Matthew Stafford and the Second-Year Jump

This blog post by Kevin Seifert over at ESPN takes a closer look at Matthew Stafford's rookie struggles and what he's trying to do to fix things in his second year. Seifert makes an excellent point: Learning when to throw it away instead of trying to make the impossible play is a very important lesson for a young quarterback.

Seifert notes that a lot of Stafford's interceptions came on third down with 5+ yards to go. In fact, it was nine of 20. But Seifert doesn't compare this rate to the NFL average, so I figured I would look myself. Is it so strange to throw nearly half your picks on third-and-long?

As it turns out, it is an abnormal rate. Stafford threw 45 percent of his picks on third-and-5 or more. As a group, all NFL quarterbacks threw only 26 percent of picks on third-and-5 or more. If we include fourth down as well, still 5+ yards to go, that figure becomes 29 percent.

Seifert also points out that Stafford seemed to throw a lot of his picks "during desperation mode in the fourth quarter." Now, I don't know if they all came during desperation mode, really. Three of his fourth-quarter picks came with the Lions down by less than a touchdown (two against Seattle in Week 9, one against Cleveland in Week 11). That's not desperation mode. Nonetheless, it is true that Stafford threw seven picks, 35 percent of his interceptions, during the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter. As a group, NFL quarterbacks threw only 15 percent of picks during the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter. Perhaps Stafford really can improve his turnover totals simply by not pressing so much.

It's interesting that Seifert says that Stafford's analytical approach to the game is one of the reasons that Jim Schwartz likes him so much. Who knows, perhaps he has read Football Outsiders. If he knows what we've written about him, he knows that he has to play above replacement level this year lest he be consigned to history's scrap heap of draft busts. But he also knows that we're pulling for him. It's no secret that I'm friends with some of the Detroit coaches; separate from that, I'm sure I'm not the only non-Detroit Lions fan who wouldn't mind seeing the Detroit Lions fanbase happy one of these years. Go ahead and prove our projections wrong, Matt, we won't mind.


31 comments, Last at 27 Aug 2010, 1:37pm

#1 by Bobman // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:06am

Without looking at the data and at the risk of alienating my blue horseshoe fellows, that sounds a lot like my memory of Peyton Manning's first couple years.

I know his 1st season was really a tale of two halves, with a significant majority of the INTs (and few TDs) coming in the first 8-10 games or so, but I seem to remember that it was pressing to get the comebacks, or make up for the porous D that he threw his picks early-on. Dungy really helped calm that down so a typical year went from about 18 to about 10 INTs.

So that aspect sure is coachable. Not sure if everybody goes through that but it's logical that they would.

Points: 0

#2 by Mozzarella (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:39am

Further, with the worst defense in the league, the Lions were always coming from behind. If the defense can improve, then Stafford won't always find himself having to play catchup and feeling as if he has to do too much to win. Then again, is the defense improved? That remains to be seen, but they sure did spruce up the defensive line (Suh, KVB, Corey Williams).

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#6 by Thomas_beardown // Aug 25, 2010 - 5:15am

I was going to post something like this.

Rather than worrying about Stafford throwing picks when down late (that's when you're supposed to take chances, right?). Simply limit the number of times he has to throw the ball when down late.

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#27 by Thomas_beardown // Aug 27, 2010 - 12:45am

Yeah, I know. I really said it backwards.

What I meant was, coaches shouldn't worry about their QBs throwing risky passes in high risk situations. Instead they should be focused on reducing the number of high risk situations.

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#3 by socctty // Aug 25, 2010 - 1:38am

I'd venture to say that you should not look at how many INTs were in the final 8 minutes, but what percentage of passes in the final 8 minutes were INTs.

That is, were 35% of his passes in the final 8 minutes of the game? I doubt that many were, but I would expect that more than 12% of his attempts took place in that time frame, and as a result, the evidence of him "pressing" wouldn't seem so apparent.

The Lions sucked, and were often down late in games, so they passed a lot. They may have started their games with more balanced game plans but as they surely got behind and found themselves running out of time, they started passing.

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#5 by Jerry // Aug 25, 2010 - 2:45am

To take what you're saying a step further, the interesting percentages aren't the ones that make up the pie chart of his total interceptions (if he threw more than normal on third and long, he must have thrown fewer than normal on, say, second and short), but his interception rate at a percentage of attempts in different situations. It's not hard to imagine that the Lions were in third and long more often than most teams.

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#4 by PaulH (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 1:50am

"If he knows what we've written about him, he knows that he has to play above replacement level this year lest he be consigned to history's scrap heap of draft busts."

Um, what? So if the guy doesn't play above replacement level on one of the worst teams in football in his second year as a pro he suddenly becomes a draft bust?

That sounds like some of the dumb talk radio comments you guys usually deride here at FO.

Points: 0

#12 by t.d. // Aug 25, 2010 - 10:23am

Limited by the time they've examined this stuff. I remember abysmal comparisons made for Eli Manning after a bad rookie year, and they're making big, negative extrapolations for Mark Sanchez. I'd wait to call him a bust til, you know, there's actual evidence that he's a bust

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#19 by Mr Shush // Aug 25, 2010 - 2:06pm

Remember that replacement level is really not very high. Recent examples of quarterbacks playing at roughly replacement level include:

QB (Season, Team, Year in League, Age)

Daunte Culpepper (2009, Lions, 11th, 32)
Seneca Wallace (2009, Seahawks, 5th, 29)
Gus Frerotte (2008, Vikings, 15th, 37)
Brian Griese (2008, Bucs, 11th, 33)
Derek Anderson (2008, Browns, 3rd, 25)
J.P. Losman (2007, Bills, 4th, 26)
Kyle Boller (2007, Ravens, 5th, 26)
Damon Huard (2007, Chiefs, 10th, 34)
A.J. Feeley (2007, Eagles, 7th, 30)

I remember what a reasonable amount of that looked like. That is not a high standard of play. If I'd gone back a bit further, I'd have found a really dispiriting example - David Carr on the 2003 Texans. In recent years, quarterbacks who were going to be good - even ones who you think of as struggling early in their careers, like Drew Brees - were significantly above replacement level in their second year. On the other hand, their teams were by and large pretty decent - though in many cases that may be largely because the quarterback play was so good (think 1999 Colts). Going further back, we obviously no longer have advanced stats, but eyeballing conventional ones it seems fair to say that Phil Simms pretty much sucked in his second year, as did Jim Plunkett, and that Steve Young and Terry Bradshaw weren't great either.

Even so, if Stafford is bad this year (and remember that "replacement level" really is pretty bad) I think it's definitely a significant negative indicator. As it happens, I don't think he will be - not really bad, just not terribly good. Last season didn't really change my opinion on Stafford, which is that there's almost no chance he'll be a great quarterback, but a fair likelihood that he'll be a reasonably good if somewhat erratic one, probably a bit like Kerry Collins, but conceivably about as good as Eli Manning or Drew Bledsoe. That's his upside, but I don't hate his chances of reaching it.

Points: 0

#23 by PaulH (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 7:14pm

Obviously it would be a big negative sign, but that's a long way from making him a bust. Given the shortcomings of the Lions' roster, his development was always going to be a long-term deal.

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#7 by Raiderjoe // Aug 25, 2010 - 6:52am

M. Staffrod going to be good,

porjecitons for 2010: 314 of 533 passes, 3880 yards ,, 22 touchdowns,15 intercpptiosn

Loins 6-10

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#15 by Neoplatonist B… (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:05pm

Wow. Chargers fans and Raiders fans in agreement. Sorry, Tebow. You're not the Chosen One after all.

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#10 by Jimmy // Aug 25, 2010 - 10:08am

When the Bears traded for Cutler I went onto and sifted his conventional stats to see how he had ended up throwing 18 picks the year before. He had in fact performed similarly to how Stafford's numbers look - ie. he threw way more INTs when down by more than eight (two scores) and had elite conventional stats when not way behind. Cutler was also playing with a defense ranked amongst the league's worst (historically so IIRC) and his offense had the worst starting field position in the league. So when he arrived in Chicago, possessors of the 7th ranked defense and the league's best starting field position on offense, I expected big things. FOA expected big things. We were both disappointed.

I have no idea how this will translate to Stafford and the Lions but I thought Cutler was going to make this step last year.

Points: 0

#16 by Neoplatonist B… (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:13pm

Stafford > Cutler. Cutler is a talented snotbag; those guys guarantee that their team will be all over the place and settle up at average. Stafford probably isn't good enough to carry his team ... yet. But when he gets there, he won't blow it like JC will, over and over.

I still think they will end up mired in the 4th place. But I'm not at all confident in that.
NFCNx2, AFCE, NFCS, Giants, Seahawks. I think the Bears can win 2, 1, 2 and 1.
NFCNx2, AFCE, NFCS, Redskins, Rams. I think the Lions can win 2, 1, 1 and 2.
So I think it'll go well into tiebreakers. SOV would go to the Bears, because the Giants, Redskins and Seahawks will all be mediocre while the Rams will stink.

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#17 by Jimmy // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:35pm

Oh my mistake I ahould have looked up Cutler's snotbag ratings.

In other news if you are going to categorically state that one QB is better than another (especially on this site) you better have a very good reason why you declare it to be the guy who has never put up elite conventional and advanced stats over the guy who has.

Schedule analysis also works better if you don't make elementary mistakes like getting the schedules wrong. The NFC North plays the NFC East next year.

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#20 by jimbohead // Aug 25, 2010 - 2:16pm

Stafford has great moxie, and an incredible will to win. Don't you remember his win over the Browns? Plus, his toughness, leadership, and swagger clearly put him ahead of Cutler.

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#11 by dbostedo // Aug 25, 2010 - 10:19am

Has anyone looked at how/whether the quality of a team's defense correlates to the QB's stats?

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#14 by Beavis // Aug 25, 2010 - 11:28am

Does any of this mean anything ? So, the avg. NFL QB throws either 5 or 6 out of every 20 INT's in a 3rd or 4th and 5+ Yards to Go situation. Stafford threw 9 out of 20. 45% vs 26% sounds like a lot, but there is no way based on just 20 Stafford INT's it is even close to significant.

Maybe Stafford simply ends up in more 3rd and 4th and long situations that the avg. NFL QB ? What about looking at the % of passes attempted that were intercepted in those situations, rather than the absolute number of INT's which will be skewed by the number of opportunities.

Same goes for the INT's in the last 8 minutes of the 4th quarter. I bet Stafford threw a lot more than the avg. NFL QB as the avg. QB is winning the game roughly half the time and trying to run out the clock, whereas Stafford was not.

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#18 by ASmitty (not verified) // Aug 25, 2010 - 12:58pm

As a matter of fact, Stafford led the league in pass attempts per game, which is both understandable and somewhat ludicrous at the same time. Stafford was put in an impossible situation: 0-16 team, historically awful defense, bad and injury bitten offensive line, only one competent pass catcher, etc. Stafford's numbers weren't pretty last year, but he didn't LOOK like a bust to me, and I could see the room for plausible improvement.

This preseason, small sample size though it may be, Stafford has looked really, really sharp. No doubt a function of an extra year of experience, a better line, defense, running game, and receiver corps.

With the exception of a stud number one receiver, Stafford didn't have ANY of the things that help a QB succeed last year. I expect a nice sized jump this year.

Points: 0

#25 by Pollins // Aug 26, 2010 - 1:22am

As a Lions Fan just old enough to remember watching our last NFL championship game on TV (yes, I'm *that* old), let me say thank you for wishing us well. We're still at least a few years away, but I have not been so hopeful since we kept coming up just *this* short against Lombardi's Packers in the '60s.

If the Lions would just come back into serious contention, America will be amazed at how much Detroit loves football. Still hope to witness that in this lifetime ... even better, in Billy Ford's lifetime!

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#29 by Fontes of Wayne // Aug 27, 2010 - 10:33am

That old? It was 1992. There are undergrads who might vaguely remember that game (though I know I'd have repressed childhood trauma like that).
Now, if you want to talk about the Billy Sims years, then I'll accept you're old.

EDIT: Or, if you want to talk about playing the Pack in the '60s. The NBA was right, reading is FUNdamental.

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#26 by zlionsfan // Aug 26, 2010 - 10:13pm

The entire season was desperation mode. The team was coming off an 0-16 season, Stafford was handed the keys to a beat-up Ford Escort and asked to drive it to a win at Daytona, and his top WR, top RB, and top TE were injured for various parts of the season.

Having said that, the line will still be shaky, both RBs have a history of injury problems (unless Smith can't come back at all), depth at both WR and TE is very questionable, so it wouldn't take much to create the same situation this year.

I would ask for some of whatever Kool-Aid it is that Raiderjoe is drinking, but I know it's not Kool-Aid. I gave up the other stuff years ago. (Coincidentally, the Lions haven't made the playoffs since.)

Points: 0

#28 by Soulless Merch… // Aug 27, 2010 - 9:26am

The Lions have never recovered from the loss of the greatest quarterback in franchise history, perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport: George Plimpton.

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