ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford went to California and for the first time let someone other than his father or one of the coaches tinker with his game. He downplayed what Tom House and Adam Dedeaux did with him at 3DQB in California, but the objective was obvious.
He wanted to home in on small things in order to become a better quarterback, a process he called “all-encompassing” with what he does on the field and away from it. And he believes it helped.
“It is the first time for me, ever, since John Stafford taught me how to throw a football,” Stafford said last month. “But yeah, when you’re preparing, competing really against yourself to be as good as you can possibly be, why not give it everything you’ve got?
“Find different people with different ideas, maybe, that can help you out. Just thought it was an opportunity and went for it and enjoyed it.”
Some of what Stafford worked on in California came from a list he and Lions quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan devised when they met at the start of spring workouts. Each man came in with a list of things he noticed needed improvement last season.
If there were seven things on each list, Stafford and Callahan agreed on five of them, all of them small -- the minute differences only people who played the game or studied it extensively for years will notice. But for Stafford, who has made significant progress the past three seasons, they could be the difference between a passer who completes 65 percent of his throws and one who completes 69 percent of them.
“We’re talking body positioning, foot positioning, really, really specific stuff that I think very few people would notice just watching,” Callahan said. “I noticed it. He notices it. And it’s things that have helped him be more efficient overall.”
Callahan and Stafford dissected where he put the ball on a throw to a receiver and how a 6-inch difference in ball placement could be the difference between a 6-yard gain and a 15-yard gain. Those 6 inches can make it an easier catch for the receiver so he can grab it in stride, or it can become a tighter catch instead of a contested one close to a defensive back’s fingers. They looked at some of Stafford's throws where his chest wasn’t opening up enough as he threw to his left. If he tweaked his motion a small amount, it allowed more openness and provided more velocity.
House and Dedeaux did not return messages to explain what they did with Stafford, but their website describes what they work on as strength training, mechanics and motion analysis, and mental management.
When someone looks at Stafford now, the QB won’t look much different. He’s still the player who increased his accuracy under Jim Caldwell and Jim Bob Cooter and has taken steps toward becoming a top-10 quarterback. But he is a different quarterback in the tiniest of ways. Some of the more difficult throws now look smoother to the coaches. But all of the small changes had one goal in mind.
“It was, 'What can we do that we can control that can make him 5 percent more accurate over the course of a season?'” Callahan said. “That was probably the overall goal of the work. How can we get this much better at the position, throwing the ball, all that stuff, throwing to the exact location we needed to be, so instead of maybe when he comes out of a game, instead of being maybe 65 or 66 percent, we’re 69 or 70 or 71?
“That’s the ultimate goal of that stuff: Make him more efficient," he said. "If we’re just that much better, it’s a credit to him for seeking out that help and putting in the kind of work he put in this offseason.”
What does 5 percent during a season look like? Realistically, it could be two more completions in a game. That -- like the positioning work -- sounds small. But if those come on third downs, they extend drives. If they come in the fourth quarter, they could close out games. And over a season, if Stafford becomes 4 to 5 percent more accurate, the difference will show.
Last season, Stafford was 10th in the NFL with a 65.3 completion percentage. If he had improved by 4 percent to 69.3 percent, that would have put him at No. 4 in the league behind Sam Bradford (71.6 percent), Drew Brees (70 percent) and his friend Matt Ryan (69.9 percent), whom he spoke with before going for quarterback tutoring.
“That’s the difference in this league between winning and losing is three or four passes a game. If we can maybe, and we ended up hitting a handful of them last year, there’s no doubt,” Callahan said. “But there’s also a lot of throws I think, if you go back and watch, when we went back and watched them all, we agreed, ‘Man, this could have been a big one. This could have added this many more yards to this drive’ or whatever it may be.
“There’s a million examples that I think he really, he kind of took it all to heart and made the conscious decision he was going to do everything he could to get better as a whole quarterback, from command to where his feet are placed. I think that commitment is really going to pay off for him.”
Callahan said he has seen a difference in practice. In his second year in the offense, Stafford appears -- in practice, anyway -- more comfortable with all of it.
Stafford seems ready to lead the Lions to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons and, potentially, win a playoff game for the first time. That’s part of why he went to California. The goal is pretty simple.
“I think he’s a top quarterback in this league,” Callahan said. “And for a top quarterback in this league, there are throws that are hard for a lot of people, but those type of guys make them.
“Kind of the challenge is be one step better than you were a year ago.”