Matthew Stafford is in his eighth season in the NFL. He’s lost Calvin Johnson to retirement, and thanks to injuries he’s currently without his top three running backs and his top two tight ends. Yet Stafford is having the best season of his career, a potentially MVP-caliber year, and it’s being treated like a bit of a fluke. It shouldn’t be.
Stafford, 28, has always had a big arm, and he’s been a volume passer since he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. He’s played exactly 100 games in his career, and in that span he’s completed more passes (2,410) for more yards (27,890) with more games of 350-plus passing yards (16) than any quarterback in history. Of course, Stafford has also played on a lot of shitty teams, which has allowed him to do a little stat padding along the way. Not so this year. He is putting up big numbers—15 touchdowns to just four interceptions, a passer rating of 105.7, 68.4 percent completion percentage, 7.94 yards per attempt—and he’s also winning. Sunday’s comeback against Washington was the Lions’ third victory in a row, with Stafford throwing for eight scores and zero picks during that streak. All four of Detroit’s victories this season have been the result of Stafford-engineered game-winning drives, something he has done more than any other quarterback since 2011. The hype is real.
Stafford’s transformation actually began after a 1-6 start last season, when the Lions fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replaced him with Jim Bob Cooter, then 31 years old. Cooter installed an offense built around shorter passing routes and more no-huddle. The Lions won six of nine to close the season, and despite a three-game skid early on this year, they’ve mostly picked up where they left off, thanks largely to the offense—and to Stafford.
Per Pro Football Reference, a comparison of Stafford’s numbers in his first 84 games before Cooter took over, and in what he’s done in the 16 games since:
How is Stafford doing it? By increasingly throwing shorter, quicker passes. Sean Wagner-McGough, writing at CBSSports.com, cites data from Pro Football Focus showing that from 2011-14, Stafford had thrown passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air anywhere from 34 to 35 percent of the time. But this season, even after the Washington game, according to PFF, that figure is down to 29 percent.
As a result, Stafford is releasing the ball faster, and the Lions are playing more up-tempo. Per PFF, Stafford’s average time to throw this season is 2.60 seconds, slightly quicker than the release time of 2.66 he posted in 2014, his last full season without Cooter. The Lions have also gone no-huddle on 29 percent of their offensive snaps, something they did just six percent of the time last year and three percent the year before. That, in turn, has allowed Stafford to face less of a rush: According to PFF, he’s been pressured on just 28.4 percent of his dropbacks this season, compared to 35 percent last year and 31.9 percent in 2014. The net effect of all this is that Stafford has been incredibly efficient; he’s actually making fewer throws per game (37.6 in 2014 and 34.4 this season).
“The faster you can push the tempo, when you want to, really, it just makes it more stressful on the defense,” Stafford said. “If you feel like you’re playing at a normal speed, and they think you’re playing really fast, it feels a whole lot better for us.”
Here’s an example of Stafford’s quick-strike style, with Marvin Jones Jr. isolated in single coverage on a slant in Detroit’s Week 5 win over the Eagles.
And here’s a great look at a gigantic third-down completion from late in the same game. Detroit bunched wideout Golden Tate in trips to the right and ran a pick play that allowed Tate to get mismatched against linebacker Nigel Bradham. Stafford patiently waited in the pocket for the mismatch to develop, and delivered a perfect touch pass even as he got blasted:
Stafford has also shown an ability to evade pressure by stepping up in the pocket. Check out the first play of the game-winning drive against Washington, in which Stafford took the Lions 75 yards in six plays and 49 seconds. Notice how he was able to drop his arm angle to deliver a perfect throw off his back foot after the pocket collapsed:
It’s no secret that Stafford relied heavily on Megatron in years past. From 2009-15, Calvin Johnson was targeted 1,069 times and had 605 catches, second only in that same span to Brandon Marshall’s 1,076/656, according to Pro Football Reference. With Megatron gone, the Lions added Jones Jr. and Anquan Boldin in free agency. And Cooter, in turn, has accounted for the loss of Megatron—and even injuries to tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron, plus running backs Ameer Abdullah, Dwayne Washington, and Theo Riddick—by getting Stafford to spread the ball around: Golden Tate has been targeted 22.5 percent of the time, with Jones Jr. (22.0) a close second and Boldin (17.9) not too far behind. Ebron, Abdullah, and Riddick were all having good seasons before getting injured, too. Yet the Lions have even continued to flourish without them.
The new spread-the-wealth offense has also affected the way defenses game-plan for the Lions.
“Everybody’s got a little wrinkle here and there they like to throw in on a Sunday as a defensive coordinator,” Stafford said. “But for the most part, we’re not seeing as many crazy-kick-to-Calvin coverages as we used to see.”
And if defenses do try to zero in on Tate—he led the Lions with 24.4 percent of all targets in 2014, the only year Johnson was not Detroit’s most-targeted pass catcher—the Lions have been able to use him as a decoy by positioning him pretty much anywhere. Check out what they did here against Philly by lining Tate up in the backfield and having Stafford fake a toss to him before swinging a screen pass in the other direction to Riddick:
“It’s about time Stafford gets some respect, man,” Tate said. “He’s a heck of a quarterback. You don’t just luckily throw for 5,000 yards multiple years. It’s not luck.”
If there’s any commonality among the teams that have beaten the Lions, it might be in finding ways to put Stafford under pressure despite the up-tempo offense. Detroit’s three losses have come against Green Bay, Tennessee, and Chicago, who rank fourth, sixth, and 12th in adjusted sack rate. The NFC’s most likely contenders excel here, with the Vikings, Seahawks, and Cardinals ranking second, seventh, and eighth, respectively. If the Lions are going to make some real noise, it’s going to be tougher than it’s been. But there’s no doubting what Stafford has done so far.