Three Cups Deep: Sailing the Gravy Boat

>> 12.02.2013

It is December 2nd, and the Detroit Lions are in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

They have a one-and-a-half-game lead over the Green Bay Packers, and a one-game lead (with head-to-head tiebreaker) over the Bears. The Lions face only one team with a winning record over their last four games, and basically have no good reason not to finish at least 10-6 (and 5-1 in division).

The Lions have just four short weeks and an ocean of gravy separating them from their first division title since 1993.

If you're reading, you know all this.

You also know the Lions destroyed the Packers, 40-10, for their first Thanksgiving win in a decade. You also know Matthew Stafford is rewriting the Lions record book, and Peter King just called Reggie Bush and Joique Bell "absolutely unequivocably" the best one-two tailback combo in the NFL.

I know that these Lions are still not good enough—not yet, anyway.

King also said this:

Detroit’s reward for earning the third seed in the NFC playoffs—if that’s where the Lions end up, and it’s no lock—would be one of the most rugged roads to the Super Bowl ever. Consider this possible slate: a Wild Card home game against San Francisco, a divisional game at New Orleans, a championship game at Seattle. Who survives that?
Not a team who's turned it over 25 times in 12 games, that's for sure. The Lions are ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring differential, racking up 27.2 points per game. Opposing teams are scoring an average of 23.9 points per game, ranked 18th. That gives them the ninth-best scoring differential in the NFL (3.2 points per game).

Now, imagine how many more points they'd be scoring, and how many fewer points they'd be allowing, if they weren't ending 16.9 percent of their offensive drives with a turnover.

Despite that mindblowing, field-flipping, win-preventing error rate, the Lions have still ended 35.8 percent of their drives with a score, 11th-best in the NFL. Only the New York Giants and New York Jets are coughing it up more frequently, yet the Lions statistically have a top-five offense and middle-of-the-pack defense.

As I've said several times here and at Bleacher Report, this team is not going to reach its limitless potential until Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush cut down on the mistakes.

For some reason, this has made my fellow Flamekeepers really, really mad at me.

"You can't put it on Matt," they say, before proferring excuses for why his habitually high, behind, late and too-hard passes keep getting getting intercepted off of deflections. "It's the coaches' fault for not preparing him correctly," they say. I do believe coaching factors into it, but I think it's more to do with their hesitance to throttle Stafford down than an Xs-and-Os problem.

Then we get deeper into the blame game: receivers, protection, playcalling, the defense. Look: Matthew Stafford has the best wide receiver in the world, a solid running game, the fifth-best pass protection in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus) and a defense that—more often than not—is keeping him in the game while he and the offense spend the first quarter in neutral.

Yet, he's ranked 27th in the NFL in completion rate, at a miserable 59.2 percent. He's throwing picks on 2.8 percent of his dropbacks, his worst rate since his rookie year. His 5.4 percent touchdown rate can't touch his 2011 or 2010 numbers, 6.2 and 6.3 percent respectively.

What, then, is the more rational statement:

A) Matthew Stafford needs to more consistently play up to the talent level that made him a No. 1 overall pick, earned him a big-money extension, and showed through in 2011 when he threw 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.

or

B) Brandon Pettigrew needs to play like Rob Gronkowski, Kris Durham needs to play like Calvin Johnson, and the Lions defense needs to play like the 2000 Ravens'.

If we could wave a magic wand and make either A or B come true, they'd have equal effect on the Lions' bottom line. Yet, if you're staring at these numbers and concluding B is the more reasonable non-Fairy-Godmother request, I don't know what to tell you.

"Well then, what do we do?" Lions fans ask me. "Fire the coach?"

Let's re-read that first sentence:
It is December 2nd, and the Detroit Lions are in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
 No, we do not fire the coach. In fact, we—the fans—don't do anything at all. Nor, honestly, do I think the Lions need to consider making any major moves. If any shakeup needs to occur, it's in the QB coach/Offensive Coordinator department (As a fifth-year veteran, I'm no longer worried that any change there will stunt Stafford's development, especially since it seems to be stunting anyway).

No, what needs to happen is Matthew Stafford taking preparation, execution, and all the little things that make the difference between a good quarterback and great quarterback seriously. This team is built to win because of him, not in spite of him; until he fixes the fixable mistakes they won't do enough of the latter—especially not come the bitter cold of January.

14 comments:

lionthetiger,  December 2, 2013 at 8:48 PM  

You are always confusing the discussion with facts and well thought out opinions. Jeez.

Darin,  December 2, 2013 at 8:54 PM  

Fantastic article. Yet, sorry, I still believe the more egregious mistakes have been the ones made by the receivers. The drops have not only been bad, they've been timely. I'll happily sit and re - watch every game with anyone that cares to dispute this. The defense has MORE than kept them in the games they've lost as well.ItIt's been the DROPS. One of which, Calvin ' drop/int, very directly cost them TB. (I KNOW THESE NOT EVEN IN THE DISCUSSION sans Calvin).

Nate Washuta,  December 3, 2013 at 10:52 AM  

I'm probably one of the more adamant Stafford apologists and certainly some of the turnover blame is on him, but his receivers do lead the league in drops (with 20% more than the next highest) and a good deal of those are getting intercepted (which seems pretty unlucky in and of itself). 3 of his top 4 receivers are dropping over 10% of the catchable balls thrown their way and the 4th is Pettigrew. Still, after last night's game, Stafford now has the 3rd highest PFF grade among QBs.


All of this is to say that the receivers share some of the blame in all of tihs. It's not simply A or B, as so many sports fans try to dole out blame, but it's a gray area between them. Stafford needs more consistency AND the receivers need to pick up their level of play. Neither needs to turn into something they're not to make it happen, but rather they all need to be just a little better.

tyschalter,  December 3, 2013 at 11:17 AM  

Ha ha. Stupid me.

tyschalter,  December 3, 2013 at 11:29 AM  

Thanks, Darin!


No doubt Stafford's had to deal with subpar 2-4 receivers in Burleson's absence, and Pettigrew gonna Pettigrew.


Honestly, though, a lot of the drops have been on "that was a little behind him, but he should have had it" passes. Stafford's got the talent, and has flashed the ability, to throw more accurate, more catchable balls.

tyschalter,  December 3, 2013 at 11:34 AM  

Right, but there's "catchable" and there's there's easy to catch. As I said to Darin, and in the piece, Stafford's putting in within these guys' catch radius, but too high or too hard or a little behind or some combination of the above. Stafford's timing over the middle on crossing routes has been especially poor.


It's well within Stafford's ability to put it on these guys more accurately, and make their job easier—at least, much more so than it is within Kris Durham or Jeremy Ross's ability to become a complete NFL receiver overnight.

Nate Washuta,  December 3, 2013 at 12:17 PM  

so you think this accounts for the entirety of leading the league in drops? sure, some are due to his throws being imprecise, but certainly some of the drops are on easy passes to catch. You've already admitted the 2-4 receivers are subpar and I don't think anyone could make a reasonable case that the pass defense is anywhere near adequate, but you're saying that Stafford is the one that needs to step it up because winning the division with these guys is not enough out of him?

tyschalter,  December 3, 2013 at 12:21 PM  

Yeah. Stafford's the one making $70 million to be the franchise quarterback. If he can put up 27 points in one quarter against Pittsburgh, he can put up more than zero in the other three. The nowhere-near-adequate pass defense held Tampa Bay to 14 points, but Stafford couldn't get it together long enough to outscore them. That Dallas game should have been a blowout.


The Lions have lost, and are losing, lots of games because of his mistakes. If he were playing at his 2011 level, they'd be at 9-3, or possibly even better.

tyschalter,  December 3, 2013 at 1:10 PM  

Nobody's perfect, and I'm not demanding Calvin or Stafford be so. But Calvin's also had a couple-three of those "fluke" fumbles this season. At some point, it's not a fluke...


...and yes, to me "The crappy receivers playing in lieu of Titus Young and Ryan Broyles should all just not drop passes" is less rational (and much less likely to happen) than "Stafford should just play as well as he did in 2011."



As I said, the Lions might have the No. 1 scoring offense if they weren't turning it over more frequently than all but the two New York teams. That they've been able to overcome (sort of) all of these killer mistakes is testament to their talent.


Yet, they aren't going to do anything in the playoffs if they can't stop shooting themselves in the foot.

Jimmerz,  December 3, 2013 at 4:45 PM  

Ty, I've been telling you this about Stafford since after the 2010 season, and until now you refused to accept it. Whether you like it or not, Stafford showed clear signs of the same inconsistencies going back to his days at Georgia. You say it's correctable, but given how long it's been going on I'm not so sure. Even in his "record setting" 2011 season he showed signs of these inconsistencies, but most fans looked the other way because he threw for so many yards. I'm really starting to think Stafford will never be much more than a serviceable NFL QB that can every once in a while make a throw that very few NFL QBs can make.

Jimmerz,  December 3, 2013 at 7:04 PM  

Ty, I've been telling you this about Stafford since after the 2010 season, and until now you refused to accept it. Whether you like it or not, Stafford showed clear signs of the same inconsistencies going back to his days at Georgia. You say it's correctable, but given how long it's been going on I'm not so sure. Even in his "record setting" 2011 season he showed signs of these inconsistencies, but most fans looked the other way because he threw for so many yards. I'm really starting to think Stafford will never be much more than a serviceable NFL QB that can every once in a while make a throw that very few NFL QBs can make. Essentially a poor man's Brett Favre.

Anonymous,  December 3, 2013 at 10:38 PM  

How many times have I heard the phrase, "Calvin is open, even when he isn't" by people covering the Lion games and even the Lion coaches. The implication is that Stafford must throw to Calvin even when he isn't open, which for most QBs concerned about their stats would be an excuse to not throw to Calvin at all in double coverage and just throw 10 yard passes to other receivers.

So be careful what you wish for. Do you underutilize a potent weapon like Calvin by passing conservatively or do you throw some up for grabs for substantial benefit but some risk in terms of an occasional interception? I have no problem with Stafford throwing 1 or 2 interceptions a game. The quickest way to neutrailize the Lions offense would be to tell Stafford not to throw any interceptions.

And don't tell me how much more accurate Favre was or even the current so called elite QBs like Manning or Brady are today. For every highlight, I can come up with a lowlight. Stafford will be fine.

The Realist,  December 8, 2013 at 7:21 PM  

Well....we saw the SOL in winter AGAIN today in Philly. You can make all the numerical points you like and wish the Lyedowns had better players like Gronk, the Ravens and other teams...but they don't. They are of mediocre talent as assembled by a very mediocre GM. They are poorly led by an arrogant HC (a poor man's Suburban Meyer if you will) and two cast-off coordinators. The Edsels remain the laughing-stock of the NFL and pro sports!

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