Struggling Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford is a shadow of the player he was

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
| Detroit Free Press

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There’s no explanation for it. Not really. At least nothing that is quantified simply or understood easily.

You can pore over the film. You can check the footwork and try to dissect the mechanics. Maybe someone can dust off the ladder cam and get a better look.

But it all boils down to this: Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is struggling and he’s a shadow of the player he was at this same point last year.

Remember last year?

Remember when Stafford’s name was being discussed in MVP conversations, even while the Lions were 3-4-1 at the midpoint? It was deserved. He had thrown 19 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. He was on pace for 4,998 yards.

Stafford was the only thing keeping the Lions’ hopes alive. And when he was hurt in Oakland and lost for the season with a broken back, he took the Lions’ hopes with him.

But this season was supposed to be different, right? Stafford has insisted he feels fine, despite suffering back injuries in consecutive seasons. So we all expected Stafford to pick up where he left off last year. (Because why would we think a 32-year-old who plays the role of human piñata every week doesn’t show any cumulative, adverse effects?)

Yet here we are. The Lions are 3-5 and facing an uphill battle for relevance and redemption. And Stafford is one of the main reasons why.

It’s not that Stafford has been abysmal this year. He just hasn’t been very good very often. And this team needs him to be very good very often.

The raw statistics tell us something. His completion percentage of 62.6% is his lowest since 2014. His 14 touchdowns puts him on pace for 28, which is good. But his seven interceptions puts him on pace for 14, which would be his most since 2013. And he’s on pace to throw for 4,254 yards, which would be the second lowest of his career in a full season.

So the numbers aren’t great. To be fair to Stafford, his completion percentage is low, but his receivers lead the NFL with a 7.2% drop rate. He also hasn’t had Kenny Golladay, who is far and away his best weapon, for much of this season. Last year, Golladay played all 16 games and the Lions’ 3.5% drop rate tied for fifth lowest.

But numbers only tell you so much. If you’ve watched the Lions’ games, and Stafford’s struggles within them, you’ve seen what I’ve seen. An aging player who has moments of brilliance sprinkled less and less frequently among inconsistent play that has become too common.

And I’m not putting it all on his past two games, when Stafford has had four turnovers, including two interceptions in the red zone and a pick-six. Those are precious points off the board the Lions that can’t afford to give up. That’s terrible, but I’m not making too much of it because I don’t expect Stafford to make such costly mistakes all the time.

There’s just something else missing with Stafford this year. And it’s not all because of Golladay. After every game, my colleague Dave Birkett grades each position in the Free Press. Dave has one of the keenest eyes among NFL writers and here are his eight game grades this season for Stafford, in succession: B, D, B-plus, D, B, A, D, D-plus.

While the grades aren’t scientific, I trust Dave’s eyeballs and estimates over raw numbers. The grades average out to a C-plus and Stafford didn’t get his first — and only — A until he led the amazing comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.

I think it’s pretty hard to argue that Stafford has looked like anything but a C student. And that’s nowhere near good enough for a player who’s known for his smarts and savvy.

I’ll give Stafford credit for admitting his shortcomings. After playing only so-so in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, he said he didn’t “feel like I played all that great.” After he lost a fumble and threw a pick-six in the loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Stafford said, “if I play like that it’s going to be tough for us to win,” and “if you guys want to put it on somebody, put it on me.”

Hoping Stafford was in the mood for some more introspection, I asked him Wednesday as directly as I could if he knew why he isn’t playing anywhere near as well as he was last year.

“It just comes down to throwing and catching,” he said. “Um, all of it. We’re still trying to push the ball down the field. Teams are doing a nice job of trying to keep it in front of them. And I’m trying to take what the defense is giving me.

“And as far as the turnovers go, there’s no excuse for those. Just can’t have them. I think four in the last two weeks is too many and I’m going to do everything I can to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The closest thing to any insight I could glean from his answer is that defenses are laying back to stop his passes because they aren’t honoring the run. A run game that averages 4.1 yards per carry — the exact number as 2019.

I also tried Darrell Bevell, who seemed to arrive in Detroit last year with the Super Stafford cheat code. I hate asking offensive coordinators about their quarterbacks because it’s usually as productive as asking Papa Smurf to say anything critical about Smurfette. But Bevell at least said earlier this season Stafford needed to improve his footwork, so I gave it a shot.

“There’s a myriad of things that we can sit here and talk about,” Bevell said. “I wouldn’t place it all at the feet of Matthew. Offense is a thing where you have to have 11 guys working together as one. So it all builds together, whether it’s protections, whether it’s route running.

“All of it is together and we’re all in it together: me getting them in the right situations, guys taking care of all their business up front, guys doing a great job on the outside. It all works together and we’re all not doing it good enough right now.”

Yep, that’s what I thought. Translation: Go Smurf yourself, sports writer!

I’m not sure Stafford or Bevell know the answer to my question. And if they do, they don’t know how to solve it. But maybe they will, because I think the sophistry behind a lot of bad decisions in sports is rooted in the belief that the same thing will continue to occur because of recent examples.

It doesn’t have to be this way for Stafford. Sports are far from consistent models and mathematical constructs. That means he doesn’t have to stay in the orbit of playing sub-par football. And the stars may be aligning anyway because he plays a tough defense on Sunday, but then not many more after that.

Maybe none of us have a great explanation for Stafford’s struggles. But I know this: The offense will only go as far as Stafford takes it. And the Lions will only go as far as the offense takes them.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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