Wojo: Stafford tosses away what's left of Lions' season

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The Bears' Khalil Mack comes in to pressure Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford In the fourth quarter.

Detroit – On days like this, in tough games like this, a good quarterback is supposed to lift a wounded team, supposed to compensate for what’s missing.

Matthew Stafford, in his 10th season as a starter, couldn’t do it. Bears backup Chase Daniel, making the third start of his nine-year career, could.

Marinate on that stinking scenario, as damning an indictment of Stafford as we’ve seen. The Lions are done as a competitive factor this season, done in by a great Bears defense, done in by Stafford’s mistakes, the same maddening stuff we’ve seen too many times. Asked to rally a depleted offense, Stafford couldn’t get it done, and threw two critical interceptions in the Lions’ 23-16 loss on Thanksgiving Day.

We’ve seen enough in Matt Patricia’s first season, with the Lions 4-7, to recognize he won’t be an immediate difference-maker. We’ve seen more than enough to recognize the offense isn’t just injured, it’s broken. Whatever coordinator Jim Bob Cooter did to help Stafford in previous seasons isn’t working anymore, and Patricia will have to make a change. If he doesn’t want to fire Cooter now, he should do it shortly after the season.

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But this is the vexing double-edged blade with Stafford. Coaches always praise his talent and work ethic, then fail to fully tap it. Maybe it’s not fully tap-able, and Stafford simply is what he is, a guy who can make nice throws and pile up yards with good receivers, but can’t do the special, exceptional things to make a team successful.

What Stafford did in this game was inexcusable, not because he was supposed to beat an excellent Bears team, but because he wasn’t supposed to be the guy that lost it. Less than two weeks ago, he was battered by the Bears, sacked six times, in a 34-22 loss. So this time, the plan was to get rid of the ball quicker, which requires quicker decisions and precision, which Stafford couldn’t execute in clutch situations.

“Teams that hold the ball against those guys don’t get the ball off quite a bit,” Stafford said. “So we just tried to make sure we mixed it up, and for the most part, if I don’t make those two turnovers, I don’t make those poor plays, we’re right where we want to be.”

Major changes needed

Yes, the Lions were missing rookie runner Kerryon Johnson and receiver Marvin Jones. Yes, tight end Michael Roberts was partly to blame for both interceptions, including the clincher in the end zone with 1:07 left. Yes, the Bears’ defense swipes passes from just about anyone, and safety Eddie Jackson is terrific. But with the game tied 16-16 with six minutes left and the Lions on their own 41, Stafford made a gaffe he simply can’t make.

Jackson easily plucked the toss in the left flat and returned it 41 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, as if he knew exactly where Stafford was headed. Every opponent seems to know exactly where the Lions offense is headed, which is why major changes are needed.

Stafford’s numbers (28-for-38 for 236 yards) were almost identical to Daniel’s (27-for-37 for 230). In fact, Daniel faced more pressure, sacked four times. The difference was, he avoided the huge blunder, zero interceptions. The other difference was, the Bears defense is one of the best in the league, and the Lions hover just below average.

But we can’t keep lowering the bar for Stafford, no matter how dysfunctional the Lions have been over the years. He’s paid like an elite quarterback, he’s touted like one, and he doesn’t play like one nearly enough, not against the best teams. On the final interception, it was third-and-9 from Chicago’s 11, and Stafford lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone. Roberts veered outside but the ball fluttered inside, and cornerback Kyle Fuller picked it off.

Stafford and Roberts both admitted to miscommunication, or misreads, without blaming each other. Patricia wasn’t willing to assign blame, but wasn’t absolving anyone either.

“We can’t have those situations,” Patricia said. “When they come up, they’re not good.”

Stafford now has 10 interceptions, after throwing 10 all of last season. The Lions coincidentally just matched their loss total from Jim Caldwell’s final 9-7 slate.

Stagnant offense

Patricia was hired for his defensive prowess, with the idea that Stafford and Cooter were comfortable running the offense. Maybe too comfortable. While teams like the Rams and Chiefs are cranking up the creativity and point totals, the Lions have been stagnating, even before Johnson and Jones went out and Golden Tate was traded.

One guy who’s won elsewhere tried to explain what he’s seen here, but had no easy answers.

“It sucks,” LeGarrette Blount said. “We’re not playing good football, we’re not playing complementary football. We’re turning the ball over, we’re not finishing drives, we’re stalling inside the 5, a plethora of things that say why we’re not coming out on top.”

Others actually stepped nicely into the void, including Blount, who rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t given the chance on fourth-and-1 from the Bears 2 midway through the fourth quarter as Patricia opted for the conservative path, and Matt Prater’s 20-yard field goal tied it 16-16.

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That ultra-safe mentality may work when you’re coaching the better team, or have the superior quarterback. The Lions had the superior quarterback in this game, in theory, certainly not in practice.

“I don’t like to point fingers, and I don’t think you can put all the blame on Stafford,” Blount said. “Obviously he’s an elite quarterback, one of the best in this league. I don’t think it’s his fault. There’s no quarterback that’s gonna go through a full season and not make any mistakes. He’s human, he makes mistakes, I make mistakes, we all make mistakes. And a lot of mistakes give you an L.”

The Lions always stand behind their quarterback, perhaps partly because they have no choice, partly because they keep expecting to see more. This was the perfect day for Stafford to show more, to beat a weary Bears team starting a quarterback with 78 career passes. It didn’t happen, and the more it doesn’t happen, the more you question whether it’ll ever happen for Stafford in a big way, here or anywhere.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski