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.


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.


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