As we got towards the end of Jim Bob Cooter’s reign as Detroit Lions coordinator, one of the biggest complaints about his game planning was the over-reliance on short passes, taking Matthew Stafford’s big arm out of the equation.
In 2018, Stafford ranked 33rd among NFL quarterbacks in NextGenStat’s Intended Air Yards (IAY) statistic—which measures the average vertical distance of each passing attempt. Unlike simply using average yards per passing attempt, IAY takes things like yards after the catch (YAC) out of the equation, so we’re simply measuring the average distance Stafford is throwing the ball down the field.
In Cooter’s final year, Stafford averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. For comparison’s sake, Patrick Mahomes ranked sixth in the NFL with an IAY of 9.2. It wasn’t much better for Detroit in 2017, as Stafford ranked 24th with an IAY of 8.0.
But after one game under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, it appears the long ball may be back in Detroit. Currently, Stafford is averaging a whopping 11.9 IAY, second only to Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s right up there with Lamar Jackson (11.9), Aaron Rodgers (10.5), and Deshaun Watson (10.3).
Better yet, he’s actually completing these passes, too. The average air yards for all of Stafford’s completed passes in Week 1 was 8.8 yards—third best in the NFL.
This, of course, is no big surprise to anyone who watched Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Stafford connected to new tight end T.J. Hockenson for gains of 23, 24, 39 and 28 on four of the rookie’s six catches. He also found Danny Amendola wide open downfield for a 47-yard touchdown.
This also shouldn’t be that big of a surprise to anyone who paid close attention to Bevell’s words this offseason. While many were overly focused on his commitment to establishing the run, in the same breath Bevell often talked about the importance of a deep passing game.
“When we throw the ball, we want to be able to throw it down the field and get big plays,” Bevell said back in May.
“That’s what we want to do, it’s what we want to be. It gives us opportunities to throw it, not just the little, you know, West-Coast Offense style where you’re going five or six yards, we want to be able to get big chunks. If you’re going to drive the length of the field, you’re going to have to do that.”
The Lions finished Week 1 tied with the most passing plays of 20+ yards (seven) and they were also 11th in yards after the catch, per The Washington Post.
It’s only a sample size of one, and if this coaching staff has taught us anything, it’s that we can expect some drastic week-to-week changes every now and then. But things are already looking up for fans of letting Matthew Stafford uncork a few bombs every week.