Ever since Matthew Stafford injured his middle finger on his throwing hand, the play of the Detroit Lions quarterback has been under a microscope. What glove is he wearing this week? Why is he fidgeting with it so much? Is he going to be able to throw in the rain?
Obviously, the situation calls for a deep scrutiny. Matthew Stafford was on his way to an MVP run before the injury hit, and since then, it seems like his game has dropped off significantly. Not only are the Lions losing crucial games, but Stafford’s statistics have fallen off the map. Stafford no longer ranks in the top 10 in passer rating and yards per attempt, and just barely made it at No. 10 in completion percentage.
When you look at the split between pre and post-injury, the effects of the injury look pretty clear:
Stafford pre-finger injury: 67.2% complete, 21 TD, 5 INT, Lions 8-4— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 2, 2017
Stafford post-finger injury: 60.2% complete, 3 TD, 5 INT, Lions 1-3
But ask Matthew Stafford, and he’ll tell you he’s completely fine. On Tuesday he was asked when and how the injury affects him, and he bluntly replied, “I don’t think it does, honestly.” He quickly backtracked a little, saying, “Obviously, I had to make some changes, but nothing drastic.”
Reporters were justifiably puzzled with that answer, asking if Stafford could explain the drop in play. Maybe certain throws, like downfield shots, are a bit harder with the glove on. Stafford isn’t buying it. “I don’t feel like any certain throws are easier or harder than others,” Stafford said.
Is it possible that Stafford is telling the truth? That in 12 games prior to the injury, Stafford threw just as many interceptions as he did in the three and a half games after the injury and that’s just a coincidence?
I believe Stafford is being honest, and here’s why:
When people point to evidence of Stafford’s dropped play, they mostly point to statistics, like Michael David Smith’s tweet above. However, using 15 quarters of play as your entire sample size is a dangerous game to play. With not even four games of data to play with, you are tossing out a lot of important mitigating factors that could be affecting the results.
For example, the Lions have played a few tough defenses over the past few weeks. The Giants may be defending the pass better than anyone right now, while the Packers and Cowboys have a pretty solid pass rush.
Additionally, going off of these statistics ignore injury issues elsewhere along the offense. Stafford has been without his starting center, Travis Swanson, and his favorite checkdown option, Theo Riddick, over that exact same four-game stretch. Those two factors alone could explain the dip in production.
Touchdown decrease is misleading
Matthew Stafford only has three passing touchdowns in the past four games, and one of those was a meaningless Hail Mary. Truly this is a sign of something bigger, right? No, not really. Because what the stat doesn’t tell you is how many rushing touchdown the Lions have had over that stretch. Over the past four games, the Lions have had five rushing touchdowns. That may not seem like much, but in the prior 12 games they had only four.
So just because the Lions offensive drives are ending in a different way, doesn’t mean anything about Stafford’s productivity. Admittedly, the Lions’ overall scoring is down over this past four game stretch (17.0 PPG compared to season average of 21.6), but the difference is not as drastic as Stafford’s touchdown total suggests.
Interceptions numbers don’t tell the entire story
Stafford has thrown at least one interception in each of his last four games, but let’s look at little closer at each one. His first against the Bears was a tipped ball that probably should have been a touchdown to Golden Tate. Two other interceptions were with the Lions trailing late and Stafford had to try and force balls into small windows. When the game is on the line like that, you have to take chances. A lot of times, it just doesn’t work out. He threw a very similar interception in the Titans game, this is nothing new.
The other two interceptions were a pick-six against the Bears and a wild throw against the Cowboys. Both were poor decisions from Stafford, but could also have been caused by the finger injury. The pick-six was an out-route that didn’t quite have the zip on it, while the Cowboys interception was a well underthrown ball on the run. Still, though, you can’t make any definitive argument there.
Just look at the tape
If you were to watch the Lions-Packers game without any knowledge of a finger injury, Matthew Stafford would have looked like his normal self. He is still firing the ball with a ton of velocity into tight windows. He laid two perfect deep shots for big gains on Sunday night. Overall, Stafford is still unafraid to make any throws and by all accounts, he’s still fully capable of making any.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. NFL analyst Greg Cosell, who has probably watched more film than all of the people reading this article combined, broke down Stafford’s play from Sunday and concluded “Stafford’s finger is not an issue at all“ and “He threw the ball very, very well on Sunday.”
As fans of an endlessly complicated game, we’re constantly searching for simple answers. But if you’re looking for a simple answer to Stafford’s decline in play, a finger injury isn’t going to cut it alone.