Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

05 Oct 2017

Film Room: Matthew Stafford

by Derrik Klassen

The hottest trend throughout NFL offenses is not the read-option or shovel passes; it is not the pistol formation, or play-action skinny posts. In fact, it is not any one play at all. Sweeping over the NFL is the fear of turnovers and a lack of trust in putting the game in a quarterback's hands. Ben McAdoo's claim to fame in New York was pulling back the reigns on Eli Manning. Andy Reid has muzzled Alex Smith for a half-decade. In Minnesota last year, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur tasked Sam Bradford with arguably the most conservative passing game in football.

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is one of the frontmen for this movement of timid play design and play calling. Cooter took over offensive coordinator responsibilities in Week 8 of the 2015 season. In the seven games leading up to Cooter's promotion, Matthew Stafford had thrown nine interceptions. Stafford also had 12 touchdown passes, but the flurry of interceptions was holding the offense back. With a middling offensive line and an average set of backs and receivers, Stafford was not good enough to handle being the focal point of the offense.

Since taking over, Cooter's M.O. has been stripping Stafford of responsibility and getting the ball into the hands of skill players as soon as possible. The idea is that the less Stafford has to think, the fewer interceptions he will throw, allowing the offense to remain on schedule and on the field.

The illusion is that Stafford and the Lions offense has been better since Cooter's ascension. In reality, the competence and execution across the unit has been roughly the same, Cooter just refuses to give Stafford opportunities to mess up. The constant jabs via quick passing work well enough versus inferior competition, but when faced with quality opponents, Detroit's offense often falters. Against the Minnesota Vikings last week, Detroit's offense was exposed as predictable and lacking in explosiveness.

Detroit is one of the most predictable first down teams in the league. Cooter uses first down to run downhill with seven or eight immediate blockers, or throw an intermediate/deep pass. Defenses know they can run blitz and have their defensive ends pin their ears back. Through four games, Detroit's offense ranks 26th in passing DVOA and 29th in rushing DVOA on first down. Overall, they are 29th in DVOA on first down, placing only above Cleveland, Chicago, and Indianapolis (link requires premium subscription).

The Lions were regularly stuffed on the ground on first down versus the Vikings. Aside from one or two plays where running back Ameer Abdullah miraculously created a cutback lane, they could not get much going. Minnesota's safeties were instrumental in slowing down Detroit's rushing attack. They did not have to respect Detroit's ability to pass, and Detroit often tipped their hand in the run game through shifts and repetitive play calling.

Safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo flip responsibilities on this play. Smith (highlighted in purple) initially aligns down near the left side of the line of scrimmage as a quasi-edge player, with Sendejo (in yellow) playing over the top. Detroit motions wide receiver Jared Abbrederis from a wide left alignment to a tight right alignment, about where a tight end would be. The Vikings safeties notice what the shift does to the box and change spots. Smith trails up to a centerfield position and Sendejo rolls down as a box player.

Sendejo recognizes this sort of shift from earlier in the game. The Lions used it to get another blocker in the box right before the snap, ideally creating an advantage up front. Sendejo knew it was a run call, so he sprinted through the line of scrimmage without hesitation and caught Abdullah in the backfield. Throughout the game, either Smith or Sendejo caught Detroit's running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on similar first-down run calls.

Passing on first down was hardly an option, either. Stafford dropped back 11 times on first down, but completed just five passes on eight attempts. Danielle Hunter sacked Stafford twice on first down in the first quarter, and Everson Griffen brought him down once early in the fourth quarter. When Stafford did get the ball out, most the completions were short passes, the lone exception being a rollout pass to Michael Roberts in the red zone. Stafford was not quick-witted or willing enough to attack the deeper routes often given to him on first down.

In fairness to Stafford, the Griffen sack was hardly avoidable. Griffen was supposed to be chipped, but he was not, and he quickly made his way around the edge to sack Stafford. The first two Hunter sacks can be at least partially pinned on Stafford for holding the ball, though. Stafford has been particularly bad about that this season.

Similar to their struggles throwing the ball on first down, the Lions could not throw down the field. The offense is not designed to attack vertically very often to begin with, in part because of the offensive line and Stafford's overzealousness, but the Lions could not throw deep even when they tried this week. On 36 dropbacks, Stafford completed just five passes that traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Three of those five completions required noticeable adjustments from the wide receivers, one of them was the Roberts catch, and the other was an 11-yard curl route. The only passing play that generated at least 20 yards was a poor pass that Marvin Jones made a spectacular play on.

via GIPHY

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Stafford's inconsistency and inaccuracy were the undoing of the Lions offense against the Vikings, and has been throughout this season. When the offense was more aggressive prior to Cooter's promotion, the sheer volume of deep throws allowed Stafford to create chunk plays. Having Calvin Johnson at his disposal also helped. The offense now hardly allows Stafford to be aggressive. In turn, it is more damaging when Stafford can not connect on intermediate and deep passes because there are fewer of those opportunities.

The few times per game in which Cooter opens the offense up, Stafford reminds everyone that he is still a gunslinger. Stafford's recklessness is still very much there, Cooter has just not given him chances to show it, and that has been for the best. Stafford has struggled to throw into tight windows and down the field this year. He has struggled to stress defenses beyond 10 yards other than in one-half of play versus the Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings constantly coaxed Stafford into tight-window throws and uncomfortable situations with pressure bearing down on him, and he obliged with a handful of throws that could have been intercepted.

Stafford's inability to consistently succeed beyond 10 yards forces Cooter's hand. Cooter appears to want to be more aggressive than he is. The struggle is that he can not risk being aggressive with a quarterback who is inclined to be reckless with the football. The Lions barely threw beyond 10 yards or in the red zone, and Stafford gave Cooter a heart attack every time he was given a chance.

The Lions find themselves in a peculiar spot with Stafford. Physically, he is a Ferrari of a quarterback. He is big, mobile, and strong-armed. He is fearless in a way that few quarterbacks are, and his peak plays are as pretty as any. The problem is that Stafford can be a detriment when left to his own devices. He does not have the consistency to make his high-end traits as valuable as they appear to be.

At the same time, Cooter's only answer as an offensive coordinator is to take responsibility from Stafford. He has not created a diverse, unpredictable, and balanced offense like other legitimately great coordinators have. Cooter's offense lacks spontaneity and the threat of explosive plays, and often plays behind the sticks because of a lack of success on first down. The only identity the offense has is hoping their skill players can make defenders miss as they catch passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That is not a real identity, it is fear of what the man behind center might do if tasked with anything more.

Stafford was given the most lucrative contract in NFL history this summer, only to be reduced to Alex Smith. Cooter has been a quiet head coach candidate for over a year now for doing little else but refrain Stafford from throwing interceptions. The Lions have a fine offense, but both Stafford and Cooter are being praised too much for feeding into the NFL's fear of turning the ball over. This offense, as is, will not be enough to win games that matter. It will have to change. Stafford will have to be better and Cooter will need to enable him to be.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 05 Oct 2017

18 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2017, 9:25pm by Duff Soviet Union

Comments

1
by xydux :: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 8:24pm

In defense of Cooter, he did build an offense that was (is) fairly effective much of the time, even if hiding Stafford's flaws is the main purpose of it.

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 10:19pm

Damn dude, did Stafford pick on you in HS? This isn't an analysis piece, it's a character assassination.

3
by blumsha :: Thu, 10/05/2017 - 11:33pm

Agreed that there isn't enough evidence in this column to support the rhetoric. On the other hand, I'm a Lions homer and the conclusions are obviously true. This is why the Lions have so many fourth-quarter comebacks: trailing late is the only situation in which Stafford is allowed to earn his salary. It seems to me that letting him play four quarters instead of one might help the team, but maybe not. But if not, signing him to this contract was an inexcusable franchise-destroying catastrophe.

5
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 7:17am

He’s always been a high-variance player. Caldwell/Cooter seem intent on lowering the variance, and leaving the game in the hands of the rest of the team, unless they’re trailing late. The rest of the team was not good (or injured) in 2016, which is why so many 4th quarter comebacks were required., This year, the running backs are healthy and the defense is playing much better, so this strategy might work out. Schwartz/Linehan seemed more comfortable to let Stafford loose, which worked out fine in 2011, but ended up getting them fired after 2012-2013.

4
by Duff Soviet Union :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 4:56am

I'm struggling to see a lie in there though.

6
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 7:22am

There is nothing in there that is untrue about that specific game. However, it is reasonable to point out that the game chosen to do a film study on was the worst one he’s played in 2 yearss. It’s not really fair to make that a representation of his overall play. I actually would have been interested to see some study from bits of the other 3 games he’s played this season. For instance, he made some legitimately great throws downfield throws against Arizona that won the game for them, and on the final drive against Atlanta (that almost won the game for them).

That being said, Stafford is probably being overrated by some in the media, and in Vegas (he’s in the top 5 for MVP odds right now, which is frankly ridiculous). He has some glaring flaws in his game, and is still maddeningly inconsistent at times. All I’m saying is that there are definitely a lot of positives that at least balance out, if not outweigh, the negatives.

8
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:06am

It's less in the conclusions and more in the language.

The outright statement that Stafford is too stupid to make a read and too lacking in talent to make it is without basis and frankly, beneath the quality and decorum standards of this site. This is the same QB who threw for 4500 yards and was the only functional part of the offense for five years (because they couldn't block and couldn't run, and the TEs couldn't catch).

We all make fun of ALEX, but there's a valid analysis tool somewhere in it. This one was just a writer with an axe to grind, who for some reason was given a forum here.

11
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:47am

"Having an ax to grind" is a little too strong a take for me to get on board with. I kind of doubt most sportswriters/analysts do that. Also, I don't want to invoke the FOMB curse! However, I will say that this game was a significant outlier for post-2015 Stafford. He was bad, and the Lions were lucky to escape with a win. There's no question about that. But it's week 4, and doing a film study encompassing multiple games would have probably have given you a more valid sample size from which to draw conclusions.

13
by theslothook :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 12:44pm

As a completely impartial observer who hasn't watched a ton of lion's games, I was pretty shocked by the conclusions of the article. It's tantamount to saying the Lions are trying to hide their qb. That seems quite harsh given the commitments they've made to him. And if it were true, why not consider grooming a successor?

14
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 1:36pm

I think a more accurate statement than "trying to hide their QB", is that they are running an offense that is very risk-averse. They hardly attack the middle of the field anymore (until a late/close situation when they have to). They run a little too much dink and dunk for my taste, but part of that is not having a reliable running game. They will, however, take shots down the field in favorable situations, (more often than is the perception).

I think their offense is more about Caldwell's philosphy than it is about Stafford (I think we've discussed Caldwell's fetish for turnover avoidance on another thread). Stafford's previous reputation for being careless with the ball was a little overblown, IMO. His INT totals tended to be a tad high because he attempted so many passes, but his INT% has, for the most part (outside his rookie year and 2013), hovered at or below league average.

And you're absolutely right that what the FO/coaching staff's actions and words totally run counter to the sentiment that "he needs to be hidden so we can win."

18
by Duff Soviet Union :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:25pm

"This is the same QB who threw for 4500 yards and was the only functional part of the offense for five years "

Which five years were they? Are you saying he was the only functional part of an offense with Calvin Johnson?

7
by BJR :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 8:07am

Is that really a "poor" pass to Jones in the gif? It's not perfect and requires a great catch, but it is 30+ yards downfield, where only Jones can make a play on it, and he gets two hands on it. If that pass is thrown inside he gets obliterated by the safety coming across.

10
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:31am

Yea, I kinda thought that too when I saw the play in real time. If it was thrown to his inside shoulder I thought the safety would have had a chance for a pick.

12
by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 11:18am

Had the same thought. I think it speaks to what others are saying about the article's tone/choice of evidence, even if the thesis and conclusion aren’t really wrong.

15
by ChrisS :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 3:41pm

I agree. Unless a poor pass is one that is off by about 6 inches, then I guess that is a poor pass. I would describe it as an OK pass made into a very tight window and it was thrown to the area that was not going to result in an interception. Sort of the antithesis of a reckless gunslinger pass.

9
by poplar cove :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:30am

wow talk about a short sample size............You do realize that Stafford has the 4th best quarterback rating in the NFL (ahead of Aaron Rodgers) since the 2nd game Jim Bob Cooter took over as O.C so that pretty much ruins your argument there....... Stafford's play was the main reason that the Lions without absolutely zero running game and one of the historically worst defenses made the playoffs last year. Like someone above said this past week was easily his worst game he's played in over 2 years. The first two games (with Golloday on the field) he's threw the ball down the field very well and was very accurate doing so.

Another arm chair quarterback who watches a game and starts questioning the play calling etc....The Lions have done a great job building their offense around Stafford reading defenses at the line of scrimmage and making quick decisions with the football which can be an underrated value that you get from a veteran quarterback. It lowers the odds of your QB getting hit/injured (ex. Derek Carr) and it also keeps your bad defense off the field playing at a slower pace while keeping the clock running. Most importantly though it reduces the chances of having a turnover (1 interception thrown all this year and it was on first pass of the season on a tipped pass and only a handful last year before the finger injury). Using this strategy is smart as they also make the most of what has been an elite special teams the last 2 seasons.

The Lions have players like Tate, Abdullah, Riddick and even Marvin Jones, all who are excellent quick, shifty types and who've been some of the best players in the league with the football in their hands which is greatly magnified when you put them on their fast home turf. This is building your team the right way especially when at least 9 of your games are indoors and last year they played 12 indoor games and went 9-3 in those games. Cooter is doing what all coaches should be doing, getting the most out of his talent and helping his team win games!!!

16
by Dan :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 6:49pm

By ANA/A, the best 16-game stretch of Stafford's career was 11/15/2015 through 10/30/2016. By Yards Per Attempt, the best 16-game stretch of Stafford's career was 10/18/2015 through 10/9/2016.

Cooter took over during the week before the Lions' 11/1/2015 game.

Stafford has played 29 games since Cooter took over, and since then has averaged 7.17 YPA, 1.76 TD/g, 0.52 INT/g, 262 YD/g, 66.3% complete, and 6.61 ANY/A. During his previous 29 games, right before Cooter took over, he averaged 7.01 YPA, 1.45 TD/g, 1.10 INT/G, 261 YD/g, 60.8% complete, and 5.68 ANY/A.

So, since Cooter: Way fewer interceptions, a much higher completion percentage, and slightly better at other stats.

17
by dank067 :: Fri, 10/06/2017 - 7:55pm

So far as I know ANY/A+ and other rate stats that are adjusted for league average aren't available for half-seasons or split across seasons, but just looking discretely at each year, Stafford's 2011 season appears to be to be his best by a decent amount by ANY/A+. (115 in 2011 vs. 106 in 2013 and 103 & 104 the past two years.) Glancing quickly, 2011 was his best year by DVOA too. (Evidently 2012 was his second-best year by DVOA, though not by a significant amount. Interestingly, by these numbers and a few others, his 2014 season grades out last outside of his rookie year.)

I don't have a major issue with the overall point that Detroit has reigned in the passing game under Cooter and tried to take some decisions out of Stafford's hands, but the one game sample being analyzed here is a bit unfair to him. Minnesota was getting relentless pressure all game, and Stafford is hardly the first QB they've made look like crap these past few seasons.