Few players have a cloud of doubt on them as thick as Matthew Stafford's. Where did these clouds come from? Some have chalked it up to the standard over-analysis during the overly long NFL Draft period that lasts from the end of the college football season to the third week in April. This kind of over-analysis led many teams and "experts" to prefer Ryan Leaf to Tennessee's Peyton Manning. However, we think that there is more afoot than just that dynamic.
It starts with the fact that Stafford has already lost one critical expectation game, and football fans in Swampland country are wondering if the same will happen when he reaches the NFL. First round signal callers seem to bust out at more than a 50% rate making it easy for many to put Stafford into that infamous category.
So what expectation game did Stafford lose? The SEC expectation game.
Whether fair or not, Georgia was picked as 2008's odds on favorites to be the SEC's seemingly annual participant in the BCS Championship. Instead, the Bulldogs lost decisively to the SEC's two finalists - Alabama in Athens and Florida in Jax - as well as falling at home to Georgia Tech for the first time since 2000.
The Dogs only lost three, but each of those losses stung like the dickens leaving Georgia fans with a bad taste in their mouth and most SEC fans wondering what all the early season hype was about. When you are the face on this season of failed expectations, a bad feeling will linger.
It wasn't just that Georgia started the seasons at #1. Stafford also started the season as the odds on #1 pick before the 2008 season started. Read this piece by Pete Prisco written immediately after last year's NFL Draft where he states the following:
[Stafford] is the prototype, a strong-armed, pocket-passer who plays with a swagger. He enters his junior season having started 19 games in his first two seasons. In 2007, he threw 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, a big improvement over the seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions from his freshman season.
Stafford did put up better numbers just as Prisco predicted. Take a quick look at his career stats:
Year Comp Att Yards Pct. TDs Int Rating
2006 135 256 1,749 52.7 7 13 109.0
2007 194 348 2,523 55.7 19 10 128.9
2008 235 382 3,459 61.5 25 10 153.9
Looking at numbers only, Stafford has lived up to the measure of a first round talent, but still...
Ultimately, this is a multi-million dollar question for the Detroit Lions and possibly other teams at the top of the NFL Draft. Many college football fans in Tribal Fever land can't separate Stafford's apparent failures at Georgia from his chances to shine as an NFL QB. Fair or not, there is a clear right of passage that SEC QBs are expected to complete over their time in America's toughest conference to be seen as "can't miss."
For every Jason Campbell who overcame early career disappointments at Auburn to lead them to a 13-0 campaign as a senior, there is a Brodie Croyle whose injury-prone reputation has followed him from his Alabama high school career to the Crimson Tide to the Kansas City Chiefs.
After Croyle suffered another season ending injury as KC's starter in 2008, his third season ender going back to high school, the Chiefs traded for Matt Cassel. Unlike Croyle's starting QB pedigree, Cassel was a QB who never took a college snap at USC before shining as the Patriots QB last season in the wake of Tom Brady's knee injury.
Most football fans don't expect Croyle to ever emerge as an NFL starter again while Cassel was high on many team's lists once New England made it know he was available. Here we have the difference between the NFL and college. Hometown rep only takes a player so far.
Stafford has a ton of talent and does have three years of starting experience, but that also brings up the rocky issue of top signal callers leaving early. When you look at recent history, elite QBs who skipped their senior year like Kentucky’s Tim Couch, LSU’s JaMarcus Russell, and Texas’ Vince Young have struggled at the next level. Comparing those top picks to the Manning brothers or Philip Rivers, who all stayed four years, the difference is mammoth.
To sum up the down south doubters:
A. Stafford never delivered Georgia an SEC title as expected
B. Stafford didn't bother to hang around for his senior season to see if he could
Many in SEC country will hold these two things against him despite all of his illustrious numbers.
So is he Tim Couch or Peyton Manning? Neither of those players fully lived up to their early college career hype. Both were drafted as franchise saviors. Couch flamed out quickly while Manning has set an NFL standard for consistent excellence.
No matter where Stafford goes, he will likely be an expected franchise savior. With his record mixed by SEC standards of greatness (conference title wins, rivalry wins, national titles), football fans from the Swampland Footprint seem as confused as the teams that have the opportunity to select him.
(One thing's for sure - if the Lions select Stafford, he will be taking on the biggest historical challenge in the NFL. The Lions haven't had a great QB since Bobby Layne in the 1950's. The also have only won one playoff game since that era.)
USC's Mark Sanchez with Matthew Stafford (holding ball) - the expected top QBs in the 2009 Draft