In his first year with the Detroit Lions, Golden Tate put up numbers fit for a No. 1 receiver: 99 catches, 1331 yards and four touchdowns. When Calvin Johnson was sidelined with an injury, Tate stepped up and literally assumed No. 1 duties; he did so with ease. The Lions looked like they had a free agency steal, signing the 26-year-old for the modest fee of about $6 million per year for the next five seasons.
Two years later, Tate is now fifth on the team in receiving yards through four weeks and is getting benched in favor of Andre Roberts, a player who hasn’t caught more than 50 yards in a game since December 2014. How did we get here? Where did all of this production go? Has Tate given up? There are a lot of questions to be had right now, and not a lot of answers.
First, let’s try to figure out what happened on Sunday. Tate was held to just one catch for a single yard, but did add a late two point conversion, which doesn’t actually count for any official stats. More noteworthy, however, was that the Lions came out in the second half with Andre Roberts as the other outside receiver opposite Marvin Jones. At the end of the first half, Tate missed a call from Matthew Stafford and ran the wrong route. The error resulted in an easy interception for the Chicago Bears and took at least three points off the board for the Lions. After the game, Tate shouldered the blame for the mistake. “It was just a silly mistake on my part,” Tate said. “I’ll own up to that. I missed a signal and it cost us three points.”
Given the timing of the benching, it sure seems like this was at least partially motivated by the error committed by Tate. However, head coach Jim Caldwell would not admit that. Instead, he claimed that the plan was always to get Andre Roberts more involved in the game. “We gave Andre an opportunity that Andre obviously deserves,” Caldwell said in his post-game presser. “It was our plan beforehand, but [Tate] came back in.”
Now, while I appreciate Caldwell’s protection of Tate, I don’t really buy this excuse. If he truly believed Roberts deserved more playing time, the answer shouldn’t be taking Tate off the field, but rather going four or five wide. Take the extra tight end off the field, or go empty backfield, but don’t take Tate, who has been a cornerstone for this offense for the past two year, off the field.
Tate, for what it’s worth, backed up Caldwell’s statement. “They just wanted to give Andre an opportunity,” Tate said in the locker room after the game. “They’ve been saying all week that they were going to get him in more.”
That still doesn’t make sense. Something else is going on here.
It doesn’t appear to be effort, though. Tate is a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and sometimes people view that as someone who is emotionally unstable and occasionally allows mood swings to affect their game. I went back and watched every one of Tate’s snaps from Sunday and Tate was shockingly calm the entire game. He did not throw his arms up in anger, nor did het seem frustrated at any point in the game—other than when he was held and did not receive a flag. He wasn’t walking back to the huddle with his head down. And it didn’t seem like he was dispassionate, either. Tate ran his routes throughout the entire game with conviction and effort. If you’re looking for a psychological issue for Tate’s lack of production, you won’t find it on the Bears tape.
So what is it, then? Well, one place to start is with Jim Bob Cooter’s new offense. Take a look at Tate’s numbers before Jim Bob Cooter took over and after:
Pre Jim Bob Cooter (average per game): 8.9 targets, 5.8 receptions, 71.7 yards (12.4 YPC), 0.2 touchdowns
Post Jim Bob Cooter: 7.2 targets, 5.4 receptions, 45.4 yards (8.4 YPC), 0.4 touchdowns
Tate is seeing a full 1.7 fewer targets per game with Cooter as the offensive coordinator. Even though his receptions per game numbers are very similar under both coordinators, the huge swing is in yards per catch. Tate is averaging four yards less every single time he touches the ball on offense.
On the surface, it doesn’t appear Cooter is using Tate any differently. We’re still seeing a lot of quick passes that require Tate to make the first guy miss and pick up some YAC. But those plays have been increasingly ineffective as of late. Whether teams have simply adjusted to it, Tate has lost a step or the Lions are simply less effective in running this play with Jim Bob at the helm is open to interpretation, but clearly this is a major problem.
If the Lions offense wants to get back on track, they need to find a way to get Tate more involved in the game. He either needs to assume a new role or the Lions need to get his bread-and-butter plays working again. This is a guy who has shown to be extremely valuable, and that kind of thing doesn’t just disappear overnight. You don’t just bench that in favor for Andre Roberts.