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Blame Matthew Stafford if you want, but the Lions got bigger problems

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece from reporter Kyle Meinke.

DETROIT — People are very upset with Matthew Stafford, and it’s easy to understand why.

One day, you’re watching the Rams and Chiefs run laps around the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was breathtaking and exhilarating. It was the future. Then you pull a chair up to the Thanksgiving table, flip on the TV and watch the Detroit Lions try to knock off first-place Chicago with a playbook from 1973.

It didn’t work.

Stafford attempted just two passes that traveled at least 15 yards through the air. One was completed to Kenny Golladay, and the other was completed to Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller to seal Detroit’s 23-16 loss on Thursday at Ford Field. And people are once again pounding Stafford, much of which is certainly deserved.

He did throw two interceptions. The first was definitely his fault, too. He saw Eddie Jackson, just thought he could use that big right arm to squeeze a pass through a window that didn’t exist.

Jackson had watched the film. He knew how Roberts liked to run that route, anticipated where the ball was going and picked it off with ease. Then he returned it 41 yards for a touchdown that gave Chicago a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.

That’s on Stafford.

Then he threw another pick to Fuller in the end zone that effectively ended the game. And again, people are pounding Stafford for it. And as the quarterback, Stafford is ultimately responsible for that football landing in the arms of a Bears defender.

But have you considered for a moment that maybe, just maybe, it was the second-year tight end who has been wildly inconsistent that screwed up?

Roberts has a half-foot on Kyle Fuller. Stafford clearly thought he was going to try to take advantage of it by breaking for the back corner of the end zone, and threw the ball there. But Roberts rounded off the route and came back toward the play.

I’m not in the meeting rooms, so, hey, maybe that’s really on Stafford. But it seems to me Roberts was the one that wasn’t on the same page with Stafford, and not the other way around. And in the locker room, it sure sounded like Roberts was the one who went off script.

Roberts is a talented young player, but he’s been in and out of the lineup so much because of injury that it has been difficult for him to build chemistry with Stafford. But hey, at least he was out there. Marvin Jones wasn’t. Kerryon Johnson wasn’t. T.J. Lang wasn’t. Lord knows Golden Tate wasn’t.

With those kinds of injuries, plus the trade of Tate, Detroit’s offense lacks cohesion, and chemistry, and consistency, and just plain talent. Stafford’s got Bruce Ellington, signed off the street three weeks ago, operating as his No. 2 wideout. He’s got somebody named Andy Jones, who has one catch in his three-year NFL career, playing 21 snaps. Hell, his fullback played multiple snaps in the slot. 

And get this: The Lions don’t have a single receiver or tight end ranked among the top 100 players in separation for the season. Repeat after me: The Lions don’t have a single receiver ranked among the top 100 in separation.

Eric Ebron? Oh, he’s top 10. But the Lions didn’t want to pay him and cut him. Golden Tate? Oh, he’s up there too. But the Lions traded him. 

Those were two of Stafford’s three favorite targets last year. Marvin Jones was the other, and he didn’t play Thursday either because of a knee injury. And without those guys on the field, not to mention Kerryon Johnson as well, nobody was getting open against Chicago’s third-ranked defense.

Considering what the Bears did to Stafford while he tried to wait for plays to develop when these teams first played a week-and-a-half ago, you can start to understand why the Lions threw out that game plan in favor of one that relied on an eye-gouging number of quick passes short of the sticks.

“I don’t know if it was conservative, or we’re just trying to go down and give ourselves a chance to win, which we had multiple situations there where we could’ve put ourselves in a situation to win,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “We’re doing the best we can with all of it. Short week, game-plan, really good team, good pass rushers, good cover guys, different personnel for us.

“I just think we were trying to grind the game out. It’s a 60-minute game and that’s what we were trying to play.”

They were trying to keep the Bears defense off Stafford’s neck. It worked to some extent, too. Stafford was sacked just twice, down from six in the first meeting. The Lions held a fourth-quarter lead at one point, too. They were still tied when Stafford threw his pick-six with 6:09 remaining.

Much better than falling behind 26-0, right?

To that end, the conservative playcalling worked.

“It’s just influenced by what you see on tape when you see them play,” Stafford said. “Teams that hold the ball against those guys don’t get the ball off quite a bit. So just tried to make sure we mixed it up and for the most part. I don’t have those two turnovers, I don’t make those poor plays, right where we want to be.”

Then he did throw those two interceptions. Again, that’s on him. 

But don’t blame him for this regressive playcalling either. That’s on Detroit for assembling a roster that can’t get open. And it’s especially on Detroit for assembling an offensive system that appears stuck in reverse.

When none of your wideouts or tight ends can’t crack the top 100 — the top 100! — in separation, your problems don’t start or end at quarterback. It’s the system itself, which is failing to get guys open. 

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was a good thing for Stafford for a while there, but that time has passed. Stafford has regressed in most ways this year, as has this offense, and that was true even before Golden Tate was dealt to Philadelphia.

I don’t know if Cooter will be fired in season, because at 4-7, it’s not like his dismissal would change anything about this team’s fate. It’s too late for that. But when you consider just how far this offense has fallen, in an era when offenses are reaching some historical heights, it’s clear Cooter’s system isn’t the future.

Cooter is on the hot seat, certainly, and changes in leadership should be considered after the season.

This just isn’t a very good team right now, devoid of playmakers. Yes, you want to see your quarterback elevate the performance of the players around him, but I don’t know how many quarterbacks could have won with what Detroit trotted out there on Thursday. 

“I don’t think that it’s his fault,” running back LeGarrette Blount said. “I think as a team, we have to do better. I don’t think that you can put all of the blame on Stafford. Obviously, he’s an elite quarterback. I think he’s one of the best in this league. I don’t think that it’s his fault that we can — I don’t think that it’s fair for us to put it all on him.”

It’s time to face reality. Matthew Stafford is not an elite quarterback. Now 10 years in, he’ll probably never be elite. He’s a middle-class quarterback. But you can win with a middle-class quarterback. He just needs help. Which Lions fans are tired of hearing about a guy making $27 million per year, but it’s the truth.

And right now, he doesn’t have it. Not with what’s left at receiver. Not with what’s left at running back. Not with all the pressure he’s taking. And certainly not from Jim Bob Cooter. 

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