The Year of the Lion King

I still remember exactly where I was when I finally came to the realization his career was over. It was a feeling of resignation. He had been perhaps my favorite Lion ever.   No – he was my favorite Lion ever. Still is. Probably always will be. I had always viewed him as a hero. Not because of his heroics, but because of the sacrifices he had made. One of the most physically gifted players at his position ever, he had squandered his talent on one of the worst sports teams ever. He set records. He did things we’d never seen before. And, perhaps most importantly, he gave us hope. Now, he was the martyr of our failure.

I am talking, of course, about Matt Stafford.

He had just thrown his third interception, a lame duck to Patrick Peterson, with ten minutes still left in the third quarter. The Lion King sulked to the sideline with his tail in between his legs, and there he remained. The writing was on the wall for Matt Stafford. The former number one overall pick was replaced by Dan Orlovsky on the next drive, whose legacy would have been much more embarrassing than the “Butt Fumble” had YouTube and Twitter been bigger in 2008. The same Dan Orlovsky that ran out of the back of his own endzone for a safety. It was ironic; Stafford was being replaced by one of the men he was supposed to replace. The Lions had come full circle.

They were well on their way to 0-5, and the organization was set ablaze with panic. The fanbase no longer believed in Stafford. Caldwell’s demise was imminent. Mayhew would inevitably follow. The season wasn’t even halfway over, and the rebuild was already seemingly in full swing. It felt like Ford Field was crumbling and sinking into Lake Erie like a dystopian Atlantis. At least the cold waters would quell the flames.

The Lions eventually fired Joe Lombardi after a 1-6 start and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator. The rest is history. No, really – it’s history. In the sense that Stafford’s second half was historic. After their bye week, the Lions looked like a new team, going 6-2 in the second half of the season. Stafford was reborn in Cooter’s offense, throwing for 2179 yards, 19 TDs, and just 2 INTs in the last eight games. He also had a 110.1 passer rating and a 70.0% completion rate during that period, a franchise record for any eight game stretch. His 32 TDs on the year were the second-highest of his career (41 in 2011), whereas his 13 interceptions were the second-lowest of his career (12 in 2014). He finished in the Top 10 of every major statistical passing category: seventh in attempts, fifth in completions, eighth in yards, seventh in TDs, ninth in passer rating, and fifth in completion percentage.

Stafford: Last season and next

Stafford’s detractors are quick to point out that his brilliant second half came against weaker opponents, and that’s true. The combined win percentage of the clubs he faced was .406. Their average rank in 2015 team pass defense was 19th in yardage and 16th in TDs. For these reasons, many believe that Stafford’s stellar play won’t continue. Except it has a very good chance to in 2016.

The opponents have been set for this upcoming season, and the Lions have a very soft schedule, tied for 27th-weakest in the league at a winning percentage of .465, which is about only one game better than the opponents during Stafford’s late season run. Their 2016 opponents’ average rank in team pass defense is 16th in yardage and 18th in TDs allowed. To put that in perspective, the difference between the 16th and 19th in yardage is 132 yards, or an average of 8.25 yards per game, and the difference between 16th and 18th in TDs is 2 TDs, or an average of 0.125 per game. That’s negligible.

On top of that, the Lions have seven games in 2016 that will serve as rematches against teams they played during that eight-game stretch: two against the Packers, two against the Bears, one against the Saints, one against the Eagles, and one against the Rams. None of those teams, with the exception of Chicago, have gotten appreciably better on defense. Los Angeles actually got worse, losing secondary starters in safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, in addition to the front seven departures of James Laurinaitis and Chris Long.

Outside of those teams, the Lions will play a home-away split against the Vikings (12th-ranked 2015 pass defense), and then one game each against the Texans (3rd) the Titans (7th), the Colts (24th), the Jaguars (29th), the Cowboys (4th), the Redskins (25th), and the Giants (32nd).

In two contests against Minnesota last season, Stafford went 50-79 (63.3% completion rate) and threw for 542 yards, 4 TDs, and just 1 INT. There’s no reason to think he won’t fare just as well this season, if not better.

The Colts and the Redskins haven’t gotten any better on defense, either. Stafford should be able to perform well against them. The dismal Jaguars and Giants both made big free agency splashes in attempts to upgrade their defenses, but it remains to be seen how it will all come together for either of those squads. At any rate, I doubt they’ll be catapulted from the bottom of the league to the top.

Finally, we have three opponents who were top defenses against the pass in 2015: the Texans, the Cowboys, and the Titans. All three ranked in the Top 7 in team pass defense (yardage) in 2015. During those final eight games, Stafford played half of them against teams ranked in the Top 7 in team pass defense: the Packers (6th) twice, the Bears (4th) once, and the 49ers (7th). In those games, he went 104-149 (69.7% completion rate) and threw for 1061 yards, 9 TDs, and just 1 INT. He went 3-1 against those teams.

If there was any year for Stafford to silence his doubters, it’s this year.  The rapport he’s built with his new coordinator, and the comfort level he has in the system, will only improve with an entire off-season to build on that 6-2 run. The schedule is favorable. Stafford is now out from under the shadow of Joe Lombardi. Everything the light touches is his.

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