By: Will Burchfield
Matthew Stafford suggested in the offseason that the Lions offense could be harder to defend this year without Calvin Johnson. He never said anything about himself.
But five weeks into the 2016 season, five weeks into the post-Megatron era, Stafford is putting up some of the best numbers of his career. Have things gotten easier for the Lions quarterback without Johnson on his wing?
Is Stafford – somehow, someway – benefitting from the loss of one of the greatest wide receivers ever?
“He’s really just trying to throw it to the open guy. It’s as simple as that. It sounds overly simple, but it’s a really big deal,” said offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
“When you have Calvin Johnson out there, one of the all-time great receivers, going to the Hall of Fame as soon as you can get him in there, it makes a lot of sense to try and throw that guy the ball,” Cooter added. “Sometimes, you might override your read to do that.”
Stafford was often guilty of this during Johnson’s tenure in Detroit, and he has admitted as much since the indomitable wide-out retired. Part of this was a function of Megatron’s dominance – why not throw him the ball? – but it was also a reflection of a go-for-broke aerial attack.
Under Cooter, who took over as Detroit’s offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season, Stafford’s been attempting higher-percentage passes to a wider array of receivers.
“Just trying to take what is there. Our offense is based on just trying to throw it to the open guy,” he said.
Sounds obvious. But maybe the lure of Megatron obscured things. And maybe, with him gone, Stafford has begun to see the field more clearly.
“It didn’t take me too long,” he said of adjusting to life without Johnson. “You get out there on the field, and you throw to the guys you have, and whoever is open gets the ball. That’s kind of how I’ve always been. Obviously, losing a Hall-of-Fame talent affects some things, but our guys have stepped up and have done a really nice job of getting open and making plays.”
Stafford broke into the NFL in 2009. He was accompanied by Johnson for nearly every step of the way through 2015. The two combined for a slew of memorable moments, but Stafford also earned a split reputation in the process: part-weapon, part-hazard. This year, his first without Megatron, the 28-year-old quarterback has only lived up to one of those titles.
Consider the numbers below.
That’s a stark difference. And it’s not as if Stafford’s improved numbers are the product of limited use. He’s throwing the ball just about as often as ever, only he’s making smarter passes against simpler defensive schemes.
“For the most part, we’re not seeing as many crazy kick-to-Calvin coverages as we used to see,” Stafford explained. “The looks are a little bit more standard.”
So for the eight-year-veteran, it’s been a back-to-basics season.
“Sometimes it’s easier for a quarterback,” Cooter said. “You have your reads, you have your progressions, you have your thought processes and then you just go around throwing it to who gets open. I think he’s doing a good job of doing that.”
Stafford’s best season, far and away, came in 2011. He threw for over 5,000 yards (well more than 300 yards per game), fired 41 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 97.2. Stafford hasn’t been as prolific this year, but he’s been more efficient.
“I think he’s a growing and developing quarterback, so I do think he was better than he was last year, two years ago, three years ago,” Cooter said. “Hopefully we’re all getting better every year. I think he falls into that category, too. But I think he’s doing a really good job with what we’re asking him to do.”
What they’re asking Stafford to do is simple. And with Megatron removed from the equation, it’s all beginning to add up.