ALLEN PARK — The Detroit Lions have surrounded Matthew Stafford with five new offensive linemen and a new running game and one of the best fleet of receivers in the game. And they’re coming off a game where they allowed 10 sacks and didn’t score a touchdown.
Their points are actually down this year, scoring just 22.5 per game. That’s 20th.
So there’s plenty of blame to go around. The question is: Just how much of it does Stafford deserve? And what about Jim Bob Cooter?
We tackle those questions and a whole lot more in this week’s mailbag. As always, thanks to all who participated. We’ll be back next week, same time, same place. Questions can be emailed here or tweeted here. (Please put “mailbag” in the subject line if you email.)
With that, let’s rock.
Q: On a recent radio appearance, you mentioned that Stafford has escaped blame that he is rightfully owed for the Lions poor performance. Who is most at fault for their 3-5 start? — @michaelluchies
A: For years, I thought Matthew Stafford shouldered too much blame for Detroit’s problems. He was a good — and the last couple years, really good — player outperforming a bad team. Last year, for example, he had a trash offensive line and a trash running game, and he was a top-six quarterback by all major statistical measures. Teams knew what was coming, and he was still efficient as hell. That’s why I thought he shouldered too much blame.
Yet this year, he’s mostly escaped blame for this 3-5 start — but I really do think he’s been a part of the problem.
That’s not to say he’s been bad. He definitely hasn’t been bad. But he’s taken a step back in most ways too.
Detroit went out and finally found itself a running game. The offensive line has been better too, that last game not withstanding. Yet Stafford’s numbers are down across the board. He’s missed open receivers deep and didn’t see others. He’s played fast and loose with the football at times, leading to untimely turnovers. And Detroit has been garbage in the red zone.
Again, Stafford hasn’t been bad. He’s been perfectly middle of the pack by most measures — but a 10th-year quarterback with five new(ish) offensive linemen and a new running back and a deep trio of receivers (until Golden Tate was traded) should not be middle of the pack.
Stafford certainly hasn’t been Detroit’s biggest problem. The run defense ranks last in the league, and has allowed the most big plays in the league, and four of those five losses came in games where they allowed big runs. If that defense were less leaky, Detroit wouldn’t be 3-5, I guarantee it.
But Stafford hasn’t been as good this year either. He’s made more mistakes than usual. Something’s off, and that has certainly contributed to the sluggish start too.
Q: How many sacks need to be allowed per game for JBC to be fired? 8, 9? Also, can we fire him for our poor rushing game? Can we just fire him? Please! — @NBMich07
A: Fans are turning against Jim Bob Cooter, and I understand it. The Lions finally have some resemblance of a running game, in Kerryon Johnson. They’ve added a second first-round pick to an offensive line that also includes two high-priced free agents. And they can’t even crack the top 20 in yards or points in the first half of the season?
That’s absurd. Clearly, there’s a problem.
Having said that, I don’t get the sense Patricia is itching to fire Cooter during the season. A couple more outings like what we saw in Minnesota, and that could change of course. But short of that, I think the Lions know they’re out of it already and firing Cooter won’t solve that.
But once the season is over, you can bet Patricia will be looking to make changes. Somebody is going to have to take the fall for this disappointment. And a coordinator he didn’t even hire in the first place makes for the perfect scapegoat.
Q: Why does anyone care what Rich Gannon thinks? The local media has been obsessed with this for the past week. I don’t get it. — @LarryOpalewski
A: I wrote one story on Gannon all week. Does that fit your definition of obsessed? And it came after Matthew Stafford was given a chance to respond to the criticism. Are we not allowed to let players defend themselves now?
Listen, I understand exactly what you mean. This whole “oh-my-God-can-you-believe-what-this-person-who-was-kinda-relevant-20-years-ago-said”-ification of the NFL is driving me crazy. It’s probably my least favorite part of the job. That, and having to sit next to that scourge Justin Rogers every day.
But like it or not, the NFL has become part-soap opera. There’s no escaping it. So when Gannon trucks Stafford on his radio show, well, it doesn’t take that long for it to spill into local media. And while I find that cycle annoying, I also think it’s only fair to give Stafford an opportunity to respond as well. And when he did, I wrote his take — which, by the way, was a very good take.
“I don’t need to answer to Rich Gannon,” Stafford said.
Well said. Now for the love of God, let’s stop talking about Rich Gannon.
Q: I have a question BQ or Matty P can’t even answer honestly… What’s this teams identity? — @bfulk80
A: I can’t think of one player or phase of the game that asserts its will on the opponent. There are some good players scattered throughout the roster, of course. Kerryon Johnson, Snacks Harrison, Romeo Okwara, Darius Slay and Matthew Stafford have all done some nice things at times, but none is truly dominant these days. (Harrison’s been close, but Detroit’s only had him two games, so we’ll see what happens there.)
So to answer your question, the identity of this team: It’s a project going through growing pains under a first-year coach. You can see kernels of what they’re trying to do, and it even comes together in spurts. Pop in the tape of the Miami game if you need a reminder of that, or New England for that matter. Detroit’s offense dominated those games, and the defense really forced the opposition into mistakes.
That’s where Detroit wants to get more consistently. But it just doesn’t have the talent to do it consistently right now. There are too many holes in the roster, and I don’t think we’ll ever see this team pull itself together this season.
Q: What’s your take on A’Shawn Robinson? ProFootballFocus has him rated as the sixth best defensive interior in the league and an “elite” ranking, but most games he only seems to be playing 50 percent of the snaps and was benched for the opener. I know he’s been making more splash plays recently, but what kind of stock do you put in PFF’s analysis? — Victor Konstant
A: Robinson struggled to adjust to the new scheme in training camp, so much so that he lost his grip on a starting job pretty early. Of course, the rise of Da’Shawn Hand has something to do with that too. He’s been the best defensive rookie in the game, according to ProFootballFocus, and the 10th-best interior defender overall.
Hand now leads all Lions interior defenders in snaps with 313, and rightfully so. Because he was their best interior defender until Snacks Harrison showed up. And obviously, Harrison is going to siphon away some snaps too.
But give A’Shawn Robinson credit, because he’s played increasingly well. In fact, it might surprise you to know that he is Detroit’s highest-graded player according to ProFootballFocus. (Not including Harrison, who has played just two games with Detroit.) He is sixth among all interior defenders, according to PFF.
For those scoring at home, Detroit now has three of the 10 best interior defenders in the game, according to the advanced analytics site: Snacks Harrison (fourth), A’Shawn Robinson (sixth) and Da’Shawn Hand (10th). Which is crazy to think, given their considerable struggles defending the run.
My take: The defensive line is headed in the right direction. Remember, these guys allowed fewer than 2.5 yards per carry last week against Minnesota — except, of course, for that 70-yard run by Dalvin Cook. And Robinson was swept away by a block on that play too. Huge misplay. (Though I’d argue Jarrad Davis, who basically ran into a block, was more responsible for that play.)
Patience, guys. You can see how the pieces are supposed to fit together, and sometimes, they even do. They’re getting better. They just need time, and more talent.
Which if you’re a Lions fan, is a tale as old as time.
Q: Will the Lions give up more than 10 sacks just to Khalil Mack? — @JohnFraser82
A: Derrick Thomas holds the NFL record with seven sacks in a game, so I don’t think it’s likely. Then again, this is the Detroit Lions, and finding inventive ways to lose is what they do best.
Q: What’s going on with the lions and the press? Are the coaches/players and he press having rows?
A: I wanted to take the time to answer this question because I’ve been getting versions of it after Slouchgate last week. It’s annoying to me how quickly and how far that story spread, because it was never about slouching in the first place, as I wrote in last week’s mailbag. Matt Patricia was upset with one specific reporter for being unprofessional over the last few months. It has nothing to do with posture, and nothing to do with other reporters. Patricia’s not going up and down the rows of seats looking to tsk-tsk us for not sitting at 90-degree angles or whatever.
I don’t think I’m on Matt Patricia’s Christmas card list or anything, but we get along just fine.
He has told players to ramp down what they say to reporters, which makes my job harder, and the stories have suffered for it. So many of these guys have amazing tales of how they got here, and fans will never know about them because they’re encouraged to say as little as possible. I find that sad. It robs players the opportunity to connect with fans, and fans the opportunity to better know the players they love. But I’m also not the coach, and I respect the way he wants to run his club, even if I disagree.
Even then, most players are respectful to reporters. A’Shawn Robinson is the only openly hostile player in that locker room. Other than that, it’s a pretty good group, and we all get along just fine as we try to do our respective jobs. We’re not all holding hands singing Kumbaya or anything. But most days, with most guys, everyone gets along just fine.