Wojo: Stafford must tie all the pieces together
Allen Park — There are pieces, for sure. Big pieces, little pieces and one especially pricey piece. The Lions’ offense is like a collection of isolated elements, each potentially volatile, still waiting for the right mix.
It feels like we’ve said this for a while about Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ attack. It’s being said with more urgency this season, and not just because Stafford is the newly minted highest-paid player in the NFL.
The Lions have no choice but to be led by their best. They likely won’t be led by their defense, with top pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah just now working his way back from injury. They don’t get a break in the schedule, not that anyone really does. They don’t have their left tackle, Taylor Decker, for about half the season.
If the Lions are to reach the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under Jim Caldwell, there’s little question how they’ll get there. Three years ago, they had one of the best defenses in the league. Last season, they got one of the all-time clutch quarterback performances, as Stafford engineered an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks.
This season, they need more from the offense, more than ranking 21st in yards and 20th in points. As long as their health holds up, they could be as complete as they’ve been under Stafford. Running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are healthy together for the first time in nearly a year. Receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones have a better understanding of the scheme, and rookie Kenny Golladay is a fresh wildcard. Tight end Eric Ebron remains intriguing and erratic.
“I’ve been a part of some really good offenses and some really good teams, you know, we’re right up there with the best,” Stafford said Wednesday as the Lions prepared for their opener Sunday against Arizona. “We have guys at a lot of positions that can help us. I think all the way up and down the line, maybe more so than we ever have. ... It’s fun as a quarterback to have as many tools as you possibly can to try to defeat what a defense is doing.”
Potential is there
We saw it for one game last season, when Abdullah and Riddick played the opener in Indianapolis and combined for 108 yards rushing, 120 yards receiving and three touchdowns in the Lions’ 39-35 victory. Then Abdullah injured his foot in the second game and was lost for the season, and Riddick was hampered by injuries. The Lions used Stafford’s moxie and pixie dust to pull out close victories, before they staggered to the finish.
For the Lions to evolve, this is where it has to start, with an offense general manager Bob Quinn has invested heavily in. It’s also the second full season under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, a long way from the middle of 2015. That’s when Caldwell fired Joe Lombardi and elevated Cooter, who was forced to sketch together an offense on the team flight to London, where the Lions were destroyed by the Chiefs, 45-10.
Now Stafford is easily in the best shape of his career, emboldened and entrusted in every way. He worked with a quarterback coach in the offseason, following the lead of his buddy, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan. Stafford has more pieces at his disposal, and while it’s a small sample size, the Lions are 7-2 under Cooter when Abdullah and Riddick play.
“Oh man, I think this can be the best offense in the league,” Abdullah said. “We have the most depth we’ve had, especially at receiver and running back, since I’ve been here.”
By the end of last season, the Lions were down to one running back, Zach Zenner, and Stafford was down to one good middle finger. So when they talk about improved depth, they say it almost reverentially.
It should be true. Decker’s shoulder injury is a blow, but former first-round pick Greg Robinson has shown he might be able to handle the position. By signing a new right side of the line — Rick Wagner, T.J. Lang — the Lions took steps to solidify the offense.
They’re not small, inexpensive steps, either. Cooter verbally beats himself up about the running game, and vows repeatedly to emphasize the importance of it. The Lions were 30th in the league in rushing, and Riddick actually led them with a mere (not Ameer) 357 yards. Their offense was tedious, although surprisingly efficient when building a 9-4 record. Stafford felt less compelled to take chances, posting the lowest interception rate of his career.
“I think Jim Bob trusts Matt a lot more than he did in the past,” Tate said. “And his touch has been phenomenal in camp. He’s been dropping some perfect balls in the bucket where only the receivers can catch it.”
Again, counting on mounting comebacks is an ill-advised strategy. Both Abdullah and Riddick have unique elusiveness, and if they can pop big runs early, the Lions might not have to operate in such narrow margins.
Because of health issues, the concept has been more theoretic than Theo Riddick. He can be a prolific pass-catching back, with 80 and 53 receptions the past two seasons.
Obviously Theo brings a crazy dimension to our offense,” Abdullah said. “I thought he was the quickest guy on our team, but he’s even 10 times quicker just because he’s more confident. I feel like things with our offense are just better — better designed, better timed, better intent.”
The intent is to score quicker, from more angles. The intent is to run the ball enough to allow Stafford to prove he can be an elite all-around quarterback, not just a talented oddity lugging a 5-46 record against winning teams. He has to get nauseous when that mark (and 0-3 in the playoffs) is dropped at his feet, but that’s the way it works, and that’s why he gets the scrutiny and the contract.
Stafford seems to be accepting the challenge with more vigor, being more vocal among teammates, while trying to refine his strong-armed game with soft-touch throws.
“This (offense) is well balanced,” Caldwell said. “We have tight ends that can run and catch. We have receivers that can run and catch. We have backs that can run and catch, all across the board.
“Just in terms of depth, I’m not certain we’ve been much better when you spread it out and look at it all together.”
Spreading it out is one thing, tying it all together is the next thing. If key pieces truly are in place and Stafford is ready for more, we need to see the evidence early in games and early in the season, no waiting around.
MORE LIONS COVERAGE