Detroit Lions Stafford in 2016, 2017, and coaching
The 2016 and 2017 seasons were the last two years of Caldwell’s career as Detroit Lions head coach. Both years the Lions went 9-7 and Calvin Johnson had retired to start a family after the 2015 campaign. We are lumping them together for both records-sake and Stafford’s similarly very good performances under center.
While the defense ranked thirteenth and twentieth, respectively, according to Pro Football Reference, the offense still had problems putting Stafford in a position of having good weapons, especially a ground game. They were 31st in rushing both years with Ameer Abdullah’s 552 yards rushing in 2017 being the best individual rushing season of the two years.
The Detroit Lions had Tate, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron, and Anquan Boldin, Boldin for only one season. While that cast sounds good, remember that Tate was the only player who had Pro-Bowl possibilities, reaching 1,000-yards both years. Jones, in replacement for Calvin Johnson, had one 1,000-yard season and another of over 900-yards.
Ebron, a first-round pick, had good tight end numbers but lacked the sure hands and redzone production needed to replace Johnson as a number one receiver. In short, these teams were fairly mediocre despite Stafford putting up 4,327 and 4,446 yards passing, 24 and 29 touchdowns, only 10 interception each year, and a cumulative 12 game-winning drives in those two years, both years of which he led the league in that statistic.
Stafford was completing over 65% of his passes without Calvin Johnson, without much help from his running backs, without a top defense to hand the ball back to him, and not to mention that he was sacked an average of 42 times per year during that span. If you can’t admit that he’s come close to being a John Elway kind of player then it’s just because you haven’t paid much attention.
Lastly, Stafford arrived in 2009 as the savior of new head coach Jim Schwartz’s teams, which lasted until the end of the 2013 season. Schwartz led the team to one playoff game in five years while trying to rebuild from the winless 2008 roster. Stafford missed an entire season’s worth of games in his first two years, which gave more time to Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew to turn things around.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a long-time NFL coach, was charged to tutor Stafford on how to be an NFL quarterback. Stafford lead the league in passing attempts or was very close in three seasons where they asked him to be the offense in lieu of having no running game. They couldn’t leverage a great young passer in the modern era into a winning tradition.
2014 saw a huge change as the Detroit Lions welcomed new owner Martha Firestone Ford after the passing of her husband and former owner, William Clay Ford, Sr.. Martha fired the entire coaching staff and former team president Tom Lewand, opting to install family friend Rod Wood in his place.
General manager Martin Mayhew would be removed after 2015, replaced by Bob Quinn, while Jim Caldwell stayed on as head coach from his 2014 hiring. The offensive staff shuffled with Joe Lombardi starting as offensive coordinator but he was sacked in 2015 for assistant Jim Bob Cooter. Cooter held the job until 2018, Stafford’s worst season in recent memory and the first where he failed to reach 4,000 yards passing since 2010.
The organizational upheaval after a near-historic bad run of seasons is welcomed by fans but it hasn’t helped Stafford maintain any kind of consistency in either personnel on the field or consistency in the people charged to help him. Sheila Ford Hamp, the new majority owner of the team, said as much in her introductory press conference a couple of weeks ago, although she was not specifically addressing Stafford’s performance but the team’s overall performance.
Head coach Matt Patricia is in his third year as a head coach at any level after replacing Ford favorite, Caldwell, in 2018. Last year Quinn hired Darrell Bevell to run the offense and this year Patricia confidant and defensive coordinator, Paul Pasqualoni, was replaced by Cory Undlin. Undlin was a former Philadelphia Eagles assistant defensive coach prior to accepting the job in Motown.
It feels like a game of whack-a-mole trying to keep all of the changes straight. Last year, though, Bevell had Stafford on a similar path to his 2011 season with wideout Kenny Golladay serving as the WR1 and Kerryon Johnson as the top running back. More injuries derailed 2019, including Stafford missing his first string of games since 2010.