Wojo: Lions won't win until they solve the Stafford issue

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford played all 16 regular-season games for an eighth consecutive season. His passer rating of 89.9 ranks 25th in the league.

Allen Park — One issue supersedes all others on the Lions, by a wide, critical margin. It’s the issue that wasn’t supposed to be an issue, but now absolutely is.

Matthew Stafford regressed this season, even as the Lions’ long-woeful running game improved, even as Kenny Golladay emerged as a potential star. The Lions won’t win a thing with Stafford playing like this, which means they have to improve him, move him, or fire some assistants. This is an obvious issue without an obvious answer, and in the immediate aftermath of a 6-10 campaign, Matt Patricia wasn’t offering any.

Will offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter remain on the staff?

“We’ll definitely evaluate everybody,” Patricia said Monday.

Are you still confident in Stafford?

“He’s our quarterback and I’m excited and happy that he is,” Patricia said. “But again, we’ll evaluate everything as we go forward.”

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Stafford played to the end, all 16 games, for an eighth consecutive season, and that’s laudable. But it’s not enough, not for a 10-year veteran. He finished with 3,777 passing yards and 6.81 yards per attempt, both his lowest ever for a full season. His passer rating of 89.9 ranked 25th in the league.

Somehow, in the process of fixing their run defense (10th in yards allowed) and upgrading their run offense with Kerryon Johnson (until he was injured), the Lions broke their quarterback. Or perhaps Stafford broke himself. He didn’t talk as the Lions cleared out their lockers Monday, which was a surprise. My guess is, he literally doesn’t know what to say.

Change is needed

Cooter was the holdover coach that Stafford clearly wanted, but now a change is needed, and I can’t imagine Stafford is comfortable loudly voicing his opinion. Patricia said he’ll “take a hard look at every aspect of this team” in the coming weeks, but there’s no way the Lions can run the same tedious, short-passing offense.

Logical response: Fire Cooter. Again, it makes sense. Whether he was hampered by Patricia’s conservative philosophy, Stafford’s inconsistencies or the offensive line’s holes, it didn’t work.

Emotional response: Trade Stafford. At some point, Lions GM Bob Quinn indeed might explore this possibility. But to do it now would trigger a crushing $30-million salary-cap hit. The impact lightens after June 1, but it still isn’t realistic considering most teams will have their caps set.

Matthew Stafford calls out signals during the Lions' final game, Sunday in Green Bay.

So in the short term, the Lions need to make it work and figure out how to better utilize Stafford’s arm strength and minimize his questionable pocket awareness. If that requires a heart-to-heart, Matt-to-Matt talk between Patricia and Stafford, do it. Obviously, making the offense more productive wasn’t as simple as adding a running game. It didn’t help when Golden Tate was traded after the seventh game, and injuries certainly were a factor. Johnson missed the final six games and Marvin Jones the final seven games with knee injuries.

It’s not right to pin all the blame on Stafford, 30, because that lets others off the hook. Obviously, Patricia bears significant culpability for the Lions’ regression from 9-7 to 6-10. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that Jim Caldwell, fired a year ago, now is mentioned for NFL openings, his stature perhaps raised by what the Lions did without him.

Next season should provide a more-accurate measure of Patricia’s head-coaching acumen, with a difficult regime transition out of the way. It definitely will be a huge test for Quinn, entering his fourth season. The notion that players didn’t immediately buy into Patricia’s demanding ways and hard practices? That was accurate, graphically reflected in the 48-17 opening loss to the Jets.

No quitting on coach

The notion that players would quit on him? That didn’t happen, as the Lions mostly played hard to the end, especially on defense.

“I think we had some good weeks and we had some bad weeks, and the truth is, that’s what our season was,” Patricia said. “So, I think we made some great strides this year. We did improve and lay down a good foundation for things to build on. I think we found out that we could run the ball consistently through the course of the season, and I would say we showed we can improve our run defense.”

The trade for Damon “Snacks” Harrison at midseason was enormous. Along with Darius Slay, A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Jarrad Davis and Quandre Diggs, the Lions pieced together a solid defense, to Patricia’s credit. That’s his strength, and I’m going to assume his impact was greater than defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni’s.

So it goes back to the offense, ranked 24th in total yards. It goes back to being healthy, and with Golladay, Johnson and Jones, the Lions have a few difference-makers. First-round pick Frank Ragnow was very good, and if guard T.J. Lang returns from his neck injury, as he hopes to do, perhaps the offensive line could be as tough as it showed when healthy.

Early in the season, Stafford was one of the least-pressured quarterbacks in the league and was quite effective during a five-game stretch, with 11 touchdowns and one interception as the Lions climbed to 3-3. Then Lang went out, missed the final 10 games, and things changed. He said he’d love the chance to return and prove there’s a foundation here, and would take some time to assess his future. The Lions surely will do the same.

“The season didn’t go the way we wanted, but when you take a deep breath, in my mind it’s not something that needs drastic changes,” Lang said. “I think there have been improvements, small improvements, and you guys are gonna kill me for saying that because we finished worse than last year. I guess what it really comes down to is, don’t give up on us.”

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That was a bit of a theme in the locker room Monday, as Jones expressed support for Cooter and the direction of the offense. Don’t give up on us — that might be what Stafford would’ve said too.

Last week before the finale at Green Bay, Stafford shrugged off trade rumors and said “I would love to be one of those guys” that spends his entire career with one team. He also said he enjoys working with Cooter, but doubted he’d get consulted on staff issues.

As much as some fans may crave it, I don’t think the Lions can afford to give up on Stafford just yet. The other truth is, they can’t afford to maintain the status quo.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski