Can Stafford Bring Winning To Motown?

By JakeElman
Aug. 08, 2014

After an epic collapse to 2013, the Lions look to take advantage of their young talent in 2014


The Lions may not be the league's top team, but they have the league's top receiver in Calvin Johnson (Jason Miller/Getty Images) 

Written by Jake Elman

SportsMix

Detroit. It's the motor city, a town that even after all that's happened in the past few years with layoffs and such, remains a  gem in Michigan. Part of the reason why Detroit continues to shine, my lovelies, is because of the professional sports teams. The Tigers are a perennial World Series contender, the Lions have turned it around, the Pistons are improving, and the Red Wings are pretty good.
 
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are arguably the league's best QB-WR duo, but the team has missed the playoff four of the five years Stafford's been starter. Can the Lions break the trend, or is it time for some changes under new management?

Let's take a look at Detroit's schedule, courtesy of ESPN.

LionsSchedule.PNG

Leading the Lions out onto the field for their week one Monday Night Football showdown against the New York Giants will be 2009 first overall pick Matthew Stafford. Once a star at the University of Georgia, Stafford has the distinction, if you'll call it that, of being the only quarterback from that draft to still be with the team that drafted him; that either says something about team loyalty or him being the only good quarterback, but I digress.

The past five seasons have been interesting to watch of Stafford. We've seen him at his best, throwing touchdown after touchdown to star wideout Calvin Johnson in the midst of a 2011, but we've seen him at his lowest as well, failing to perform in the clutch when his team needs his most.

I know that I was critical of Jay Cutler yesterday, and while I won't be as harsh today, that doesn't mean I think the world of Matthew Stafford. Is he a good quarterback? Yes. Is he elite? No. Is he better than good but not elite; high quality, if you will? I don't know, and I know that Pro Football Focus has him as only a 'good starter', but part of me feels like that may be too low.

When the Lions got Matthew Stafford, they knew they were getting a gunslinger. Any quarterback that can throw for 4500 yards three years in a row, including 5000 yards at the age of 23, is pretty damn good. His issue, you ask? The dreaded lack of consistency that plagues many players today.

"The former No. 1 overall pick has all the talent in the world, but he has terrible mechanics and refuses to fix his problems," Walter Football noted about Stafford. "The result is inconsistent play. He was unstoppable at times - he torched a dominant Cincinnati defense for 357 yards and three touchdowns in October, for instance - but he has stretches in which he becomes a turnover machine. For example, he gave the ball away six times in the final four games, throwing just two scores in the process. Those four opponents included the Eagles, Giants and Vikings, all of whom had pedestrian defenses."

That is the best way I've ever heard someone describe Matthew Stafford. Now, I like Matt Stafford, and I give him a lot of credit because prior to the 2011 season, people were already calling him a bust because injuries cost him most of his first two years. Yet, Stafford's come into his own the past three seasons and become not only durable, but a quarterback who can put up gaudy numbers.

The issue though is how he fares in the clutch. Stafford took the Lions to the playoffs in 2011, yes, and he's put up good numbers since then, but it's the lack of a clutch factor that's hurt him the past two years. Let's go back to 2012, where despite Calvin Johnson setting a single season record for most receiving yards, the Lions went from 4-4 to 4-12 partly because of Stafford, who threw interceptions in all but one game after the bye.

2013 was no different - even with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler both missing significant time with injuries, the Lions were unable to capitalize and ended up missing the postseason entirely. That doesn't go all on Stafford, but the Lions went from 7-5 to 7-9 when Stafford had a 2-5 TD-INT ratio in those final four games.

But at the same time, he's the one that even gets them this far. It wasn't too long ago that Joey Harrington and Jon Kitna were attempting to get the Lions back to the promised land, but falling well short; at least Stafford gives them a chance every year.

"All of the pressure is always going to be on him," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said of Stafford. "Like all competitive people, and he's a highly-competitive guy, they put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does. It's fair."

I'm expecting a big year from Stafford in 2014, a key part of which is keeping him the interception total below 15 for the first time in his career and topping 30 touchdowns for the second time in four seasons. This will be his sixth season, so like the way Rick told Carl '', there should be no more rookie mistakes from Stafford. 

We haven't seen rookie mistakes from Stafford's number one target Calvin Johnson in a long time, and that's for good reason - he's the most prolific receiver of our generation, and arguably one of the greatest the game's ever seen. What Jerry Rice was to kids in the 80's and 90's and Randy Moss was in the 2000's, Calvin Johnson has been in the 2010's. 

What is there to say about Calvin Johnson that hasn't already been said? He's durable, electric, and stretches the entire field; this may the age of passing, but it is very hard for any receiver to pile on three straight seasons of 1450+ yards receiving. 


Try all you want, but there's no getting past Lions Pro Bowl DT Ndamukong Suh (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

I honestly don't think there's much to say anymore other than this dude is the best at what he does. Can you draft him in fantasy? If so, snag him. You will not find a more productive receiver in the National Football League than the one known as 'Megatron'.

Aside from Calvin Johnson, the offense is pretty good. The running game has Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, two backs who can beat you with a good run up the middle for a few years or a breakway run for 30 yards. When giving Bell a 'high quality' grade as a starter, Pro Football Focus said "[Bell] takes the ball in far less opportune areas (short yardage) and just makes things happen. Of those players with over 50 carries he ranked eighth in forced missed tackles per attempt and he's only getting better."

I like both of these backs, but I'd recommend staying away from Reggie Bush in fantasy football this year. I took him last year because of how he helped me to the league title game in 2011 (I lost 215-210 in the championship...), and he wasn't as good as I expected him to be. Bell could be an interesting pick as a RB2 or a flex. 

With their first pick in May's draft, the Lions took former UNC tight end Eric Ebron with the tenth overall pick. It was a move that many weren't expecting, considering the Lions had some holes on defense to fill. 

"I can't say I'm crazy about this pick. There's a reason tight ends have fallen in recent years, and Eric Ebron is viewed as a slightly overrated prospect, Walter Football said of the pick he'd eventually give a C+ grade. "I don't hate this selection though because Matthew Stafford needs more weapons, and Ebron is definitely an upgrade over the disappointing Brandon Pettigrew."

Honestly, I don't know how that's only a C+. Ebron was the best tight end in this draft with Florida State's Nick O'Leary staying another year, and the Lions needed someone on offense to help with Stafford. This was a great pick, and Ebron should make his presence known immediately as a rookie. Could they have gone receiver? Yes, but this was the right call.

If the Lions hadn't gone with signing former Seahawk Golden Tate in free agency, maybe I'd instead say they should have traded up for Mike Evans. But hey, you do what you can to win - this was the right move, and I expect Ebron to contribute a lot in the years to come.

The offensive line is solid, and they really did a nice job keeping Stafford upright a year ago; the Georgia product was sacked a career low 23 times in 2013, a major drop from 13 in 2011. If you could draft offensive lines in fantasy football, I'd say go for the Lions' line.

I like how Detroit's defense is set to line up in 2014. Truth be told, this may be one of the best defenses that the Lions have put on the field in years. I was once really wary of Nick Fairley being a good NFL player, but he had a breakout 2013, notching six sacks and playing in a career high fifteen games. Joining him on the line? None other than Ndamukong Suh, one of the league's best tackles.

Suh has gone from a threat on the field because of his attitude and how hard he hit guys, to a threat on the field because of how good he is. Now, you could argue that Suh was always a good player in the NFL, but to me, it wasn't until he matured that we saw just how dominant he could be.

"He's outstanding," Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Suh. "Being in the league, you watch him. You know he's a great player. Then you get here and you have a chance to work with him and you see why he's a great player."

Yes, Suh still hits guys really hard and he was recently put on a 'at-risk' list because of these hits, but his maturity is shining. Just ask NFL VP of football operations Troy Vincent about how his meeting went with Suh.

"The objective was to sit down, review the tape, watch the games, and let's see what's taking place -- from a coverage standpoint, up front, every scenario," Vincent . "He was very receptive, he understood, he cared about the perception, his reputation, and I told him we're not trying to take the edge he plays with away....we met for hours, talking about the example he sets, the role model he's become, and emphasizing his adjustment. What he did was set the bar with his approach, since he was first."

That's great to see from one of the league's best players. Players who have issues on and off the field, you may want to speak with Suh about how to change. There's a reason why this guy is three time Pro Bowl and two time first team All-Pro!

However, you can't just have a good defensive line and expect to win games...most of the time. Detroit had a need at linebacker, and they solved this with the second round pick of former BYU Cougar Kyle Van Noy.

"This pick makes a lot of sense," Walter Football said when the Lions drafted the former BYU star linebacker. "It may seem odd because the Lions have run a traditional 4-3, but they'll have a hybrid stop unit under Jim Caldwell. With that in mind, Detroit had to find a pass-rushing linebacker, and Kyle Van Noy is arguably the top player available who fits that profile."

Detroit making two really smart moves in one draft? Is this a fake article? In all seriousness, this was a great draft by Detroit, and it means players who can bring a championship to the Motor City aren't just playing at Comerica or The Palace.

Even with the aforementioned players, I don't think I'd draft this defense for fantasy. The secondary is too questionable, and in a league dedicated to passing, that could be a major issue. When your best player in the secondary is 34 years old, that's not good.

Special teams for the Lions has rookie Nate Freese at kicker and Sam Martin at punter. There's not much to report here, so let's cut to the head of this Lions squad. Coaching the Detroit Lions in 2014, and hopefully many years beyond, will be the former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Entering his first season as head coach of the Lions, Caldwell will be a head coach for the first time since the disastrous season that was 2011 for the Colts, what with Peyton Manning missing the whole year.

Schedule: 2014 will see the NFC North face off against both the AFC East and the NFC South. As I said in the Bears preview, that means the Lions will have to face some pretty good teams. If there's any positives of this schedule that I immediately take away, it's that the October part of the schedule doesn't seem too bad.

X-Factor: It's rare I'll say the rookie is an X-Factor, but Eric Ebron could very well be the key to Detroit making a playoff run. The last time Detroit made the postseason, Stafford had a reliable tight end in Brandon Pettigrew; the past two years, Pettigrew's regression has meant Stafford lacks a key weapon, and Ebron looks to be that weapon.

Final Prediction: Detroit's an immensely talented team, and they have the potential to make a serious playoff run. But, at the same time, we've been saying this for the past four years now. Anytime something goes right with this team, whether it be Matthew Stafford becoming durable or Ndamukong Suh shedding his label of a 'punk', you get rewarded with two bad things. Players being arrested, players fighting, players getting hurt for the year. The schedule doesn't help, but I think this is an 8-8 team.

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