Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford saw a bit of regression last season.
Matthew Stafford has been and will be the key to the Detroit Lions regular season, and eventually postseason success. When he has an incredible season, he could be in the hunt for the league MVP award, similar to what we saw in the 2016 season. However, if he has a down season like last year, the Lions are unlikely to be near playoff contention in the final month of the year.
However, while the Lions may succeed or fail on the back of Matthew Stafford’s arm, he can’t do it by himself. A quarterback is affected by many other factors on the football field from his pass catchers to run game, blocking, and even coaching.
Any aspect of the surrounding circumstances could completely disrupt an entire play. If the offensive line doesn’t block, the quarterback is likely getting sacked. If the receivers don’t create separation, the quarterback has to be that much more accurate to avoid a costly decision. Or, in some cases (including Stafford’s), maybe he’s fighting through an injury or off-the-field situation that is keeping him from playing at 100% on the football field.
So while basic stats like completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio do matter to their own extent, there’s many other aspects that should be accounted for beyond the box score when looking at quarterbacks.
Average Depth Of Target
One thing that really held Matthew Stafford back last season was the lack of deep passes. This could be caused by a number of different reasons. Whether it be the broken ribs he suffered not allowing him to air it as far down the field, or the loss of Marvin Jones, his deep target, or simply play-calling on Jim Bob Cooter’s part; the Lions didn’t attempt nearly as many deep passes as they could have last season.
The one key analytic that points this out to a large extent is air yards per target, where he averaged only 3.2 last season. This would be 34th(!) in the National Football League. That means that roughly three backup quarterbacks last season, plus all 31 other starters threw the ball further on average per attempt in the air. So, maybe Matthew Stafford was having a terrible year throwing down the field and the team shied away from it due to his down year? Well, taking a look beyond the box score indicates that he was actually 5th in completion percentage on deep passes. A top five quarterback last season on deep passes threw the 34th most.
If it were an anomaly of success (for example, take an underneath passer like Case Keenum), it would make more sense. However, for someone of Matthew Stafford’s skill set, paired with continued success down the field in his career, this is completely unacceptable, and shows just how poorly utilized he was in the previous scheme last season.
The next thing to consider beyond the box score about Stafford’s performance last season is his receivers. The Lions receiving weapons last season, especially after the halfway mark of the season, were lackluster at best. Outside of Kenny Golladay, who had roughly a third of the team’s total air yards last season, the team’s pass catchers last season were all players either no longer on the team or unlikely to make it to the 53-man roster in September.
This also shows up beyond the box score analytically as well. Matthew Stafford was #1 in the league amongst all quarterbacks last season in total drops, with 45, or 2.8 drops per game from pass catchers. If 33% (1/3rd) of his drops were removed, that would put him 6th in the league one spot ahead of Patrick Mahomes. Now, comparing his completion percentage with and without those 15 extra drops, he goes up from 66% to almost 69%. In regards to adjusted completion percentage, which takes out all drops and unpressured throwaways from every QB in the league, Stafford was 9th last season at 73.1%.
Additionally, in terms of accuracy score, which grades each quarterback’s throw in terms of ball placement on a scale of 1-4 (4 being the best), he was given a 3, which ties him for the 7th best quarterback last season. Not bad for a quarterback who had one of the worst years of his career fighting through broken ribs! Meanwhile, his pass catchers only averaged 1.32 yards of separation on targets beyond the line of scrimmage last year, a mark that was 23rd in the league.
Use of Play-Action
Another aspect of Stafford’s ability that goes beyond the box score is how effective he has been in the past in play-action. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell plans to utilize more play-action passing this season, which should increase its effectiveness. Stafford in 2017 finished 10th in play-action rate, while this year he dropped to 23rd in the league, a stark drop off that seems to be more of an anomaly in part due to play calling and receiving issues.
Should the Lions stick to the plan of going back to increasing Stafford’s play-action attempts next season as has been shown a bit in training camp, this should help Matthew Stafford return to his previous form and look better beyond the box score as well as on it.
Middle of the Field
One place that could drastically impact Matthew Stafford’s performance this season beyond the box score is how he performs in the middle of the field. Last year between 10 and 20 yards between the hashes, Stafford posted a 67.9 QBR rating last year, his worst of any part of the field. However, this is actually where most quarterbacks do their best, as the average QBR in that area is at a 92.9.
This is where the addition of T.J. Hockenson specifically comes into play. Hockenson at the University of Iowa last season was a seam threat when lined up both on the line and in the slot. He was effective in that role, and was able to come down with a large portion of his targets, becoming a critical component of the passing attack led by Nate Stanley last season. If Hockenson can improve Stafford’s success in the middle of the field this coming season (as he’s expected to by many) this could be huge for a potential breakout year for Stafford.
Additionally, if Stafford is able to target the middle of the field more and with greater success, this could help draw coverage away from his outside receivers. If he’s able to increase the effectiveness of his outside receivers and help free up Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay as we explored in the T.J. Hockenson edition of this series, Stafford could be in for one of the best years of his career.
Other Factors Beyond the Box Score
The final contributing factors that could have played a role in Stafford’s down season last year were his injuries and his wife’s health off the field. Matthew Stafford was fighting through broken ribs last season among other injuries, which likely limited his effectiveness.
Additionally, Kelly Stafford was dealing with some of her own health issues over the course of last season, which fortunately seem to be getting better now that she has undergone treatment this off-season. With what figures to be a less gruelling season off the field for him as well, Stafford could be as ready as ever to get back to football and produce for the Detroit Lions next season.