Lions QB Matthew Stafford's mechanics just need to be tweaked, experts say
9:14 AM, April 4, 2014
By Carlos Monarrez
OK, Detroit. Take a deep breath.
What you’re about to read may shock you, may disturb you, may force you to question everything you ever thought you knew about football, life, death and possibly the existence of a higher power.
But here it is: There is nothing wrong with the sidearm throwing motion of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Tom House is a former major league pitcher who has become one of the country’s foremost experts in throwing mechanics. He has worked with elite NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and has no problem with Stafford’s sidearm mechanics.
“There’ll be a time when he has to be a more traditional guy,” House said. “But right now I can’t tell the fans not to be frustrated with sidearm. It’s unconventional, but his mechanics throwing sidearm are just as good as his mechanics are throwing over the top.”
Stafford and the Lions have defended the almost zany way he delivers the ball sidearm, claiming situations and tight windows sometimes require them.
“It just happens,” Stafford said in 2011, when he began throwing sidearm regularly. “I don’t know what it is. Sometimes you see a lane, you see something.”
Steve Clarkson, an acclaimed quarterbacks coach, agrees that Stafford has to throw sidearm in some situations.
“I think he’s 1,000% correct,” said Clarkson, who has worked with Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Foles, Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater. “And here’s why: In the league it’s great to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw the ball and have my arm at 90 degrees all the time.’ But in a game, that rarely happens that a quarterback can drop back and step into a throw. Probably 40% of the time, he has to do some sort of improvisation just to get the ball off.”
Terry Copacia, a former coach at Utica Ford High who mentored Ohio State great Craig Krenzel, runs his All-State Quarterback School in Waterford and has worked with more than 10,000 young quarterbacks over 34 years. Copacia used to be against sidearm throws until he saw San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers use the delivery so efficiently in college. Rivers’ sidearm success has tempered Copacia’s view of Stafford’s sidearm throws.
“So to say his sidearm is all wrong, I don’t know that that’s proper either,” Copacia said. “But I think there’s a few tweaks that could be suggested to him. I’ll put it that way.”
What all three experts do see as a common problem for Stafford is his footwork and how it sometimes leads to less-than-ideal throwing positions.
“I think the biggest thing is, I think, sometimes his feet get him into trouble,” Clarkson said. “I think that his foot placement sometimes, whether it’s not having his back foot at 90 degrees, sometimes it’s under duress, but it doesn’t necessarily allow him to get his hip around to the ball.
“Sometimes he needs to pan before he wants it to, so he’d have the ball sail on him. That’s a mechanical flaw that can be fixed.”
Footwork is the basis for a quarterback’s throwing motion, but Stafford has developed a way to compensate for not having ideal footwork.
“If you just asked him to be a pure passer, he could probably repeat as well as anybody,” House said. “But what he is, is he’s a creative athlete, and there will come a time where he has to be a little bit more efficient with his footwork.
“But right now he’s young and strong and can make up for it with functional strength what he’s not doing right mechanically.”
Copacia said Stafford has developed his ability to make the unnatural natural.
“When it comes to release points, he’s throwing off balance a lot,” Copacia said. “It’s natural for him to throw off balance. He’s probably one of the best off-balance throwers in the NFL because he does it often. And yet, by the same token, I don’t know of a coach that would probably say, ‘Boy, we really love the fact that you’re off balance when you throw.’
“Most of us who coach quarterbacks stress balance and trying to maintain the weight on your back foot, ready to throw now. And — probably from a lot of the pressure he’s experienced, because when you’re in passing situations it’s a lot tougher — he has had a tendency of bailing out to throw rather than stepping up to find a window.”
House lives in California, but he has seen plenty of Stafford. His wife, Marie (nee Maison), grew up in St. Clair Shores and much of her family lives in the Grosse Pointes. That means there’s a lot of Lions football on House’s TV in the fall. What House has discerned about Stafford is an analogous connection to his own sport of expertise.
“I kind of think if most quarterbacks are pitchers, he’s a quarterback that’s a shortstop,” said House, unaware that Stafford played shortstop on the same high school baseball team with Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. “And he throws at any angle at any time at any direction, which is probably harder on his receivers than it should or could be. But mechanically, he passes all our parameters for a really efficient thrower.”
Those mechanics, however, did not translate into statistical efficiency for Stafford last year, when his dip in accuracy raised a lot of eyebrows. His 58.5% completion rate and 19 interceptions were his worst since his rookie year.
“I think the biggest issue for him is how he processes information,” Clarkson said. “I think his issues are more decision-making than they are physical.”
To fix that, Clarkson said, Stafford needs to figure out if his mechanics jibe with where he’s trying to throw the ball.
“Basically, what I would do is I would sit down with him and we would go over all his cutups,” Clarkson said. “Basically, he would tell me what he sees and then I would really be able to see what his mechanics are saying based on what he sees.
“So he’s telling me he sees this, but I see his mechanics are not in tune with the ability to make the throws in a timely manner, then that’s probably where you would come into play.”
When it comes to accuracy, Copacia also suggested two things that work hand-in-hand and would greatly help Stafford. But they would require a major shift in philosophy. Copacia’s first suggestion is to limit deep passes.
“One of the things, of course, is he’s got a cannon for an arm. And the Lions use the cannon,” Copacia said. “An inordinate amount of throws are beyond that intermediate zone. They’re throwing the deep ball probably pretty often.
“It’s all fine, except if you’re not completing them at a higher percentage, you’re stuck with that second-and-long and third-and-long often.”
And those deep, hard throws, Copacia said, make it tougher for Stafford to control his mechanics.
“I would work a lot more at throwing with more touch,” he said. “Guys that traditionally throw really, really hard — and I think we could classify him as that — they have arm whip that’s beyond what most of us can teach. It’s just an uncanny whip. You can hear the wind. That’s how hard they throw.
“The trouble with that is you don’t always turn your thumb over. So if that thumb stays up, the ball will sail.”
Clarkson, Copacia and House are trained to identify the smallest imperfections among athletes. All repeatedly stressed their belief that Stafford’s mechanics are largely sound.
“We’re at a point now,” Copacia said, “where the tweaks that he would have to make, they’d have to be very, very calculated and minor because no one’s interested in ruining the Cadillac. We just want to buff it up a little bit, you know what I’m saying?”
As the Lions prepare to start off-season workouts next week, the question is how much of a tune-up will Stafford get? And how long will it take?
“Sometimes you can’t make the conventional throw,” Clarkson said. “But you have to have enough of a foundation that you can make throws that not everyone else can make. And because of his arm strength, he can make those throws.
“So I would tell anybody in Detroit that thinks that this guy isn’t somebody that they should be patient with, that I think that they need to give him a little bit of time. But I do understand that time is running out. I think even Matthew will tell you that.”
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org
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