Detroit — This isn’t necessarily a big deal. Many will say it isn’t a deal at all. But I’ll go ahead and pose it: What’s the deal with Matthew Stafford?
The Lions have a new offense, a new coordinator, new terminology, new tight ends. They have three weeks until they open at Arizona, followed by a tough five-game gauntlet. Matt Patricia desperately needs a stronger start in his second season, and yet, we see nothing and the Lions show nothing. Which probably means we know nothing.
But do they? Stafford hasn’t played in the first two preseason games, including a 30-23 loss at Houston Saturday night. He barely practiced for six days, an unusual pre-planned rest period in the middle of training camp. By most accounts, he’s looked inconsistent during joint practices against the Texans and Patriots.
Patricia hasn’t even committed to playing him Friday night at home against the Bills, which means there’s a chance Stafford could sit the entire preseason. On one level, this seems prudent (although I suspect Stafford will play a series or two). He played with an injured back late last season. Why risk damage in lame preseason games when the Lions don’t have a viable backup, with all due respect to David Fales, Josh Johnson and Tom Savage?
On another level, it seems peculiar, even concerning. They can’t hide the offense forever.
Stafford is 31, entering his 11th season, and is smart enough to grasp a new scheme. But before last season, he played in at least three preseason games every year, played all four in five straight years. That’s excessive the other way, although he did follow with his best regular seasons. Joint practices across the league have lessened the impact of exhibitions, but last year the Lions also had dual workouts with the Raiders and Giants, and Stafford still played in two games.
It’s clear Patricia has responded to suggestions he overworked veterans and has lightened the load. The hope is, it’ll produce long-term benefits. The fear is, it could produce short-term hiccups. What about Stafford’s timing with first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson, or slot receiver Danny Amendola, or new center Frank Ragnow, who played guard last season? What about adjusting to Darrell Bevell’s play-calling?
Many experienced quarterbacks play little in the preseason. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger haven’t played. Some are coming off injuries. None are facing as dramatic a philosophical shift as the Lions’ offense.
Many other quarterbacks, from veterans to young hotshots, have played this preseason — Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Marcus Mariota, Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins, Jameis Winston.
Patricia says it’s about doling out repetitions, and Stafford has gotten plenty in practice. Stafford has said he’s gradually getting comfortable with the offense and understands the strategy.
“It’s not easy for me (to sit), but it’s probably good for me in the long run,” Stafford said last week after his multiple-day break. “Something that Coach Patricia and I had talked about, and it’s probably the right thing to do.”
Maybe it is. The Lions’ offensive line isn’t set and isn’t deep, and was shredded for nine sacks by the Patriots. But remember, the team had no problem playing Stafford in the meaningless finale last season at Green Bay, as he battled what was later described as broken bones in his back.
Is this a reaction to age and nagging injuries? In last year’s 6-10 campaign, Stafford posted his worst full statistical season, which led to changes. New coordinator Bevell prefers a balanced offense more run-based than what the Lions long have used.
Fine. Makes sense. Instead of placing all the onus on Stafford flinging to receivers while trying to stay upright behind an unproven line, balance it out. Patricia and GM Bob Quinn already have built a stronger defense — should be a top-10 unit — which will help Stafford in numerous ways. The key defenders haven’t played much yet either, but the system with coordinator Paul Pasqualoni hasn’t changed.
There are pieces
In flashes, you’ve seen positive things from rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai, rookie safety Will Harris, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Darius Slay, end Romeo Okwara and others. Can you identify an encouraging flash on offense yet? Rookie runner Ty Johnson shows speed. Hockenson looks legit. None of the top receivers has played and Kerryon Johnson has three carries.
After 10 years, the Lions finally figured out what Stafford couldn’t do well enough — throw accurately in a precision passing game — and shifted some responsibilities. But until we see it, it’s a leap of faith, and you wonder if Stafford and the coaching staff are fully ready to operate it.
“As far as Stafford is concerned, as we rolled down (to Houston), I think we had a lot of snaps out on the practice field we thought were really good for us,” Patricia said. “Offensively, I thought we had the work that we needed to get in, and sometimes the practice stuff we’re doing is a little more elaborate than what we might do in the game. Just thought it was a good opportunity to get the other guys equally, hopefully, snaps and evaluate both of the (other quarterbacks).”
Will it be enough?
This is caution of the Lions’ own making. Savage was in concussion protocol, Johnson was signed out of desperation and Fales is a journeyman. If Stafford gets injured, the Lions are cooked anyhow.
But other teams have decent backups, and in a way, the Lions continue to bank too much on Stafford, even as they try to shift away from it. This isn’t about the scores in the preseason either — 31-3 loss to New England; 30-23 loss to Houston. Ugly exhibitions — pretty exhibitions too — are easily forgotten, and rarely portend what’s ahead.
Stafford hadn’t missed a practice in eight years. He’s one of the most-durable quarterbacks in the league, with a starting streak of 131 games, sixth-longest in NFL history. That’s admirable, although perhaps not always wise.
If the Lions want to bubble-wrap him now, as time ticks on, it’s the safe move. There’s always risk playing your starting quarterback. With a new offense in a crucial year for the current regime, there’s also risk in sitting him too long.
Aug. 8, New England, L 31-3
Saturday, Houston, L 30-23
Friday, Buffalo, 8 p.m. (CBS)
Thu., Aug. 29, at Cleveland, 7:30
Sun., Sept. 8, at Arizona, 4:25 (Fox)
Sun., Sept. 15, L.A. Chargers, 1 (CBS)
Sun., Sept. 22, at Philadelphia, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Sept. 29, Kansas City, 1 (Fox)
Mon., Oct. 14, at Green Bay, 8:15 (ESPN)
Sun., Oct. 20, Minnesota, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Oct. 27, N.Y. Giants, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Nov. 3, at Oakland, 4 (Fox)
Sun., Nov. 10, at Chicago, 1 (CBS)
Sun., Nov. 17, Dallas, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Nov. 24, at Washington, 1 (Fox)
Thu., Nov. 28, Chicago, 12:30 (Fox)
Sun., Dec. 8, at Minnesota, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Dec. 15, Tampa Bay, 1 (Fox)
Sun., Dec. 22, at Denver, TBD (CBS)
Sun., Dec. 29, Green Bay, 1 (Fox)