If it is true that practice really does make perfect, as the age-old adage suggests, then the Detroit Lions are about to embark upon one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NFL history.
Last season, of course, the Lions were imperfect, ignominiously posting the NFL's first 0-16 record. But in rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, the Lions not only have a foundational, building-block player, but also one who has practiced more than any signal-caller in the league.
Or at least logged more practice snaps in the preseason than any of the other 31 starting quarterbacks.
The former University of Georgia star, named as Detroit's starter for the season opener at the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, took 111 snaps during exhibition play. That's 10 more snaps than the next-highest starter, the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco, who was the league's only other starting quarterback to reach 100 or more preseason snaps this year. The overall league leader was Tennessee Titans backup Vince Young, with 131 snaps, the second time in three years he was the leader in preseason action. Because the Titans participated in the annual Hall of Fame contest, Young played in five games, instead of the usual four.
The snap figures are unofficial, and tabulated by ESPN.com from the play-by-play documents disseminated by the home team after each game. ESPN.com has been tracking preseason snaps since 2007.
Such a gap between Stafford's 111 plays and the 44 snaps logged by Brady Quinn of the Cleveland Browns (the lowest figure by any starting quarterback who wasn't limited by injuries or a late arrival in the exhibition campaign) reflects the philosophical disparity among head coaches about how many plays a quarterback should work to be ready for the regular season.
"There's no right or wrong," said the Saints' Drew Brees, who took 65 snaps. "It's just a matter of getting comfortable, and that varies from quarterback to quarterback and from coach to coach. You don't often hear a quarterback go into the [regular] season claiming he didn't get enough [snaps in preseason]."
The figures, though, demonstrate that several starting quarterbacks get in some heavy lifting in the preseason, while others barely lift themselves off the bench.
Not counting Carson Palmer (ankle) of the Cincinnati Bengals and the St. Louis Rams' Marc Bulger (finger), both of whom sustained injuries that limited each to one preseason appearance, the average number of snaps for the 30 other starting quarterbacks was 75.4. That number has been fairly stable (between 73.0 and 76.0) for the past three preseasons. There were 18 projected starters below that figure (including Palmer and Bulger), and 14 above it.
Of course, projecting regular-season success based solely on preseason snaps is a dangerous business.
Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, for example, didn't play a single down in the Colts' four preseason games last summer as he recovered from knee surgery. That idleness, however, didn't stop Manning from winning a record-tying third most valuable player award. Players at other positions as well have enjoyed outstanding regular seasons following lengthy holdouts or injuries that limited their preseason participation.
Still, most quarterbacks would prefer to attain a comfortable quota of preseason snaps, even if the application of the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared," is a subjective one.
"You want to get as many reps on the field [within reason] as you can," said Bulger, who logged about the league average in 2007 and 2008, but took only 14 snaps this summer. Preparing for the season opener, Bulger conceded to the St. Louis-area media this week that he had "definitely lost some sleep" over his paucity of preseason work.
Said Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, who worked starter Jake Delhomme for 75 snaps in the preseason: "A guy has to get [reacclimated] to the speed of the game and get used to a pass rush buzzing around him. Different coaches have different ideas of what that takes."
It isn't surprising, though, that four of the top five starters in terms of preseason snaps include a rookie (Stafford), a second-year veteran (Flacco), a player going to a new team (Denver Broncos QB Kyle Orton) and a player coming off an injury-marred 2008 campaign (Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks). Younger starters and veterans coming off injuries typically receive more preseason playing time.
Rookies and second-year starters averaged 79.5 preseason snaps in 2009. For starters joining new franchises, the average was 86.5. For players recovering from 2008 injuries that cost them significant playing time last year, it was 80.0.
The other notable element of this year's figures is that, at least in terms of workload, Quinn and Derek Anderson posted almost the same number of snaps in their competition for the Browns' starting job. Quinn took 44 snaps, according to the unofficial survey, and Anderson logged 42.
"The definition of 'ready' really does vary from team to team," said Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak. "Guys get so many reps in camp, and you're practicing in certain game situations, so you hope it doesn't take a player very long [to get game-ready]."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.