There’s been awful footwork, the inability to improvise, and inaccuracy. And it’s all come from a quarterback who a year ago at this time had thrown 16 touchdowns on his way to 41. Now he’s stuck at five.

It’s coming from a quarterback who averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt last year, a number that’s since dropped by a full yard. It’s coming from a quarterback who had a passer rating of 97.2 a year ago, a number that’s since dropped to 78.4, and he’s only been above 80.0 in a game once.

Thy name is Matthew Stafford, and you know it well.

The Lions quarterback has been one of the most perplexing, brow-furrowing players at his position so far this season, and although he hasn’t quite reached the angst-inducing heights of Michael Vick, he’s not far behind. It’s difficult to judge when the pinnacle of the Stafford frustration came, although as a Stafford owner, it was last night for me. That’s because although the Bears defense is sort of alright and expectations were already lowered, the amount of missed opportunities on deep passes was particularly alarming, with an overthrown ball to Titus Young in the second quarter about 20 yards down the middle of the field still replaying in the mind’s eye.

Sure, nit-picking is easy, and it keeps me employed. But those are the passes that Stafford nailed routinely last year, and through six games in 2012 he’s not stretching the field deep nearly as often, leading to a potentially significant tumble in a key category. Last year Stafford was tied for sixth with 64 passes of 20 yards or more, a clip of four per game that also led to his 16 passes for 40 yards or more, making him one of only two quarterbacks to have more than 15 in that category. With 17 passes for +20 yards this year, he’s on pace for a far more meager 44.

The absence of that chunk yardage is troubling, even if it hasn’t affected Stafford’s overall yardage yet when compared to his pace last year through six games (1,729 last year, 1,754 this year). We’re only dealing with overall stats and peripherals too, which gloss over Stafford’s first half ineptitude. Last night, for example, the first half featured few down-field looks, and 10 completions on 16 attempts for only 43 yards. That came a week after Stafford completed nine of his 20 attempts in the first half against the Eagles for 94 yards.

Largely, Stafford in 2012 has been a series of mistakes sometimes masked by moments of the 2011 Stafford reappearing. But as Rotoworld’s Patrick Daugherty notes, there’s reason for Stafford owners to slow that breathing pace to at least a steady sigh.

A stretch like this was hard to see coming because Stafford was so magnificent in 2011, but perhaps it should have been expected. Stafford’s mechanical flaws have been hard to swallow, but so have his receiver’s drops and the Lions’ schedule. Of Detroit’s first six opponents, five will finish Week 7 in the top-11 in total defense. Three are in the top 10 in sacks.

Being talented in the NFL isn’t supposed to be easy, which is why the tough schedule excuse is often greeted with the appropriate level of scoff. But consider the path that’s contributed to Stafford’s demise.

  • St. Louis in Week 1, and their new decepticon cornerback tandem of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins
  • The 49ers in Week 2, and the best secondary in the NFL that’s allowing only 173.4 passing yards per game.
  • The Vikings in Week 3, and their 22 sacks (currently tied for third).
  • The Eagles in Week 6, and their 6.2 yards allowed per pass attempt (currently tied for third).
  • The Bears, um, last night, and their 228 passing yards allowed per game (currently second).

Worse yet, the trying times will continue this week with Seattle ahead, and then another date with Minnesota, two against Green Bay (at least one of which will be played without Charles Woodson), with Houston’s defense that excels at bringing hurt also on deck, along with the Cardinals and their Patrick Peterson awesomeness.

For the 2011 Stafford model who was cruising to 5,038 yards at this point, the schedule would have been irrelevant. Now? Not so much.