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Stafford's decline won't end here

Matthew Stafford has been the best quarterback in decades for the Detroit Lions. He also might not be the future all the same.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Like neutrons fleeing the birth of the universe, the Lions managed to implode and explode all at once on Sunday night. Those neutrons became the waves to create a new universe of possibilities. Those possibilities are takes, and the takes are the waves. The waves crashed over Matthew Stafford and life began.

Matthew Stafford's stat line from Sunday was not palatable. It offended the senses: all five of them. The only word in the English language capable of this is "moist." Nothing good comes of describing a sensation as "moist." Not even cake. Don't call my cake moist. That's disgusting. Go away. And take the cake with you, I don't want it anymore.


Adjusted yards gained per pass attempt is where you have to look and take a moment to appreciate how bad this became for Stafford. Dan Orlovsky replaced Stafford and clocked in at 4.37 AY/A during Sunday's game. Elsewhere in the league, Jameis Winston (who is a rookie and not a seven-season veteran) has yet to have a game with as low an AY/A. Nor has either McCown brother. Nor Ryan Mallett or Brian HoyerAlex Smith who cannot throw the damn ball down the field has never had a game this year with as low an AY/A as Stafford did Sunday. Nick Foles, Ryan TannehillSam Bradford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Hasselbeck. None have had a single game with 2.28 AY/A or lower this season.

The only quarterbacks I found that had a game worse was Colin Kaepernick against Arizona and Joe Flacco against Denver.

The Pro Football Focus numbers for Stafford are not any better.

Bearing in mind, once again, that Matthew Stafford is playing with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Quality receivers. He could find neither on Sunday and the fans knew that he couldn't because they were out there booing every time he dumped the ball off to Theo Riddick. He did this on four consecutive plays at one point.

A wave crashes against the rocks and there are voices. "The coaching staff is to blame."

There is blame all around after Sunday. The system in place for the offense is broken; this is not disputable. But Stafford is not absolved. There were throws made without pressure from offensive line breakdowns that baffled. That offensive line didn't make him throw those interceptions or check down ad nauseam. Nor did Joe Lombardi or Jim Caldwell or anyone else.

But this isn't just about Sunday. This is about the future. And it's clear now that the Lions and Stafford may not be walking that road together for much longer.

The waves are calling again. They're cresting against the shoreline, hissing on the sands: "Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback the Detroit Lions have had in decades."

Yes. Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback the Lions have had in decades. It is also possible he is no longer the future for the Detroit Lions. These two statements are not mutually exclusive. He may be the best the Lions have had but it is not comparable to what is elsewhere in the National Football League. To measure solely by the standard of the Lions is not taking into account the whole picture.

The hardest thing to accept is decline. It's harder to prove that this isn't just a kneejerk reaction to the Arizona Cardinals game. Let's instead look at a larger picture.

The good folks at Football Outsiders have calculated individual quarterback values with two metrics: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA). As they describe, "DYAR means a quarterback with more total value. DVOA means a quarterback with more value per play."

2009 (rookie) -36.6% -653
2010 (injured) 3.0% 91
2011 14.9% 1170
2012 12.2% 1160
2013 4.9% 690
2014 -0.7% 423

Before the Arizona game, DVOA for Stafford was -11.8%, good for #19 in the league. DYAR compiled thus far puts Stafford at #19 as well. That's good enough to be above Russell Wilson and just below Josh McCown. Again, I have not included these ratings as they stand after the Arizona Cardinals game.

That's clear decline. That cannot be argued, the intrinsic cruelty of numbers. This is not a blip but a trend.

Again: Matthew Stafford still has Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. What would this picture look like without those weapons?

Another wave crashes. "He's the franchise quarterback!"

Jay Cutler is a franchise quarterback in Chicago. The term is meaningless. It simply indicates that the franchise has decided to invest significant resources into said quarterback's development and build around him. That doesn't directly indicate that the quarterback is actually good.

In the case of Matthew Stafford, resources have been invested into his development, even though he said once he didn't need them. The concept that he doesn't need quarterback coaching takes a whole hell of a lot of gumption, considering that Petyon Manning and Tom Brady still train with quarterback coaches in the offseason. Blake Bortles looks like a completely different quarterback this season after training with one.

The hire of Jim Caldwell as head coach of the Detroit Lions was not simply to swing away from Jim Schwartz's crazed persona and instill order among a team that was deemed undisciplined. The prime directive given to Caldwell was to improve the Detroit Lions quarterback. For the purpose of this statement, one must put aside for a moment that Caldwell has failings in playcalling and hiring certain coordinators. These are irrelevant to the current topic at hand. Whatever shortcomings he has, Caldwell has proven himself in this: he kept Peyton Manning strong through what should have been declining years and took the Colts to the Super Bowl. He also won a ring with Joe Flacco, who is Joe Flacco. He can improve quarterbacks and he was hired to do so.

But this hasn't happened in Detroit.

Stafford has not improved. The decline has continued, even in the year where the Lions went to the playoffs. Some blame can be assigned to Caldwell if you are of the mind for it, but certainly not all of it can be put on Caldwell either. Removing Caldwell from the picture will probably not reverse the trend, nor will installing a new coaching staff. Stafford is not the rookie with promise anymore. Football players do not stay young. Maybe Stafford does need a quarterback coach who may or may not be Jim Caldwell; if he's unwilling to learn, there's nothing to be said there.

The next wave: "Plenty of teams would love to have Matthew Stafford at quarterback."

Push this wave back out to sea. It may be true but it's irrelevant and based upon the eternal hope of the transaction. Stafford may be "the devil you know," but the aspirations for the Detroit Lions exceed the limits of this particular occult entity in the long-term. Fans believe this team should be contending for a Super Bowl at some point, any point in time, even as that goal seems to dim each year as the talent on this team ages, declines, regresses or leaves. Stafford is not excluded from that statement. The Lions quarterback is not as good right now as Andy Dalton, and the Bengals are still waiting for that playoff win; yet fans expect Stafford to contend for a Super Bowl? Where is that coming from?

Another wave: "So what, you just want to cut him? Bench him?"

No. That's not the angle of this analysis. That said, there is still service to be gained from Matthew Stafford and he'll probably continue to give the Lions a better chance to win than Dan Orlovsky. That's good enough for the short term. Maybe he does rebound, by his own will or a coaching change or any number of possibilities. Stranger things have happened in the NFL and careers have been revived off shakier grounds. Either way, Stafford will not be a free agent until 2018. The Lions have certain opportunities to build for the future in the interim. Some of these plans require a level of preparation and long-term sight that is rare in the modern NFL.

But Stafford might not be in that future anymore. He's drifting out to sea and we're not sure if he'll be coming back.