Stafford Strives for Perfection

ATHENS – Matthew Stafford has a goal in mind for this season. He wants to be perfect.

It's not even that he just wants to be perfect. He actually expects it.

He wants to take every snap perfectly. His footwork should be precise. He should hit every receiver in mid-stride, setting up a perfect situation to add more yards after the catch.

It's a lofty standard for a player who has completed fewer than 55 percent of his career passes, but this isn't the same Matthew Stafford. This year, Georgia's junior quarterback is a new man.

"I feel like I'm practicing a whole lot better than I did last year," Stafford said. "It's just another year of experience. I feel good, I feel confident."

He feels pressure, too. Georgia is the consensus preseason favorite to win a national championship. With so much of the success of the Bulldogs' offense riding on Stafford's broad shoulders, it's impossible to ignore the spotlight pointed directly upon him.

More than that, however, Stafford knows just how hard it is to win in the SEC. His freshman year was a trial by fire. His sophomore year was spent behind an offensive line with minimal experience. He has thrown 23 career touchdowns, and every one required precision. Anything less is not enough.

"He's really gotten to the point now where if he misses one, he's just sick," head coach Mark Richt said. "He knows how hard it is to protect, get it just right, and when you get him open, to hit. And he's missed a couple, but not many."

In Georgia's final scrimmage last week, Stafford worked with the first team offense, running third-and-long plays and a four-minute offense. He didn't exactly run it to perfection, but after completing 10 of 11 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns, he came awfully close.

"He's putting it in places," tight end Tripp Chandler said, "I don't know how he gets the ball in there."

Degree of difficulty, however, has never been the issue for Stafford. The 6-foot-3 Texan with an arm that's as much Nolan Ryan as it is Troy Aikman has shown a penchant for the unbelievable. It's the little things that have often proved problematic for Stafford.

During his freshman season, when he was trading playing time with Joe Tereshinski and current backup Joe Cox, Stafford's passes often zipped through receivers' hands – his fastball coming in with a bit more heat than the pass-catchers expected.

He could make some nifty plays with his legs, too. He racked up five rushing touchdowns his first two seasons at Georgia, including an 83-yard rushing performance against Auburn his freshman year. But his footwork in the pocket wasn't always exact.

But with experience comes knowledge, and Stafford is now armed with more than just a major-league fastball.

"I think his knowledge of the offense is really unbelievable as far as how much he can process and read and analyze defenses. He knows his stuff in and out," fullback Shaun Chapas said. "And of course, he's got that cannon."

Stafford is in better shape, too. Actually, he said he's in the best shape of his life. His line is more experienced, he has a Heisman candidate at running back, and he knows his offense inside and out. It all adds up to a level of expectation that only can be satisfied by perfection.

During Stafford's senior season in high school, he threw 38 touchdowns, led his Highland Park team to a state title and earned raves from scouts. At practice that year, if he missed a pass to one of his receivers, it was a catastrophe. It ate him up. He knew he could do better.

During preseason camp this year, he has found himself doing the same thing. That, he said, is a good sign of things to come.

"I'm pretty hard on myself," Stafford said. "I definitely want to be perfect or as close to perfect as I can out there on the field. It's good though, that's a good sign because that's kind of how I was in high school where, senior year, I was feeling so confident about everything that when I'd miss a pass, I was like, ‘What are you doing?' "

That expectation of perfection has a nice side effect, too. In the huddle, Stafford's intensity is infectious. If he demands so much of himself, the least the other 10 players can do is live up to that standard.

"Matt's always been a guy you can look to for leadership," Chandler said, "but he's really taken over this team."

After all, it is his team. The immense preseason expectations, the national-title hopes, navigating that daunting schedule – a lot rides on his arm.

Of course, as Stafford has come to realize over the past two years, finding success is less about that rocket arm and more about what happens between his ears. And this year, he knows he'll be ready to both out-gun and out-think opposing defenses.

"I feel really confident," Stafford said. "I feel like I've been here for a long time, so it's good."

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