JBC, Matt Stafford’s Red Zone Passing, and Life Without Megatron

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After Jim Bob Cooter took over the reins of the Detroit offense following Joe Lombardi’s ousting, Matt Stafford had arguably the best eight-game stretch of his career. During that span, in which the Lions went 6-2, he threw for 2,179 yards and had 19 TDs to just two INTs, all while posting a 70% completion rate and a QB rating of 110.1. His detractors are quick to point out that it was against weaker teams, and while that’s true based on their records, four of the seven opponents he faced finished with defenses in the top seven in pass yardage allowed. Regardless of whether or not you believe that’s meaningful, Stafford built a rapport with his new OC, going so far as to say that he and Cooter “see football the same way.” When prompted on the subject, that’s something that Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner certainly thought that was meaningful. “You always want to find a system and a coordinator or a coach that sees it like you do,” he said.

The relationship and philosophy that Stafford and Cooter share spells good things for the Lions offense going into 2017. There’s a caveat, however – the retirement of Calvin Johnson could throw a wrench into Cooter’s plans. The question at hand is whether the departure of Megatron will offset the continued improvement that’s expected after the team’s strong finish. The answer, I believe, lies in Stafford’s red zone numbers.

In 2015, Matt Stafford was one of the best red zone quarterbacks in the NFL. Inside the twenty, he went 48-for-73 for a league-best (minimum thirty attempts) completion rate of 65.75%. In addition, he had 26 TDs to zero INTs. His touchdown mark was good for third-best, behind just Tom Brady (30) and Carson Palmer (27), although his interception total was lower than that of either. Inside the ten, he was even more remarkable; he had an insane 75% completion rate on 27-for-36 passing, good for best in the league (minimum ten attempts). Make no mistake – this is a rare phenomenon. When offenses drive into the red zone, the playbook gets thinner, defenses tighten up, and passing windows get smaller. Stafford’s percentage dipped a tad when initially entering the red zone, but skyrocketed once he got inside the ten. Check out his splits, and how he ranked in each category:

Matt Stafford in the Red Zone

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Overall completion rate: 67.3% (#5)
Inside the 20-yard line: 65.75% (#1)
Inside the 10-yard line: 75.0% (#1)

Out of quarterbacks who qualified for both the top 32 in total passing attempts and the top 32 in red zone passing attempts (a total of 25 eligible quarterbacks, excluding Stafford), the average drop-off in accuracy from overall completion rate to red zone completion rate was 10.98%. Stafford’s drop-off from his overall completion rate to his inside-the-20 rate was a mere 1.55%. He was even better inside the ten, though. Only three eligible quarterbacks had a better completion rate inside the ten than they did overall. Stafford improved inside the ten by a crazy 7.7%; the next highest was Andrew Luck, and he didn’t even come close in either differential (+4.7%) or actual rate (60.0%). Meanwhile, the average drop-off for eligible quarterbacks in this area of the field was 12.17%. This means that Stafford was almost a full 20% more accurate than his peers inside the ten.

It seems natural to presume that Calvin Johnson had a lot to do with that red zone production, and to some extent, that’s true. He accounted for seven of the 26 red zone TDs Stafford threw, but he had little statistical impact aside from that. Inside the twenty, he was targeted 18 times, 10 of which were completed (55.55%) for a total of 77 yards. The bulk of his production came from within the ten, where has was targeted eight times, snagging six (75%) for TDs. Without these throws to Calvin, Stafford’s red zone completion rate would have actually improved to 69.1%, while his TD numbers would still be good for eighth-best.

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What does any of this have to do with how the offense might look without Calvin Johnson, though? I’m glad you asked. Jim Bob Cooter’s offensive scheme is predicated on spreading the ball around and getting it out quickly. Naturally, this means that the offense is limited in its verticality, because there’s less time for routes to develop. We saw a lot of short and intermediate passing plays under Cooter, and that’s a trend that will likely continue into 2016. Stafford’s sheer dominance in the red zone bodes well for that trend, even following Johnson’s retirement. In the red zone, particularly inside the ten yard line, you must be surgically precise. Defenders are packed closer together, and there’s less room for error. The fact that Stafford is so accurate in such tight spaces will translate well in the offense this year. Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, and Theo Riddick have been dubbed ‘the YAC Attack’ by the fan base due to their abilities as playmakers. Tate and Riddick both ranked in the top ten in YAC in 2015, and Jones qualified for 29th best among receivers. As sure-handed as this trio is (98% collective catch rate), and as magical as they are after the catch, it’ll be up to Stafford to lead them and put the ball in the best place for them to make things happen.

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