Matthew Stafford – 2011
Statistics: 16 games played, 5,038 passing yards, 64% completion, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 7.6 yards/attempt, 97.2 passer rating
Retrospective: Two injury-plagued seasons after being the first overall selection in the 2009 NFL draft, the jury was still out on Matthew Stafford. Could he stay healthy? Could he live up to his draft billing? Could he help further distance the Lions from their dreadful winless season of 2008? In 2011, he delivered.
In 2010, surgery on his throwing shoulder after Week 9 had ended Stafford’s season. The Lions eventually improved on their previous year’s record by winning six games, though Stafford had appeared in only three contests. Under pressure to end the Lions years-long substandard output from their quarterbacks, he got off to a quick start in 2011.
Behind a healthy Stafford, the Lions roared to a 5-0 start, thanks largely to a lethal combination of Stafford’s strong arm and Johnson’s emerging status as the league’s finest offensive playmaker. The pair combined for nine touchdown connections in their undefeated start and Stafford was completing his passes at a healthy 65% rate.
During this stretch, Stafford also continued to polish his reputation for crafting dramatic late-game comebacks. This included helping the Lions overcome 20-plus-point deficits in back to back road wins against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 3 and 4. Both of those victories included some pivotal, pinpoint throws to Johnson.
After that, the Lions suffered consecutive home losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons to halt their opening winning streak. Stafford labored through ankle and finger injuries in those contests, and his momentum slowed somewhat. The loss to the Falcons easily marked his lowest completion rate and number of completed passes of any game that year.
Stafford sandwiched a sparkling five-touchdown performance in a Week 10 home win over the Carolina Panthers in between his two worst performances of the season in losses against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. In those defeats, Stafford was intercepted seven times, accounting for nearly half of his season total of 16.
He would shake off that tough stretch and finish the season with a surge. The Lions registered another white-knuckle come-from-behind victory on the road when they edged out the Oakland Raiders for a critical road triumph in Week 14. In the win, Stafford eclipsed Scott Mitchell’s previous franchise record of 32 touchdown passes in a season.
The Lions then clinched their first playoff birth since 1999 with a resounding win at Ford Field against the then-San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve, before wrapping up the regular season with a wild road loss against the Green Bay Packers. In the finale, Stafford recorded his only 500 plus-yard throwing game to date.
Over his final three games, Stafford enjoyed one his finest stretches of ever, with 12 scoring throws against just two picks, along with nearly 1,200 yards through the air and a passer rating of 115.6.
Stafford’s totals from 2011 are easily the best of his career in several key categories, and it stands as arguably his strongest season to date. His game has evolved in the years since (three head coaches and four offensive coordinators can have that effect), and he has at times eschewed explosive, high-risk plays for a more disciplined attack. This, and last year’s back injury, has kept him from approaching those lofty numbers again, but not from cementing himself as the best signal-caller in franchise history.