Quarterbacks know how it goes. When they win, they get most of the credit. When they lose, they’re the ones to blame. There’s no nuance.
Sitting at 4–3, it’s only fair the majority of the credit for the Lions’ start goes to Matthew Stafford. His game-winning drive against Washington on Sunday, sealed with a 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, was emblematic of a season in which he has moved into the top-tier of quarterbacks.
But this hasn’t just been a seven-week run. Going back to Week 10 of last year, Stafford has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of any quarterback in the league (34 TDs, 6 INTs) at +28. And if you extended that back to Week 7 of 2015, he is second in the league in completion percentage.
The rise of Stafford is tied to two things: Jim Bob Cooter becoming the Lions offensive coordinator and the retirement of Calvin Johnson.
Let’s start with the second one. There isn’t some kind of Bill Simmons “Ewing Theory” thing tied to Johnson. But the fact remains Stafford all too often was locking in on the future Hall of Famer rather than spreading the ball around.
That’s partly on Stafford, but it’s mostly on previous coordinators. And none of it was the fault of Johnson.
Previous offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi tried to simplify the offense for Stafford. He split the field in half by isolating Johnson on one side of the formation. With Johnson on one side, and every receiver on the opposite, the defense would be forced to show its hand before the snap. If they were doubling Johnson, there were 1-on-1 opportunities on the other side of the field. If a defense left Johnson 1-on-1, or the Lions had the perfect coverage beater called, it would be an easy throw to one of the league’s top receivers.
That style of offense made Stafford predetermine throws and decisions. And it stripped the offense of innovation and pre-snap movement.
When it works, it’s incredibly effective. It’s a style Drew Brees and the Saints perfected when they had Jimmy Graham – Lombardi coached in New Orleans before Detroit. But at its worst, the offense bogs down and the quarterback ends up holding onto the ball as he waits for the isolated receiver to come open.
At the end of the Lombardi tenure, Stafford looked as bad as he ever has since he entering the league: unsure, tentative, and subject to leaks that questioned his mental abilities. There were even reports his future in Detroit was in doubt.
When Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to take over the offense in October of last year, everything changed.
The Lions moved to more spread sets that were balanced. And Stafford was given more responsibility at the line of scrimmage to handle protections and get to any play he wanted in the playbook. The immediate results were impressive, and the Lions made Cooter the permanent coordinator at the end of the 2015 season.
That success has carried into this year, with Stafford going from strength to strength.
Through seven weeks, he has played as well as any other quarterback in the NFL, leading the league in the “making others around him better” category.
Outside of Stafford, the Lions have often looked flawed.
Their top three running backs have gone down with injuries, leading to the 21st ranked rushing offense by DVOA. That, in turn, has led to a non-existent play-action game. Per Football Outsiders, the Lions rank 31st in play-action effectiveness (5.3 yards per play action play) and have the largest discrepancy between plays in which they use play-action and plays in which they don’t (negative 2.2 yards per play).
Detroit’s defense hasn’t been much better. It entered Week 7 ranked 32nd in total defensive DVOA, ranking 31st against the pass and 26th against the run. Moreover, the defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 74 percent of their passes this season, the most by any defense in the league. Even in the three-point win against Washington on Sunday, Detroit was outgained by 73 yards and 7 first downs.
Yet here the Lions sit, with a 4–3 record and a real shot at making a wildcard run, most of it due to Stafford. Can anyone say MVP?
The Washington game highlighted his key areas of improvement: operating at the line of scrimmage, making precise throws and limiting mistakes.
In a game decided by three points, the Redskins fumbled in the red zone, while Stafford and the Lions were turnover-less.
The former No. 1 overall pick used to have the reputation as a “gunslinger”, a novel phrase people use to describe a guy who is “willing to throw into tight windows” but often just means “makes a ton of dumb throws.” This year, Stafford has become more conservative. That may be more boring for the fans, but it’s better for the Lions.
This second down sack toward the end of the second quarter of the Washington game is a perfect example. Right tackle Riley Reiff is crushed by Washington edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan. The pressure comes directly in Stafford’s face. In previous years, he would have made the throw under fire. Instead, he wraps up, takes the sack and doesn’t force the ball into tight coverage.
Rather than living the “gunslinger” lifestyle, Stafford took a page out of the Peyton Manning playbook, absorbing a sack instead of forcing a throw and living to fight another play.
But it’s not like Detroit is just dinking-and-dunking teams to death. Stafford was 5th in the NFL in adjusted yards per attempt (8.2) entering Week 7, continuing to challenge defenses down the field, but doing a better job of picking the right spots.
As Cooter and Stafford have continued to work together, Cooter has given the quarterback more responsibility.
The Lions run as many empty formations as any team in the league. While some of that is due to the loss of their top running backs, the same was true even when both Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick were healthy. When the offense is in empty sets, the quarterback is essentially responsible for “blocking” any blitzing defender by getting the ball out quickly. Those empty formations take trust from the play caller: trust in the quarterback to diagnose quickly, trust in them to correctly identify the blitz and trust in them to make the right decision, when the defense knows a pass is coming.
Cooter has shown all kinds of trust in Stafford. They routinely jump into a no-huddle attack that lets Stafford operate the offense: picking concepts and setting protections. With versatile offensive weapons (particularly when Riddick is healthy), and an average offensive line, they’re able to keep the defense in the same personnel groups and exploit favorable matchups for explosive plays, without Stafford needing to take deep dropbacks.
That exposure to the no-huddle is probably why Stafford looked so comfortable on Sunday, as he carved up the Redskins on a 6-play, 75-yard, game-winning touchdown drive – one that lasted all of 49 seconds. It was a drive in which he targeted four different receivers, found three, scrambled for a 14-yard pickup and finished it with a throw on a rope to Boldin in the end zone.
Cooter has found a way to harness all of Stafford’s natural talent: his mobility, pocket awareness, and rare arm talent, and build it into a spread-timing offense that demands he distributes the ball to different playmakers, including using screen passes and shovel passes as a replacement for the run game.
The Lions passing offense has carried the team to its 4–3 record. Stafford has carried that passing attack, putting the franchise on his back, as much, if not more, than any of the league’s top-tier quarterbacks.
It’s taken eight seasons, but Stafford is now joining the ranks of the elite.