this week, I'm more convinced than ever that the Lions would be wrong to bleed such plays from his game.

Happily, they don't want to. There is a time and place for everything, but turning Stafford into a classic pocket quarterback wouldn't give the Lions a net gain.

I pulled Stafford aside for a few minutes Thursday and asked him how he has approached the issue this summer as he prepares for his fifth season. He made clear that he will maintain a level of freelance, a plan coach Jim Schwartz backed when I spoke with him a bit later.

"I focus on fundamentals and mechanics every time I step on the field," Stafford said. "When everything is right in front of you, you want to be as good as you possibly can. It gives you the best chance of being accurate and making plays. But we play in a league where it's not always perfect. We've got to make plays. I understand that. People are going to say what they want to say. I'm trying to win ball games for this team and it's definitely something I'm always working on."

I can tell you that I saw Stafford make no unconventional throws this week during three training camp practices, all of which began with fundamental drills led by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. His shoulders were square, his feet were set and his arm was traditionally placed. In standard situations, he threw the ball flawlessly.

"Really," Schwartz said, "his mechanics are outstanding. Come out here to practice and watch it. But the games do not always go that way."

You might suggest that Stafford loses proper techniques when under duress. I see it as a knack for finding alternative ways to make plays when the primary route is blocked. As with any other skill, it doesn't work every time. But if you've watched closely enough, you've seen instances where it has in fact made the difference between a positive and negative play.

Consider the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game last season against the Houston Texans, when his sidearm pass made it through two inside pass rushers and past a surprised defender before Mike Thomas caught it for a touchdown.

"I'm obviously not a robot back there," Stafford said. "I see things, they happen a certain way in my head and it dictates a certain response in my body. I'm not thinking before the snap that I'm going to throw this one sidearm or I'm going to throw that one sidearm. It's just a feel for the game. There are definitely times when everything was right in front of me and maybe I didn't do the best, and there are times when I did it the other way and it was good. It just happens that way."

Look, there are times when Stafford's mechanics have gotten him in trouble. But sometimes I think that kind of microanalysis clouds what should be the larger observation: The Lions have a quarterback with a pretty deep repertoire of options when plays break down, as they inevitably do. The alternative is the so-called "system quarterback" who does only as he is trained and is thus confined to the scheme and its execution.

"In a lot of ways," Schwartz said, "in a lot of sports, football included, a quarterback with that kind of creativity is rewarded. The quarterback that is scrambling and throws with his left hand, everybody is like, 'Wow, what a great play.' That's not bad mechanics. He did what he had to do.

"There are have been a lot of guys where the criticism has been that they're robotic and they couldn't make the 'feel' plays. I think you need to balance both of it out. We're very comfortable with Matt's mechanics. He's a classic thrower. But game situations come and it's about making an accurate pass. That's what we're judging him on."

No matter how it gets there.