In the wake of three-year $53 million extension Matthew Stafford signed with the Lions earlier this month, questions arose regarding the fifth-year quarterback's long term trajectory. Specifically, is Stafford's individual success merely the result of Detroit's overreliance on the passing game, or can he play economically while producing at a high volume?
While Stafford is now the sixth highest paid signal caller by average salary, one would be hard pressed to argue he was one of the NFL's ten best quarterbacks in 2012. In a league suddenly flush with quality passers, throwing for 10,005 yards over two seasons no longer holds the same cache it would have a decade ago. In today's NFL, QBs are judged on efficiency, not quantity.
And unfortunately for Stafford, while his 2012 stat line exhibited considerable volume in many respects, his efficiency metrics were down across the board. In no particular order, Stafford's touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown to interception ratio fell well below his career averages. More troubling still, each of those figures came in below the league averages.
Matthew Stafford vs. League Average
To further complicate matters, Stafford's volume output regressed in several key areas. Despite attempting exactly four more passes per game than a year earlier, he finished with less than half the amount of touchdowns. At the same time, Stafford threw an almost identical number of interceptions. Finally, as hinted at by his yards per attempt figure, Stafford passed for fewer yards. Not exactly optimal for a player the Lions invested $53 million in.
However, Stafford's regression last season would not have been as significant if not for the dominance he displayed in 2011. That year, Stafford not only set personal highs in a litany of categories, but also led the Lions to their first playoff berth this millennium.
Matthew Stafford's 2011 Statistics
Stafford's greatness in 2011 went largely unnoticed due to the sheer volume of incredible accomplishments by quarterbacks that year. Stafford was one of three players to reach the 5,000 yard mark, nearly joining the other two in breaking Dan Marino's single-season yardage record. Additionally, Stafford's 6.2 touchdown percentage was only bettered by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Had it not been for Brees and Rodgers historical achievements, Stafford likely would have received MVP votes.
So which player is the real Stafford: the dazzling playmaker from 2011 or the ineffective chucker of last year?
Because Stafford was injured or inactive most of this first two years in the league, only his 2011 and 2012 seasons provide any meaningful insight into the type of player Stafford will be going forward. That essentially makes his projection a coin flip scenario. The Lions didn't feature a vastly different roster on offense in 2012 than they were a year earlier.
The areas where Stafford regressed most in 2012 - the aforementioned touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown to interception ratio - paint the image of a player trying to force passes rather than taking what the defense gives him. A look at Calvin Johnson's record breaking season corroborates this supposition. In order for the Lions and Stafford to make strides in 2013, Johnson cannot monopolize the offensive focus the way he did a year ago.
To their credit, Detroit has spent the offseason improving the talent around Stafford and Johnson. Running back Reggie Bush was signed to replace Jahvid Best as the team's multi-purpose backfield weapon. When lined up as a wideout, Bush may become the Lions' second best receiver. Detroit could also benefit from a return to form for fifth-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew. After back to back 700 yard campaigns, the Oklahoma State product's output dipped in 2012 as he endured several nagging injuries. Now healthy, Pettigrew could join Bush in shouldering more of the receiving load.
The Lions also prioritized improving their line play this offseason. In the draft, Detroit added massive right guard Larry Warford. Warford joins tackles Riley Reiff and Corey Hilliard as new starters from a year ago. While youth along the offensive line often forecasts problems in pass protection, this group should still be an improvement over the one that gave up the 11th most hits on the quarterback last year.
With better offensive weapons and protection, Stafford is unlikely to force passes to Johnson 200+ times again this season. Stafford plays best when he has three or more receivers hauling in 700+ yards. That's difficult to accomplish when one receiver is targeted as often as Johnson in 2012. If those targets drift back to their 2011 levels, not only should Pettigrew, Bush, and the other Detroit receivers undertake larger roles in the offense, but a return to more efficient play from Stafford should follow.
While he's unlikely to repeat his 2011 production anytime soon, Stafford's efficiency metrics should recover significantly this season. Stafford's talent suggests he's closer to his 6.2 touchdown percentage from two years ago than his 2.8 figure from last season. With a 4.3% career average, a fair estimate for 2013 probably falls around 5.0%. Similarly, Stafford hasn't finished with an interception percentage worse than 2.4% since his rookie year. Given that Stafford's interception percentage was nearly identical the last two years, that 2.4% figure will likely hold this year. As for yards per attempt, the presence of Bush and a healthy Pettigrew imply more short passes are in order for 2013. That means last year's 6.8 figure is probably about where Stafford will be this season.
The Lions are once again positioned to finish among the league leaders in pass attempts. Using Stafford's projected efficiency metrics and an estimate of 695 pass attempts (halfway between Stafford's 2011 and 2012 totals), that places the quarterback around 4,725 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Such a performance for Stafford will go a long way towards validating not only his new contract, but also his status as a franchise quarterback.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn