Stafford Braces for NFL Draft

ATHENS - Matthew Stafford knows just what he wants next Saturday.

"Hopefully it will be quick," he said with a smile when asked about the NFL Draft.

That may just be the case. Stafford, the former Georgia quarterback who is listed by almost everyone as the projected number one overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, has been the subject of countless talking heads since he announced that he was leaving Georgia to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. Is he worthy of the top overall pick? Some think yes; a few say no.

In this wide-ranging one-on-one interview, Stafford talks about the NFL Draft, stereotypes of a strong-armed quarterback, what he learned during his time at Georgia and why he likes to show NFL teams what he's got on the chalkboard.

A quick day Saturday would mean that Stafford would have been picked by the Detroit Lions as the number one overall pick, which is something the Dallas native has not been shying away from.

"I am a competitive guy; I don't think the Lions are that far off," he said. "Yeah, it would be a heck of a challenge to be able to go in there and make something special happen."

The signal caller said that his enthusiasm about being drafted by the Lions should not be construed as anything other than genuine.

"I hope they don't (view my wanting to be the top pick) as arrogant. That's not what I am trying to portray when I say that I want to go there," he said.

Stafford compared his trip to the Motor City to that of his recruiting trips to Athens, where he eventually signed to play football for Georgia.

"I went to Detroit for a visit, and it was great," he said. "One of the main reasons I came to Georgia was that I enjoyed the entire coaching staff and the people. You have to think about it - I made the decision thinking that I was going to play where I went... hopefully, if I played well and stayed healthy. Am I going to enjoy coming to work every day? I really liked quarterbacks coach (Mike) Bobo. I really liked Coach Richt. I really liked (Georgia athletics director) Damon (Evans). That's the way I feel about Detroit. I really like Coach Schwartz - it really feels like it clicks. We have the same sense of humor. We know when to be serious. It felt good. I don't know if it felt good to him, but it felt good to me. That's a big, big part of it, I think."

Stafford knows, too, that the Lions are eager to get a deal done with whomever they pick in the first spot. He expects the franchise to sign a deal with their first pick before draft day.

"If I could, I would agree to terms beforehand, but that's only going to be a number one pick," Stafford said. "Obviously, if you are picked somewhere else you don't know where guys are going to go in front of you. If I end up going number one, hopefully, that will be worked on in the coming weeks. Whoever Detroit picks, I know that they have been verbal about trying to get it done."

The Matthew Stafford-to-Detroit plot has even more intrigue considering the made-for-Hollywood Bobby Layne curse of the Lions (which, like most curses, may or may not be historically accurate). Layne, after all, said it would take 50 years for the Lions to win again. The woeful Lions put up a 0-16 season in 2008 – the final year of the alleged curse.

Year 51 might be a little different – at least it is supposed to be. The Hollywood script says that Stafford, who went to the same high school as Layne (Highland Park in Dallas, TX), will come in and save the Lions – even Stafford has a hard time buying that one.

"It's really, really weird. Just the chances of that... 50 years on the dot? I could not have come up with something like that," he said.

Maybe Stafford knows a little better than to believe in curses. He knows strange things can happen in and around an NFL Draft.

"You just never know. The NFL is so crazy," he said.

No better example came for Stafford than when former Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, a player to whom Stafford has been compared by some, was traded by the Broncos to the Bears.

Stafford said he'd heard the talk, but that he wasn't certain he could believe it.

"I never thought that Cutler thing was going to get to where it got. I thought it was just on the up and up for him to stay. Then when he started trade talks I really thought Washington. I didn't really think Chicago; maybe I should have," he said.

In the middle of the drama, the 21-year old started thinking about his situation, and how the entire mess could affect him.

"I didn't think (Denver) could (trade for the) number one pick. I was thinking Denver could trade Cutler (to Detroit) for a 20 and then a first rounder next year. That would mean that the Lions would go left tackle for sure this year - no question then," he said.

Stafford seemed to already be getting used to the speculative nature of the NFL. In the end, however, the Lions didn't get involved in a trade, but it was a good way for Stafford to see just how crazy, and how fast the entire thing could go. In a sense it showed just how out of control Stafford really is in the entire draft process. By all accounts he had an outstanding day of throwing in Athens at Georgia's annual Pro Day. He followed that up with a reportedly impressive showing in a closed workout for the Lions in Athens a few days later. Even after all of that, when it looked like he was on the way to the top pick, Stafford could have been sent down the draft because of an out-of-the-blue off-season trade.

But it didn't happen.

"I was in the airport and someone shot me a text - Cutler to Bears," Stafford said. Suddenly the entire thing was over.

"I've got an ear to the wall trying to find out everything I can," he said.

That does not mean you can control things in the secretive NFL, however.

The former Georgia star met with San Francisco earlier this month, and reports of the meeting became fodder for the media. After a psychologist hired by San Francisco couldn't get him to expand on his feelings on his parents' divorce, something Stafford admitted he knew very little about, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary told KNBR, a radio station in the Bay Area, "if you're going to look at drafting a guy in the first round, and you're going to pay him millions of dollars, and asking him about a divorce about his parents, if that's going to be an issue, uhhh, then you know what, maybe he doesn't belong here."

"I think the thing with San Francisco got blown out of proportion," Stafford said dismissively. "It was nothing really, and I think it took on a life of its own."

Maybe Stafford is correct. After all the 49ers had him back for another meeting earlier this week. So much for him "not belonging" in San Francisco.

"You think about all the things that go along with the NFL. As much as I would like to just think about playing football - there is a lot more than just football that goes into it," he said.

Stafford says he wants all of the craziness behind him. In a perfect world, he would already be signed and getting ready for the 2009 season.

"It is all about football to me," Stafford said when asked specifically about signing a contract instead of staying out of mini camps and OTAs. "I love this game, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to get playing time and be great. I think the first step in that process is getting into camp. It is like graduating early to make sure that I could get into college in the spring - to give myself a chance. I feel the same way about getting myself into camp."

Dispelling The Stereotype

After Matthew Stafford threw the ball 80 yards, he realized he had something other folks didn't.

"My freshman year in high school I knew I had a strong arm," he said. "I didn't know how strong. I didn't know that it was that much better than anyone else's, but I threw it 80 yards my junior season in practice, and that seemed pretty long. Then people started writing about it - saying that I had a strong arm... that's when you sort of figure it out."

With the strong arm always comes the traditional criticism of it. Stafford knows what people say about him. His critics, like the critics of most strong-armed signal callers, think Stafford relies too much on his arm – trying to fit a ball into a spot where it is not supposed to go.

"People think that I am a strong-armed guy, so I don't have to read the defense," he said with a smile. "I just make it fit, and that I will squeeze it in somewhere."

That's why Stafford is perhaps most proud of his work away from the media limelight. Every reputable outlet across the country was at Georgia's Pro Day to see the performance Stafford put on. But no one has been with him as he travels across the country to meet with teams and "get up on the board".

"I love dispelling the strong-armed quarterback stereotype when I am with the NFL teams. I get up on the board. I love getting up on the board and showing folks how much I know about this game. I, obviously, don't know everything. I feel like, however, that I have a great knowledge of the game," he said.

That's where his time playing at Georgia in the rough-and-tumble SEC comes in. Stafford says the time in Athens was critical to his development at quarterback. He said his development accelerated because of injuries on Georgia's offensive line.

"I had football knowledge coming into Georgia, but Coach Bobo really drilled it into me," Stafford said. "He put more, and more, and more on me, which I wanted. He knew that I could handle it. Think about it, we played with three or four freshmen offensive lineman in 2008 – I was making calls for everything to help those guys out. Even that made me grow up faster football-wise. That's why I love to get up on the board and show what I am talking about. I know our offense; obviously, I don't know everyone's offense."

But he is on the way to learning everyone's. The New York Jets, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle and others have met with Stafford and given him parts of their offensive scheme. He explains how the entire thing works:

"Detroit taught me the basics of their offense," he said. "They told me what they call defenses, and what you see in the NFL - the personnel packages. Then I also learned Seattle's basics and some of Jacksonville's, too. When I met with the Lions recently they asked me if I remembered anything. I asked them what they wanted to know – I feel like I know football like that. I was spitting it all right back at them, which was fun for me."

Perhaps Stafford is trying to dispel the notion of the big-armed quarterbacks by himself. He says that the giant arm, which has positioned him to be the first person on stage on Draft Day, is only one small part of the quarterbacking process.

"People say I have the strongest arm in the draft… well, cool - that does not make me a great quarterback," he said. "Being able to think and make decisions - that matters. Sure, there are probably three or four plays a game where I can make a throw other people can't make, or something like that where it really counts. Other than that it is about playing the game."

The way Stafford sees it, his brain is the top weapon he has to fight the opposition. He loves checking out of a bad play, and into one that is more suitable for the look the defense is giving him. Blitzes? He loves them – the more the better.

"I love it when you know that you've got them. There are all sorts of times when they bring blitz, and I check run. For example, when (former Georgia running back and current Falcon) Thomas Brown busted a long one against Ole Miss – go and watch the film," he said emphatically. "I checked lead backside. As I handed it off, and he got through the line, I raised my arms. That was a check. Knowshon's touchdown run against Kentucky this year – same thing. No one touched him - he just pranced in for a touchdown. That was a check, too. That is a different sort of fun because you are outsmarting someone. Don't get me wrong, making a play to win the game against Kentucky this year - that was fun, too."

Stafford is thinking about the worst-case scenario when he is in the huddle and approaches the line. If he can check into something better, or find a tell in the way a player lines up then he is going to exploit that.

"You think pre-snap. What kind of defense are they in? That defensive end – his right foot is back instead of his left foot... that means he's going to go zone fire cover three. You know that anytime you get a three by one that you are going to get a shade, and that it's coming – sink it. In the SEC you just know these things. You have to know… as you are calling the play in the huddle you are thinking: 'What can I get that could screw this play up? What is going to make me get out of this play?' When I see it when I come up to the line, I get out of it."

That arm, yeah, that thing that's got everyone buzzing, it gets used, too.

"Once the ball is snapped, it is all reaction and feel," he said when asked to describe the game-winning drive and play against Kentucky last fall. "I think I broke one or two tackles. My right shoe was off the whole end of the play - it was halfway on. I remember gripping my toes to keep it on for the last couple of steps before I flicked the ball to A.J. Green. That was a fun play."

The drive was one of several clutch performances by the prospect. Stafford led Georgia to comeback wins five times in three years. Four of those five times came against ranked foes. Also, he ended his career 11-4 against ranked teams.

Who Knows What the Future Holds

Stafford will not hide his feelings for his hometown Cowboys. Like most kids who grew up in the Dallas area, Stafford grew up a Cowboys fan. He's even gotten a chance to meet and play golf with legendary Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. Even meeting Aikman and current Dallas quarterback Tony Romo for dinner one night has not taken away the heartache, if you want to call it that, for Stafford in watching his boyhood team struggle since he was a pre-teen.

"It has been a little bit tough to watch them struggle. I mean they have not won a playoff game since the late 1990s," he said.

And yes, Stafford said he would love, in theory, to play for the Cowboys one day, and that it is a natural thing for him to want to do.

"I would love, at some point in my career, maybe if the stars fall in line some day, anything like that would be cool," he said. "That was my team growing up, so I think that's natural. I think getting the chance to play in that stadium would be sweet. I saw it when I flew over it when I was coming into town, and it is a beast."

But playing for the Cowboys is not the one thing Stafford covets when discussing accomplishing career goals in the NFL – Super Bowl rings are.

"One thing? I want Super Bowls - yeah. I think if you win Super Bowls the Hall of Fame and stuff like that comes along with it," he said with a laugh.

Matthew Stafford has always been on the fast track. From leaving high school a semester early to enroll at Georgia to leaving Athens one year early to try his luck at the NFL – Stafford has always been getting ready for this day and the experience that comes after it.

"I have always been on the fast track. I was playing baseball with guys four years older than me. I never wanted to stay in my age division. I always wanted to move up; move up; move up. I feel like it was all to get to this goal," he said.

Soon enough Stafford will get his chance – he hopes it takes less than 15 minutes to find out where that chance will come from.


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