Matthew Stafford: The Gunslinger Myth

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What kind of quarterback is Matthew Stafford? I know the first thing most people would say: Gunslinger. In casual conversations, that would be the end of it because the larger perception is that he’s made a career throwing bombs to one of the best receivers of this generation. To be fair, both of these things used to be true. However, is that still the case?

Stafford the Gunslinger: The Evolution

We’ll throw out the injury years and start at 2011, his true “gunslinger” days. He came out of college with an incredible arm and arrived on a team showcasing a dominant receiver that could find the ball in any situation. They really were a great pairing and in his first healthy year, we got to see who this guy could be in an offense that loved to go deep. Calvin was at the top of his game and all Stafford had to do was put it in reach with a flick of his wrist from sixty yards away. He also had the benefit of receiver depth in Burleson and Young when Calvin was drawing quadruple coverage. Of course, one of them lost their mind and the other really didn’t want to eat pizza off the floor of his Suburban. The latter is forgivable and I just feel really bad for the former.

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The problem the next couple of years was obvious. Calvin was really Stafford’s only reliable target. It showed in his record breaking 1,964 yards in what was a lost year for the team. Kris “did you know he was Matthew Stafford’s college roommate?” Durham was meant to be his number two option and Joique “I already work here anyway” Bell was his leading rusher. I love Joique but that’s not a recipe for success. His “tunnel vision” that critics often point to was a result of having nothing else around him. So the to those that said all he does is throw to Calvin, well, yeah, what the hell else did you want him to do?

I’m not absolving Matty of any blame though. He was so confident that he could get the ball to the one guy he trusted that ended up trying to will it into his hands as opposed to throwing it away and trying again. The result: 20 TDs/17 picks in 2012, and 2013 wasn’t much different. Maybe it was time to stop shooting from the hip so much and start to evolve the way he played. All the raw tools were there. He’s always had excellent ball placement skills, a cannon attached to his shoulder and the ability to make throws from the strangest angles. You know…gunslinger stuff.

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Sometime during 2013, Stafford said something along the lines of not needing a quarterback coach. This came off as stubborn and, ultimately, dead wrong. Enter Jim Caldwell.  He was hired with the idea that he would “fix” Matthew Stafford. Now, whether you attribute Stafford’s evolution to Jim Bob Cooter or Jim Caldwell, the fact is that something is working. Since their arrival, Stafford’s decision making and overall mechanics have vastly improved. Does he still sidearm it? Hell yeah he does but he’s much better at figuring out when to utilize that particular asset and someone got him to realize that he isn’t actually a wizard and might have to take the safer option from time to time. “Matthew, we know you love the big guy but we got you some new friends that might actually be open too!” – Jim Caldwell or Jim Bob Cooter (Probably).

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Now, while Lombardi himself was awful, some of his offensive game plan actually worked for Stafford. While Linnehan and Co. asked him to throw 15+ yards 30 times a game, the current staff is using his arm talent in a different way. Quick throws into small windows with more than enough heat to get by better defenders with an occasional deep ball sprinkled in. I’m not comparing him to the following names so save your vitriol but that’s the type of game attributed to guys like Rivers, Brady and Brees; names that you wouldn’t apply the term gunslinger to unless you never watched football. Tactician is the more suitable term. Pair that new philosophy with guys like Tate and Riddick who can actually hang onto the lasers coming their way and you get a more effective quarterback than the Stat Padford of previous years.

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Matthew Stafford in the Current Regime

What’s really exciting is that one of his biggest strengths from his old gunslinger days is making things happen on the fly. Watching the offense in 2014 was only fun when they were down by five with a couple minutes on the clock. Out went the playbook and Matty went to work. I’m not sure if Cooter just trusts him more than any other coach he’s had or if Stafford has just turned a corner in the staff’s eyes but all reports are pointing to the fact that this is his offense as much as it is Cooter’s. The Lions are expected to use the no huddle offense that we’ve seen him excel at much more often this year. Instead of being stuck in a package with two plays at the line, he’ll be trusted to make a read and call what he likes for more than the last two minutes of a game.

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So, here’s the deal. Stafford is not a gunslinger, and he isn’t a tactician on the same level as Brady or Rivers. He isn’t a mobile quarterback like Wilson or Mariota. He’s a weird hybrid of all those types. He can still drill it sixty yards but now he’ll check it down or throw it away if the play isn’t there. He’s shown that he’s smart enough to be trusted with making major adjustments at the line. He’s even become athletic enough to take off or run a QB Draw to score in the red zone. I guess he can be summed up as one type of quarterback…our quarterback.

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About the Author

Kyle Miller
Kyle is a native Michigander who grew up Downriver until the ripe age of 12. In late 1999 he ended up in San Diego and has remained there since. His interest in the NFL had dwindled since he was younger but as his love of the sport was being rekindled, the Lions were in the middle of posting a 0-16 record. Deciding his team needed support now more than ever, he dove head first back in and hasn’t looked back. Since the Lions have had some success in that brief stint of time, Kyle is often able to look at the bright side of things with hope for the future.