Calling the Detroit Lions a “bad team” is not funny anymore. Not because it is untrue, but because it is hack. The Lions have struggled for the last six decades. Other than a run in the nineties that included five straight wild card losses — all thanks to the Hall of Fame running back of Hall of Fame running backs — Detroit hasn’t been able to even enter the playoff conversation, save a few one-and-done appearances.
In fact, the 2010s were actually a pretty good decade for the franchise, all things considered. The team made three postseason appearances and had four winning seasons, but you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that based on their last three campaigns.
In all three seasons, the Lions finished in last place. In all three seasons, they had double-digit losses. In all three seasons, they failed to score as many as they allowed. And all three seasons were successively worse than the last, especially as it pertains to former head coach Matt Patricia’s defense.
Detroit went from allowing 360 points in 2018, to 423 points in 2019, and then and NFL-worst 519 points in 2020.
Most QB knockdowns by a defense in 2020...#Steelers - 80#Ravens - 77#Buccaneers - 68#Saints - 67#Chiefs, #Seahawks - 66— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) June 5, 2021
Fewest by a defense...#49ers - 39#Packers - 38#Colts - 37#Browns, #Lions - 35
It was enough to overshadow the fact that during that time, the offense was actually improving — albeit slightly — each year. Though Calvin Johnson was arguably the “Barry Sanders” for Detroit in the early half of the decade, there is only one player on the Lions who can take credit for any success they’ve had since Megatron’s retirement in 2016.
In his first year without Johnson, Stafford attempted 594 passes and accepted the role as the focal point of the offense.
Cutting to the end of Detroit’s Week 1 game against the Colts that season, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck put the near-finishing touches on a fourth quarter comeback. The Colts went up 35-34 with :43 seconds remaining after Luck hit tight end Jack Doyle for a go-ahead touchdown. Stafford had less than :40 seconds remaining after kickoff, but all three timeouts.
Stafford to Theo Riddick for 19 yards.
Stafford to Eric Ebron for nine yards.
Stafford to Marvin Jones for 22 yards.
Kicker Matt Prater gives the Lions a 37-35 lead, and they win the game. This was the first of eight fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives for Stafford during the 2016 season. The Lions only won nine games in 2016. And of their seven losses, all but one was a one-score game.
Detroit lost four games by a touchdown and two games by three points or less.
Had the Lions gotten luckier in 2016, it is quite possible that Stafford could have carried the post-Johnson team to a record of 12-4 or better. I fully acknowledge that the Lions would have been a lucky and overrated 12-4 team, but all that history would remember is that Stafford willed the team to first round bye and a trip past the wild card round for the first time since 1991.
Perhaps the Lions would have done no better than the 26-6 wild card exit they suffered at the hands of the Seahawks that year, but Stafford still deserves credit for taking a franchise that’s been so-sad-it’s-not-funny-anymore to the postseason at a time when no other heroes were emerging in Detroit.
It was Stafford then, and it’s mostly only been Stafford since and that includes the 2020 season.
Though they kind of look like the worst team in the NFL right now — arguments for other teams are allowed — the Lions went 5-11 last season and they were not that far off from going .500. Like 2016, it doesn’t mean that Detroit would have been “good” but because of Stafford, they had a chance to steal the final wild card spot if they had been a little bit more “lucky”.
In Week 1, the Lions took a 23-6 lead into the fourth quarter against the Bears. They lost 27-23 when Mitchell Trubisky had a fourth quarter that was better than almost any other complete start he’s ever had.
In Week 17, Stafford led a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against the Vikings. Detroit was down by eight points though and the two-point try failed, so Stafford came close, but couldn’t finish. There was plenty of time to get the ball back, but the new coaching staff — Patricia had already been fired — couldn’t coax a quality performance from the defense that day. The Lions lost 37-35.
It may not seem like much to say that the Lions could have gone 7-9 or 8-8, but that’s only if you’re saying it from the perspective of a normal team like the Falcons or the Colts or the Broncos, maybe.
From Detroit’s perspective, Stafford provided some level of hope and optimism. As we’ve seen many times in the past — and perhaps as soon as next season — things can get a hell of a lot worse for the Lions than 5-11.
Things actually did not look that bad when the Lions improved to 4-5 following a win over Washington in Week 10 of last season. Stafford threw three touchdowns, putting the team up 24-3 midway through the fourth quarter, and only another defensive collapse could give Football Team a chance to nearly win in the end. But Lions kicker Matt Prater was good from 59 yards out and gave Detroit a 30-27 victory.
Washington finished with the number three defense in the NFL by DVOA.
Stafford, playing without Kenny Golladay, went 24-of-33 for 276 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers against the number three defense.
After an impressive comeback from the Washington Football Team, Matt Prater drives a knife through Washington fans' hearts with a 59-yard field goal to win the game.pic.twitter.com/LRCsqoSb4K— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) November 15, 2020
Earlier in the season, Stafford faced a Saints defense that finished second in DVOA. Stafford went 17-of-31 for 206 yards, three touchdowns, one interception in that game. The week before, he faced a Cardinals defense that ranked 10th in DVOA and he went 22-of-31 for 270 yards, two touchdowns, no picks.
Stafford was comfortable against any defense and in spite of his coaching and surrounding personnel.
The Bears made the playoffs at 8-8, so as it turns out, Detroit only need go 4-3 in the final seven games to give themselves a shot at the postseason. Instead, the Lions went 1-6.
That one win came against the Bears and it should be evidence enough that the Rams got themselves a really good quarterback this year.
Chicago came into Week 13 with a 5-6 record and fleeting hope of a postseason berth following five straight losses. The Lions entered 4-7 and had lost four of their last five games. The Bears were at home, but this does not seem to affect Stafford.
The Lions fell behind 9-0 early, then 16-6 midway through the second quarter. That’s when Stafford found rookie fifth rounder Quintez Cephus for a 49-yard touchdown. It was a bomb. I mean, it was a bomb.
Matthew Stafford passed to Quintez Cephus to the right for 49 yard touchdown #NFL #Bears #Lions— YebScore -Live Scores, NFL, NBA, MLB,DFS Optimizer (@yebscore) December 6, 2020
via @NFLCanada pic.twitter.com/onORHdDs96
That cut the lead to 16-13, but Detroit’s defense gave up a 68-yard touchdown drive in under two minutes prior to the half and the Bears took a 23-13 lead into the break.
On his second drive of the second half, Stafford went 5-of-6 for 61 yards, finishing with a nine-yard touchdown to tight end Jesse James. He completed two passes to Marvin Jones and two passes to T.J. Hockenson against Chicago’s defense, which finished the season ranked eighth by DVOA.
Trubisky, back from a midseason benching, then threw another fourth quarter touchdown against Detroit, giving his team a 30-20 lead with barely more than 11 minutes on the clock. Stafford then made a mistake, probably because sometimes a player’s talent can get the best of him.
Most quarterbacks might not attempt this sidearm flip to Hockenson, but Stafford gave it a go and it went right into the arms of emerging star defensive tackle Bilal Nichols.
So far this season, Bilal Nichols has 30 tackles, 6 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks & this gem of an interception.— G R I Z Z. (@GrizzlyGridiron) December 6, 2020
Not a bad third year for the former 5th round draft pick. #Bears pic.twitter.com/JdWDbghASs
This could break the confidence of some quarterbacks, but not Stafford, who as we’ve already learned does not give a fuck what quarter it is and doesn’t seem to buckle under the pressure like many players who have been in his position. By that I mean, sometimes the problem with guys like Tony Romo — the ones who seem to be better than where they end up by the end of every season — is that they make ridiculously bad decisions with the game on the line.
I’m not sure if Stafford made a terrible decision or not on that throw — not a good one — but Lions fans probably didn’t find it to be indicative of what’s to come.
Following a few punts, Stafford got the ball back with 4:33 remaining. He had all three timeouts, but the Lions trailed by 10 points, and they were starting this drive on their own four-yard line. Stafford’s first attempt of the drive fell incomplete.
His next six attempts — three of which traveled further than 15 yards through the air, highlighting that Stafford is capable of throwing deep passes with the game on the line — did not.
Matthew Stafford taking the #Lions on a 96-yard TD drive against the #Bears in Week 13. He was 6-of-7 for all 96 yards including a 25-yard TD to Marvin Jones. pic.twitter.com/BU2d54ktqD— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 24, 2021
Stafford hit pass after pass. It was the fourth quarter, down double digits, against a division rival that ranked among the top ten defenses in the NFL, without his number one receiver, and it was the first game since 2017 without Patricia as the head coach. Chicago was desperate for a win — Stafford was desperat—- uhh, desperater.
Matthew Stafford’s show that day ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones to cut the lead to 30-27. On the next drive, Trubisky was sacked by Romeo Okwara, fumbling the ball and giving the Lions a new set of downs from Chicago’s seven-yard line. Adrian Peterson had two runs, punching it in and giving the Lions a 34-30 lead.
Detroit’s defense, perhaps relieved to not see Patricia on the sidelines this time, miraculously held the lead and that was the game. With four weeks left, the Lions and Bears both had identical 5-7 records.
Chicago made the playoffs.
Stafford finished the game 27-of-42, 402 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. He was throwing to Marvin Jones, Hockenson, Cephus, and Danny Amendola, mostly. Top running back D’Andre Swift was also out. Peterson had only 57 yards on 16 carries.
It’s felt harder to judge Stafford over his career because of where he’s been playing. How do you judge Lions players, if not on a curve? Now a member of the Rams, Stafford should get more opportunities to prove what he can do when the team does not need a comeback or when he does not need to make up for all the faults of a defense and a coaching staff.
If he fails, then that’s on him.
If the team fails, we’ve seen that he can be useful in those situations too.