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Madden NFL simulation: If only Matthew Stafford had a running game...

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The Lions have yet to provide Matthew Stafford with a ground game, but Madden NFL 17 let’s us bring a formidable rushing attack to Detroit.

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It was painful enough to watch Matthew Stafford get paraded around the league in an effort to win his first playoff game. From his failures in Green Bay to his Super Bowl celebration with the Patriots, I wanted to be happy for virtual Stafford. I really did.

But I couldn’t.

Sports fandom is inherently selfish. How else could you possibly explain why we feel so attached to these teams and players? We root for players that belong to our team, usually reside in our home state, and wildly swing our pendulum of emotions so greatly to and from?

“Treat yourself” is the mantra we live by, so this time, we’re keeping Stafford at the helm in Detroit. This time, we’re bringing the talent to him.

The Experiment

Ever since Stafford made his way to Detroit in 2009, the Lions offense has been primarily built on an attack through the air. Why wouldn’t it be when you have his arm and one of the greatest receivers ever in Calvin Johnson?

After Stafford shook the “injury-prone” label, he’s led the league is passing attempts twice, in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and he’s finished in the top 10 in passing yards every year since 2011.

A lot of the offensive workload has been shouldered by No. 9 for good reason. One glaring hole in Detroit’s offense that’s been absent since the Lions added Stafford—hell, the one part of their depth chart that’s been severely lacking since Barry Sanders never made it to training camp in 1999? A running game.

Here is how the Lions rushing offense has ranked according to Football Outsiders team offense DVOA statistic, and some raw rushing statistics, since Stafford arrived in Detroit:

Lions Rushing Offense during Stafford Era

Year Rushing Offense (DVOA) Rushing Rank Rushing Yards Yards per Attempt
Year Rushing Offense (DVOA) Rushing Rank Rushing Yards Yards per Attempt
2009 -10.3% 28th 1,616 4.0
2010 -8.4% 24th 1,613 4.0
2011 -4.1% 16th 1,523 4.3
2012 0.3% 12th 1,613 4.1
2013 -11.9% 27th 1,792 4.0
2014 -16.9% 29th 1,422 3.6
2015 -16.7% 27th 1,335 3.8
2016 -17.1% 25th 1,310 3.7

Stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com and footballoutsiders.com

With this Madden experiment, we’re importing talent into Detroit’s backfield to see if a potent rushing attack to balance the offense would help the Lions win football games. And, of course, we’re using the highest grade of scientific researching methods to conduct this experiment: Madden NFL 17—our trusty tool to see this thing through.

I took the top 10 running backs according to Pro Football Focus, swapped out Ameer Abdullah for the incoming talent, and then placed them atop the depth chart in the Lions backfield.

Here’s what happened...

The Simulations

Devonta Freeman

Record: 8-8

Difference: -1

Freeman’s stats: 295 carries, 1,293 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per attempt, 15 rushing touchdowns. 24 receptions, 355 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 385 of 558, 4,605 passing yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 106.5 passer rating.

What happened: There’s literally nothing else Stafford or Freeman could have done to make this team better. Detroit finished with the seventh-most yards gained on offense and the sixth-most points scored on offense per game (30.4).

Stafford’s 106.5 passer rating would be a career high, and his 41 touchdown passes would tie the career mark he set in 2011.

Freeman, on the other hand, was a pretty efficient runner. He gained 4.4 yards per carry, and, y’know, SCORED 18 FREAKING TOUCHDOWNS. Just for a second, think about what it takes to score a touchdown. Think about all of the hard work required just to put yourself into a position to even have a chance to score a touchdown. His artificial self did it 18 times in four virtual-ass months. I’ve never accomplished something 18 times in four months that’s as difficult as scoring a touchdown in all my life, and probably never will.

How did this not work? What could have possibly happened for this team to end up with a .500 record and third in the NFC North? Oh, yeah, that’s right, I didn’t do anything to the defense:

This defense remains why the Lions aren’t allowed to have nice things.

DeMarco Murray

Record: 7-9

Difference: -2

Murray’s stats: 276 carries, 1,147 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per attempt, 8 rushing touchdowns. 30 receptions, 383 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 366 of 552, 4,851 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 108.5 passer rating.

What happened: Even though the Lions were slightly less atrocious on defense—they only gave up the fifth-most points in the league (472) this time around—it wasn’t enough to help out an MVP-caliber season from Stafford.

As for Murray, his season in Detroit was lackluster. He probably would have had a better showing in the Name Bracket tournament than the numbers he put up in this simulation, but that’s only because I would have stuffed the ever-loving hell out of the ballot box. Big fan of capitalizing the third letter in a name. Huge fan.

Bilal Powell

Record: 6-9-1

Difference: -3

Powell’s stats: 283 carries, 1,117 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per attempt, 17 rushing touchdowns. 33 receptions, 394 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

Stafford’s stats: 364 of 563, 4,767 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 96.2 passer rating.

What happened: Bilal Powell isn’t considered to be a very good player according to Madden NFL 17. He has an overall rating of 81 and from his stats, you can see he struggled to run the ball efficiently. However, his 17 rushing touchdowns were good for second in the league... behind Giovanni Bernard and just ahead of Jerick McKinnon’s 16 touchdowns. This thing called Madden can be a special blend of hell sometimes.

You’d think this would be the most shocking thing about this simulation, but it’s not. It really isn’t. The Cleveland Browns defense allowed 589 points. That’s 36.8 points per game. There were three separate occasions where they gave up 55+ points. This is objectively bad.

What’s almost as nauseating to see is how the Lions gave up 527 points of their own, the second-most in the entire league. They managed to win three out of the final four games of their season, and they still only finished 6-9-1. They tied the Bears, 20-20. The Bears!

I think I’m going to be sick.

Jordan Howard

Record: 7-8-1

Difference: -2

Howard’s stats: 293 carries, 1,257 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per attempt, 14 rushing touchdowns. 31 receptions, 298 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 355 of 561, 4,360 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 96.7 passer rating.

What happened: Speaking of getting sick (read: the Bears), the optics of Jordan Howard in a Lions uniform makes me feel all types of conflicted inside:

Get off me, child’s play.

His outward appearance sickens me, and I loathe him, but at the same time, I can’t look away; he transcends both time and space and he deserves all of my love.

He ran enough to finish 13th in rushing yards and fifth in rushing touchdowns, but the Lions’ defense couldn’t do a damn thing to help out the offense. This simulation had yet another tie—one more season like this and I’m going to Greektown—and the Lions finished second to the NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings. When you turn off injuries that Adrian Peterson sure is dynamite!

LeSean McCoy

Record: 9-7

Difference: None

McCoy’s stats: 285 carries, 1,434 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per attempt, 11 rushing touchdowns. 30 receptions, 289 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 371 of 557, 4,925 passing yards, 41 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 109.2 passer rating.

What happened: The Lions had the best offense in the NFL. Look at Detroit’s receiving corps:

  • Golden Tate - 92 passes for 1,445 yards and 11 touchdowns.
  • Anquan Boldin - 83 catches for 1,354 and 11 touchdowns.
  • Eric Ebron - 70 receptions for 832 yards and seven touchdowns.

Stafford put up MVP numbers, posting the second-highest passer rating and throwing the most touchdown passes in the league. McCoy finished fifth in rushing yards while averaging the second most yards per carry of anyone with at least 70 attempts.

The Lions’ offense was more glorious than a Bobby Roode entrance. They outpaced every other team in the league in total offense gained (7,091 yards) and points per game (33.6). This is probably one of the best offenses, statistically, in the history of the NFL.

So isn’t it obvious what happened?

The Lions, at 9-7, finished third in their division and without a playoff berth. This defense is so beyond help that not even a historically awesome offense could get them to double-digit wins.

Melvin Gordon

Record: 10-6

Difference: +1

Gordon’s stats: 305 carries, 1,110 rushing yards, 3.6 yards per attempt, 12 rushing touchdowns. 24 receptions, 371 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 360 of 524, 4,948 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 112.3 passer rating.

What happened: In total, I’ve simulated well over 70 different seasons of franchise mode on Madden NFL 17, and it wasn’t until this one, where I placed Melvin Gordon on the Lions, that I broke it. I finally broke Madden’s franchise mode:

How did this happen?

Virtual Ross Tucker and robot Trey Wingo both took to fake Twitter to talk about Tahir Whitehead winning the NFC’s Defensive Most Valuable Player award. 147 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 3 interceptions were enough to earn Whitehead the distinction, and it may have helped the Lions earn their first playoff berth in this exercise.

I had no clue what in the Honolulu-blue hell was going on, but the Lions ended up falling to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card round, 45-31. A loss of that magnitude begs only one question: Where’s your NFC Defensive MVP at now?!?

David Johnson

Record: 7-9

Difference: -2

Johnson’s stats: 305 carries, 1,210 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per attempt, 10 rushing touchdowns. 34 receptions, 380 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 340 of 530, 4,250 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 98.7 passer rating.

What happened: This isn’t at all how it was supposed to be. This isn’t what the prophecy foretold in the first season of Amazon’s hit original series “All or Nothing.”

Remember when the Cardinals were dead set on taking Ameer Abdullah, only to see the Lions snatch him from their dirty little mitts the pick before? The Cardinals ended up with a pretty good consolation prize in a top-three running back in the NFL in David Johnson.

Now was the time to turn back the sands of the draft pick hourglass and reap the benefits of hindsight. Instead, we got a run-of-the-mill performance from Johnson, Abdullah—now with the Cardinals—had a better season and landed the birds in the playoffs, and everything is once again awful.

(This is actually the perfect reverse jinx for this upcoming season. You’re welcome.)

Jay Ajayi

Record: 6-10

Difference: -3

Ajayi’s stats: 246 carries, 982 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per attempt, 13 rushing touchdowns. 21 receptions, 300 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 347 of 536, 4,551 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 102.4 passer rating.

What happened: Nothing was much of a surprise with this simulation, but that’s because I’m not sure how much I believe in Jay Ajayi being as good as some of his raw statistics from a year ago might suggest he was. But part of me wants to believe. He’s from the United Kingdom, London to be exact, which is about 35 minutes outside of the district of Mitcham. What’s so great about Mitcham? C’mon, party people, it’s the birthplace of the one and only MC Ricky D.

Instead of talking about anything related to this simulation with Ajayi on the Lions, let me take this opportunity to share with you why he isn’t quite as good as his numbers from 2016 show on the surface. Or maybe he is, we’re going to figure this out.

In 2016, Ajayi had three games where he ran for over 200 yards: Week 6 against the Steelers, again in Week 7 against the Bills, and then once more in Week 16 against those same lowly Bills. Aside from those three performances, Ajayi averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and that’s not great. But hold on for just a second, the Dolphins’ offensive line wasn’t that great either, ranking 28th in power rank and 31st in stuffed percentage according to Football Outsiders.

On the other hand, with some more help from the informative statistics over at Football Outsiders, Ajayi ranked 32nd in success rate, a measurement of a player’s consistency at running the football. Combining this information with Ajayi’s rank in DVOA among running backs—13th—the numbers suggest that his season was a mix of long runs and plays where he was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. It was truly feast or famine for Ajayi in 2016.

But even considering the inconsistent play from Ajayi, he was one of the most elusive backs in all of football last year according to Pro Football Focus, finishing fifth in elusive rating—a stat developed to help quantify “a running back’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers.” You know who else was super elusive? That little boy from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.” He lasted almost three verses before getting his soul cast for running amok and being a degenerate burglar.

Is Jay Ajayi poised to be better than I initially thought in 2017? Yeah, I’m pretty sure of it. Does part of it have to do with how I now associate him with Slick Rick? Undoubtedly, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.

Ezekiel Elliott

Record: 9-7

Difference: None

Elliott’s stats: 328 carries, 1,362 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per attempt, 13 rushing touchdowns. 39 receptions, 450 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 400 of 586, 4,811 passing yards, 41 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 108.6 passer rating.

What happened: Buckle up, readers. It’s time to exorcise some personal demons.

When the dust settled, the Lions finished 9-7, won the NFC North, and Matthew Stafford earned his first set of MVP honors:

I BLESS THE RAINS DOWN IN AFRICA!

Detroit’s offense was once again a juggernaut, while Ezekiel Elliott did live up to the video game numbers he put up in his rookie season in real life, he was still a key part of the Lions’ offensive attack—Elliott ran the ball 328 times, which was good for the fourth-most carries in the league.

The Lions first opponent in the playoffs was, of course, the Dallas Cowboys. The game started off eerily similar to the showdown in 2015, with Golden Tate catching an early touchdown and the Lions jumping out to a quick lead.

Detroit’s defense allowed the Cowboys to claw back into the game, but it was a drive late in the fourth quarter that set up Matt Prater to knock through a chip shot to give the Lions their first playoff victory in over a quarter-century.

Speaking of century, awaiting the Lions in the Divisional Round were the Seattle Seahawks, and a trip to CenturyLink field. One win was fun, but it wasn’t about having fun anymore. I put this game on SuperSim and watched the whole thing unfold in front of me because I hate myself.

In a game where the Lions were outgained on offense in both rushing and passing yards, the Seahawks converted 12 third downs to the Lions six, and lost the time of possession battle by over nine minutes, you’d have to say Detroit lost this one.

But they didn’t.

Russell Wilson truly pissed the bed in this one by throwing three interceptions and getting sacked on a pair of critical third-down plays. The Lions squeaked this one out by a score of 33-26, and reserved a spot in the NFC Championship against... Washington. I shit you not, when I saw the way the Lions playoff schedule was coming together, I felt like a soul being punished in Dante’s Inferno. With each week revealing their next opponent, I descended into a new circle of hell, the next one decidedly worse than the last.

It was 26 years in the making, but Detroit got their revenge on Washington when they tee’d off on them to the tune of a 31-point drubbing in the Conference Championship game:

This simulation went full action-adventure game. Of course the Patriots are the final boss.

To this point, the Lions had been just feeding Zeke in the playoffs. His carry total by game was 39, 24, and 29, which was just under a third of the carries he earned during the regular season. But one final test laid in the Lions way, and it was a chance for Bob Quinn to square off against the tried and true Patriot Way. The apprentice versus the sensei. David versus Goliath. Jeff Hardy against The Undertaker on “Monday Night RAW” in June of 2002.

However, this one didn’t end up being a classic. Here’s a quick synopsis of this Super Bowl: it wasn’t pretty for Detroit, but at least the Lions didn’t blow a 25-point lead.

Le’Veon Bell

Record: 8-8

Difference: -1

Bell’s stats: 309 carries, 1,721 rushing yards, 5.6 yards per attempt, 17 rushing touchdowns. 29 receptions, 374 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns.

Stafford’s stats: 330 of 531, 4,214 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 99.9 passer rating.

What happened: From the way the Lions performed with Zeke in their backfield in the previous simulation, it was already a tall order for Bell to surpass that kind of success.

Detroit missed the playoffs in this simulation, finishing 8-8 and falling one win short of gaining a playoff berth as a Wild Card, but it certainly wasn’t Le’Veon Bell’s fault.

Bell put together the best season of any running back brought to the Lions during these simulations, finishing his season in Detroit as the rushing champ while also leading the league in both rushing and total touchdowns.

Stafford didn’t put forth his best season with Bell as his main back—although those stats are nothing a Lions fan would turn their nose at should he do that in 2017—but as many of these simulations went, the team would have made off with the playoffs if it wasn’t for that middling meddling defense!

What did the Lions accomplish with these top running backs?

Almost all of the team success was reserved for a couple of backs in Gordon and Elliott, but Gordon’s season has to be considered a definitive outlier with the Tahir Whitehead tomfoolery taking place.

When I did a deeper dive on Ajayi, and was prodding over the Football Outsiders statistics, it dawned on me that, “Hey, maybe there’s more to running the football than just the guy carrying the ball!” DeMarco Murray’s season with the Eagles was a disaster for a few reasons, but how quickly the tides of success turned for him when he made his way to Tennessee and played behind a top-five offensive line.

So therein lies the flaw with this experiment, and thus, those fans whose thinking dictates that what the Lions have been missing all this time is a running game, and how to add that dimension to the offense is to find another Hall of Fame running back to change it all.

But hey, at least we were able to shake some of the bad juju off this franchise with one simulation. I now specialize in a currently unrepresented group of Madden players: The Ghost Simulator.