Okay, so I thought I might chime in here, because I really just can’t keep my trap shut this week and overlook all the overreactions. Two straight losses, inefficiencies abounding, slow starts, sloppy play, Stafford hurt and not playing well, sky is falling, the world is ending and the Apocalypse is most certainly upon us. I just love POD after a rough loss. Certainly, there are some alarming trends and the injury to Stafford is disconcerting to say the least, but for crying out loud, where does all the sensibility go after a loss?
There is so much going on with this team, but the bottom line simply has to be this… there is an ebb and flow to an NFL season and we fans need to learn to cope with it. Wins and losses come in streaks. There are periods of consistency and inconsistency alike. At the end of the day, we lost two games to good teams by the scores of 25-19 and 23-16, respectively. Not 41-7 or 35-10. One scoring drive per game separates us from being 7-0. Essentially, that means we gave the other team a fit as well. It means it was a tough win for the opponent and a hard fought loss for us. Now sure, there are areas of concern on this team, but you have to take in all phases and look at the team objectively. And so objectively speaking, we are a tough opponent for any team despite our struggles and when we are on, we are very, very tough to beat. Fair enough? So that said, here’s my take on Stafford’s struggles as this is obviously the “hot button” issue for the fans right now….
Let’s start with what appears obvious to me, but apparently not so obvious to many... his inexperience. There’s no doubt that he has been struggling at times and especially the last two weeks, he’s simply looked off. He looks like he lost his mojo (insert Austin Powers accent here) and a lot of his confidence. More importantly, his accuracy has taken a hit because of this. It doesn’t take more than half a brain to know that these things (as well as the pocket skittishness) are all directly related. But here’s the thing… I don’t see this as a product of lack of talent or him being a below average quarterback or any of that nonsense, I see it as a product of limited experience. Say what you will, but Stafford is essentially a second year player (Sunday was his 20th game). Basically, he and Sam Bradford have about the same amount of games in, so you care to compare stats and records between the two? And some biased detractors will certainly scoff at the stats, but right now, he is a 60% passer that has thrown for 1912 yds, 16 TDs to only 4 INTs and still has a 95.5 passer rating. Granted, he hasn’t passed the eye test the last few weeks, but despite his struggles and the struggles of those around him (yeah, that’s right… he’s not the only one to blame here), he’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the league statistically and has as many wins as Brady, Brees and Roethlisburger and more wins than Sanchez, Rivers, Flacco, Schaub, Manning, Ryan, Freeman, Cutler, Kolb and yes, even more wins than the legendary Cam Newton.
He is the quarterback and with great power comes great responsibility and accountability… we all know that. They get all the blame and all the credit as well. But to blame all this on Stafford and/or think that we stand a better chance with Hill or Stanton under center is laughable. Let me state the obvious for the record here once again - Matt Stafford is 23 years old. Even with that stated, since his rookie year, he has thrown 22 TDs to 5 INTs. That’s pretty good. I think because he has had some pretty good looking stretches, we immediately lump him into the Tom Brady / Aaron Rodgers comparisons, which is horribly unfair. We as fans have to allow him learn a little bit and go through some growing pains, do we not? Is it realistic to think he is not going to struggle at all? I certainly would prefer that he be a pro bowler right away, but I think that I know that it’s possible that doesn’t happen this year.
Okay so let’s address the pocket awareness/accuracy issue (which I truly believe is one in the same). So Stafford has been noticeably uncomfortable, rushed and has had an increasing number of inaccurate passes over the last few weeks. It’s not an aberration. Ours eyes don’t lie. Stafford has been less effective, even if the stats are still somewhat good. So… what’s the deal? Yes, I attribute a lot of this is on the line, lack of rush attack, etc., but some of this is on Stafford to correct. Matt is feeling a real pass rush and a phantom pass rush right now. He’s getting hit, sacked, hurt, etc. and it’s something that he’s still learning how to manage… and doing it poorly right now. To me, the difference in his accuracy with either a solid pocket or a play that is called that effectively beats the defense is absolutely night and day. To say that Stafford is simply an “inaccurate passer” is flat out wrong. Everyone points to his college numbers or whatever, but we have seen him have entire games over 70% completion (several of those this year, btw) and we have also seen him make some jaw-dropping throws few QBs in this league can make. So what can Stafford do to correct this in the short-term? Answer… nothing.
While that may seem like a cop-out answer, it really isn’t. And you may think that I am absolving Stafford of fault here, but I am actually placing a lot of the blame on him. The problem is, how do you say “be more accurate” or “learn to not be skittish”? You can’t. He simply needs to be out there playing and learning. Each week our opponents get more tape on the Lions’ offense and it makes it harder for a young quarterback to thrive. This is why a lot of fast starts for young teams tend to taper off as the long season wears on. I think we are seeing some of that with the team and especially Stafford. So if what I said is true and Stafford just needs the experience, is that it? Does the offense just sputter until he catches up? I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think there are lots of things the offense needs to do to HELP Matt succeed while he is coming of age and it starts with the scheme.
I know that we don’t enjoy watching Best or Morris run into the back of our line and fall down for a one yard gain, but the running game has to exist in some capacity – and in a sustainable type of way over a game, not just a statistical way. If you point to the 100 yds gained in the Atlanta game and say, “See… we ran the ball well”, you didn’t actually watch the game. If you are saying that, don’t bitch about Stafford’s past few games, because statistically he was fine… he just wasn’t effective. That’s the difference. What we are seeing right now is a sheer disregard for the Lions’ run game. Teams are not blitzing us that much, knowing that they do not need their defensive line to distinguish the pass vs. the run. They are playing pass on every down and the gameplan is simply an all-out assault on Stafford and he is getting rattled… because he is young and inexperienced, not because he is a terrible quarterback. What we are also seeing is when the run game is completely ineffective, the offense begins to look a little “Martz-ian”. We see five lineman blocking, little to no chipping and no one left to pick up the blitz. Downfield routes can’t open up and the checkdowns seems to be RBs in the flats (that are well sniffed out) or screens that are becoming all too predictable.
I’m not here with all the answers. I’m actually here to say that the answer is mind-bogglingly difficult and Schwartz and Linehan have a real test on their hands. I’ll just offer up a few suggestions because I think if you’re just bitching without trying to offer up solutions, you’re just part of the problem. So….. first, they have to manufacture a meaningful run game. That might mean changing things up and bringing in a lead blocker more often. Second, let’s see more hot reads that predict that the ends are coming fast and how about getting a damn tight end to chip those ends once in a while as well. Third, light a fire under every receiver not named Pettigrew or Johnson. Where the hell did Burleson and Young disappear to? I know this is part of the learning curve, but these guys are getting a lot of single coverage and not performing well. This is putting a lot of pressure on Stafford to scramble, which is not his strong suit. I think Burleson needs to start coming across the middle more and Young needs to be slanting/posting to the inside more - play to their strengths right now. Both are much better the further they get from the sidelines. Fourth, get back to throwing it to Calvin regardless of coverage. Linehan and Stafford are out-thinking themselves in the redzone. That used to be our bread and butter, now we are just trying to get cute too often. Stop it. Lastly, fans chill out. We are 5-2 and if anyone would have had a crystal ball before the season and told the rest of POD we would be 5-2, we would all have been very happy about that. The sky is not falling. Judgment Day is not here. The Apocalypse is not upon us.