All Matthew Stafford needed to do was avoid a mistake. If he could do that, and lead the Lions to a Week 16 win over the New York Giants, Detroit would improve to 8-7 and be in position to claim a playoff spot in the unusually weak NFC North.
But playing it safe is not in Stafford's DNA. He doesn't understand how, and has never had much interest in doing so. Blessed with a big arm, he believes he can drop the ball in any pocket or fire it through a dollhouse-sized window, despite evidence that sometimes trying to do so isn't wise. This makeup has allowed him to pass for more than 4,500 yards in each of the previous three seasons, but has also led to many hearts being shattered in the Detroit area.
Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner is among those who have wanted to reach through his screen and grab Stafford by the shoulders. "He's going to believe that there is a way he can put it in there and he disregards his reads," Warner said on NFL Network. "Sometimes you see his footwork … his footwork is all over the place. By far the most undisciplined quarterback in the National Football League."
But against the Giants, it wasn't a poor decision or poor technique that sank the Lions and ultimately ended their season. Stafford had an open target and delivered a good pass. The ball simply skipped off of Joseph Fauria's hands, and into the arms of Will Hill, who returned it for a touchdown to force overtime. New York hit a field goal in the extra period to seal the victory.
But that was one play on a December evening. If not for Stafford's poor decisions and Brett Favre-like penchant for whipping the ball into places it has no business going, the Lions wouldn't have been pinned into a corner, needing a victory against the Giants to stay alive. Detroit easily could have picked up another victory during the regular season against, say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During that game, a 24-21 loss, Stafford threw four interceptions, including a pick-six at the end of the first half on a pass that was delivered too early.
Those are the kind of mistakes that, fair or not, now define Stafford. It was classified as growing pains earlier in his career when his big arm would lead him into trouble. But those same mistakes have persisted, turning cries of "aw shucks" into shrieks of "he sucks." That reaction isn't entirely unjustified. Despite posting huge yardage totals the last three seasons, Stafford's completion percentage has dropped from 63.5 percent in 2011 to 58.5 last season. Meanwhile, his interception rate has climbed from 2.4 percent in 2011 to last year's 3.0.
So why isn't Stafford showing growth? As one scout put it: "He doesn't pay enough attention to details." This isn't a shocking statement. As many have pointed out, Stafford's has poor footwork, throws from odd angles, and has a questionable grasp on how to read defenses.
These issues, which were initially raised in scouting reports as Stafford prepared to enter the draft, could be improved if he were to put in some extra work and dedicate himself to cleaning up his game. So, after last season ended, a Detroit reporter asked Stafford if he had any plans to work with a private quarterback coach during the spring.
"I don't know," Stafford said. "Just not something I'd feel would be my style [or] beneficial to me, I guess."
It is, however, the style of many of the league's top quarterbacks.
Most people often point to Bill Belichick when discussing the people who have had the biggest hand in Tom Brady's success. But ask Brady and it's likely that one of the first names he mentions belongs to Tom Martinez.
For two decades, Brady swore by Martinez and trusted him completely with his throwing mechanics. The Patriots quarterback began working with Martinez in 1992, when he was 15, and stuck with him until Martinez suffered a heart attack and passed away in 2012.
Even after winning three Super Bowls and setting countless records, working with a private coach remains Brady's style, and it wasn't uncommon for him to summon Martinez to Foxborough when he needed another set of eyes or advice to get back on track. Martinez almost always had the answers no one else could -- or was trusted to -- provide.
One such visit came during the 2009 season when Brady was trapped in a four-game skid that saw him post passer ratings of 75.0 or lower in three contests. Martinez came to town and worked with Brady over the Christmas holiday. The quarterback responded by completing 88 percent of his passes the next week against Jacksonville.
"It's one of those things where I can see right away what he's doing," Martinez, who also once helped famed draft bust JaMarcus Russell become the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, told ESPN after the visit. "He trusts me, so when I tweak him, it's right back to where he wants to be. Then, at that point, it is probably psychological."
The relationship private coaches have with their pupils is unique. They know the mechanics of the quarterbacks better than anyone from the work they put in together during the offseason, and often spot things while watching on TV that do not look right. But they have to be careful not to overstep and reach for the phone whenever one of their guys makes a false step or is failing to follow through properly. There are times when those calls are made, and the coaches offer whatever help they can, but emergency visits like the ones Martinez used to make are rare.
"It's almost like somebody covering wild life," George Whitfield, who has worked with quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel and Ben Roethlisberger, said. "You don't want to get out of the jeep. You don't want to mess with it. Just stay in the jeep during the season. Observe from afar."
Brady, like many other quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, and Carson Palmer, now uses Tom House as his tutor. A former baseball pitcher, House spent eight years pitching in the major leagues and finished with a 3.79 ERA. After his days on the mound ended, House, one of the first baseball players to admit to using anabolic steroids, instructed other pitchers such as Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
As a pitching coach one of House's goals was always to remain on the cutting edge and to provide his players with the best technology. Over time, he also became intrigued with the mechanics of throwing a football and collected data on many of the great quarterbacks who passed through the league. With the help of technology, House is now able to attach motion sensors to a quarterback's body that detect inefficiencies that cannot be spotted by the naked eye, which includes the use of 3D renderings. He then uses this information to instruct players on how to improve.
It's a complicated process that Brady describes as "kinetic sequencing." As he puts it, this is the process of getting his power from the ground up, starting with his feet, then moving up through his legs, hips, and finally to his shoulder, so that all of his energy is moving toward his target when he releases the ball. Brady keeps in touch with House throughout the offseason, and then stays on top of his tutelage during the season by having members of New England's staff record his feet during practices as he throws.
The attention to detail never ends, and for a player like Brady, who is due to turn 37 before the start of next season, this extra work could mean the difference between remaining in the elite class of quarterbacks for another few years or having his window slam shut before he is ready to walk away from the game.
"He listens as good or better than he ever has in terms of taking coaching, working on things that we're trying to get better at," Patriots offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels said. "Again, I think that's just a great example for the rest of the guys and he's certainly shown that he's going to work on different aspects of his game to try to fix them and make them better."
Stafford's reluctance to put in extra work during the offseason with a quarterback guru was met with the expected results. Some have called him lazy. Others feel he is not dedicated enough to his craft. Those inside the game, however, are not sure that private quarterback coaches are essential to success since every team in the league has a quarterbacks coach under its employ who is tasked with helping players develop and stay on top of their games.
"I don't know, really, and I don't really care," McDaniels said when asked what a private coach does that a team cannot do in house. "I don't mean that in a negative way. What I'm really focused on is trying to work with them within our system, within our parameters, the time we have with them to try to get them better with what we do."
And that's where the value of private quarterback coaches come into play -- outside of the league-imposed parameters. Coaches are not allowed to work with players during the offseason, which means that unless they seek it out from private parties, players are not receiving on-field coaching from January until the start of organized team activities in May.
The other benefit that private coaches have over ones employed by teams is that there is no concern about the upcoming opponent. The sessions are about how the quarterback is throwing the ball and nothing else.
"We're afforded time, for one, and such a central focus on the quarterback," Whitfield said. "NFL quarterback coaches, yes, they coach the position, but they're going to coach the quarterback on many things -- mechanics, game management, playbook, and they have to account for the defense. Essentially, they're locked in like a manager and a pitcher against the opposing batting lineup each week and week out."
Whitfield has become one of the more predominate private quarterback coaches in the country, and collects around $3,000 per week to work with college quarterbacks. The amount paid by NFL quarterbacks, who typically spend a month working with Whitfield, is judged on a case-by-case basis.
So, having worked with countless quarterbacks over the last eight years, Whitfield knows what he can do for players and how he can raise their games. But even he is reluctant to say that Stafford is doing something wrong by choosing to figure things out on his own.
"Matthew Stafford is one of the most talented quarterbacks on the planet," Whitfield said. "All of my favorite quarterbacks as a kid, I don't know if any of them worked with anyone in my type of profession. I understand what we can do, what guys like myself can kind of add to somebody's game and bring to the table and what we can make them aware of or give them an extra set of eyes. I sure wouldn't say it's a mandate or a prerequisite just because people have been doing it. People have been playing and winning championships for such a long time without [private coaches]."
The difference now, though, is that no one was working with private instructors back when Joe Montana was winning championships in San Francisco. Today, the best in the world are constantly working to hone their craft and looking for any edge they can find. So while Brady was in California being hooked up to one of House's machines to locate the tiniest flaws in his delivery, Stafford was somewhere else trying to figure things out on his own.
It may not be a prerequisite to success, but it could be argued that Matthew Stafford is taking a false step. And the problem is, he doesn't have someone like Whitfield waiting in the jeep to help him through it.
[h/t Sportress of Blogitude]