Wojo: Stafford deserves his share of blame for Lions' woes

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park – They’ve added high-priced offensive linemen and high-priced receivers. They’ve added big running backs and little running backs. They even once drafted a tight end with the 10th overall pick, you might recall.

The Lions have tried to fix their offense through multiple coaching regimes in multiple ways, with the same goal every time – to supplement Matthew Stafford’s ability. It’s not working again, and with the season teetering at 3-5, Matt Patricia made one move, firing special teams coach Joe Marciano. Jim Bob Cooter should be the next to go, likely after the season, unless the offense somehow revives. If not, it all goes back to Stafford, whose talent and flaws are forever intertwined.

Patricia defended his coordinator Tuesday, saying “Jim Bob has done a great job with the offense here for a long time and continues to do that.”

Uh, OK. Obviously, the Lions were poorly managed for years and added a lot of misfit pieces. Case in point: Former second-round pick Ameer Abdullah was just cut.

But it’s also fair to suggest Stafford simply isn’t good enough to carry a team, not to division titles, not to playoff success (0-3). The evidence is nine-plus years in the making, through the Jim Schwartz era, the Jim Caldwell era and now early in the Patricia era. As tempting as it is to blame it all on the Lions’ infamous bungling, it’s on Stafford too, more and more.

Patricia doesn’t get a free pass and neither does third-year GM Bob Quinn, who traded his most productive receiver, Golden Tate. Stafford doesn’t get one either. From one view, he’s a franchise’s dream, a durable quarterback with a high profile in the community who causes no trouble, on or off the field.

He's an enigma

From an increasingly fuzzy view, he’s an enigma, and sorry, you can’t win in the NFL led by an enigma, especially one making $27 million per season. The Lions were seventh in scoring last season while finishing 9-7, and the offense was supposed to be the stabilizer while Patricia and Quinn rebuilt the defense. Stafford worked well with Cooter for two-and-a-half seasons, and strongly endorsed he be retained by the new staff.

Remember, this was considered a playoff contender, realistic or not. Stafford and Cooter now have some semblance of a running game, with Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. First-round pick Frank Ragnow joined an offensive line already steeped in expensive investments.

And yet there were the Lions staggering around in confusion Sunday, as Stafford was sacked 10 times. The Vikings’ defense is excellent, but that was extraordinary slapstick by the Lions, and it wasn’t all on the line.

Stafford, 30, always has relied on a strong arm and a sharp mind, but hasn’t developed a consistently accurate touch. Maybe with those traits, he felt he didn’t need to obsess over the game, or refine his skill set. It was only two summers ago he began to use a private quarterback coach, and his turnovers dropped the past two seasons.

Matthew Stafford directs an offense that ranks 20th in the NFL in scoring this season.

But Stafford sometimes lacks pocket awareness and is too eager to bail and wing it. I’ve never considered him an elite quarterback, just a good one who should get better with improved coaching and talent around him. But the justifications for his lack of success are increasingly hollow. Quinn showed trust – perhaps misguided trust – in Stafford by trading Tate for a third-round pick. It’s how a lot of top organizations operate, collecting assets for the future in the hope that the quarterback can compensate.

Tom Brady does it. Aaron Rodgers does it. Drew Brees does it. Russell Wilson does it.

Stafford is not in that category, no matter how many people think he should be. He’s a tough, strong-armed pro, but not necessarily a wildly driven leader. That sentiment is growing around the league, and former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, now a CBS Sports Network analyst, unloaded this week.

“I’m getting sick and tired of talking about Matthew Stafford,” Gannon said. “He’s been one of the highest-paid quarterbacks over the last four or five years and he’s a stat king. He picks up a lot of yards and production in garbage time… The reason why the Lions are not a better football team – a big reason why – is the lack of production from Stafford in the first quarter to the third quarter.”

The record and stats don’t lie. The Lions are 63-70 with Stafford as the starter, with many of the victories requiring fourth-quarter comebacks. If the team can’t make him into something he’s not, and can’t trade him with that contract, then it needs to be built a different way, with a stronger emphasis on defense and the running game. The story can’t always be about what Stafford did or didn’t do, can or can’t do.

Not good enough

Midway through this season, the offense ranks 20th in scoring, 21st in total yards and 29th in red zone scoring percentage. Stafford is 14th in passer rating and has a modest 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, along with three fumbles. In the last three losses to the Cowboys, Seahawks and Vikings, the Lions entered the fourth quarter with these point totals: 10, 7, 6.

Not even close to good enough, not in a league that tilts heavily toward offense. The Vikings’ pass rush was ferocious, but a few sacks occurred when Stafford didn’t recognize the pressure, or ran himself into it.

More: Lions film review: Five observations vs. Vikings

“We all have a day like that,” Stafford said. “The fault is on everybody. I have to get the ball out faster. … I can do my part better.”

So can Cooter, whose job security already was tenuous as a holdover from Caldwell’s staff. Quinn committed to Stafford, so Cooter would be the one to go, although his head coach is standing behind him, for now. Patricia makes a lot of empty statements, not interested in delivering true insight or signaling alarm. He’s a first-year head coach and he’s struggling with his message – to the media and perhaps to the team.

That does not, by the way, give the players freedom to bail on the season, with four straight tough games – Bears, Panthers, Bears, Rams – coming up. If they do that now, it’s disgusting. So Tate is gone? Find another safety valve. Throw the ball more to Kenny Golladay, who has been targeted only seven times (six catches) the past three games, a ridiculous amount.

On his weekly conference call, Cooter took responsibility in a matter-of-fact manner, kind of how the offense operates these days.

“We did not play our best last week,” Cooter said. “It was a unit-wide effort and obviously I’m in charge of that. So I’m not doing a good enough job of getting us ready to play well on Sundays.”

It has been a common lament from Lions coaches over the years. Everyone thinks they can make Stafford more efficient, more consistent. But if Stafford and Cooter don’t find something soon that works, significant change will be required again, and someone else will be asked to solve the Stafford riddle.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski