Trying to explain Matthew Stafford's middling season

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford's season of regression has not been entirely his fault.

He has been hampered by offensive options around him dwindling by the week, a coordinator who either lost his in-game touch or is being directed away from the quarterback’s strengths by the head coach and an offensive line that is likely to permit him to be sacked 40 or more times for the fourth time in five years. He has dealt with a back injury that has lingered for weeks and has been banged up at other points throughout the season.

No, the Detroit Lions’ season, the mess of an offense and the quarterback’s own failings in 2018 can’t all be placed on Stafford. But some of them surely can -- specifically decision-making and some interceptions that were extremely poor throws -- as Detroit’s disappointment of a season ends Sunday in Green Bay.

"Just haven't made as many big plays," Stafford said. "I think that's a big part of it. Just haven't done a good enough job executing in the passing game for me. So I can always play better and can find ways to be better, for sure."

As the year concludes, it coincides with a stretch of games that might be some of the worst of Stafford’s career. He hasn’t thrown for 250 or more yards in six straight games -- the longest such streak in his career. The two lowest yardage total games of his career -- other than a 2010 game against the Bears in which he left injured -- came in the past six weeks: 101 yards against Arizona and 116 against Minnesota. Those are also the two lowest yards-per-attempt games of his career. Some of that likely has to do with the back injury, but the decision to play came from both Stafford and head coach Matt Patricia, and if he’s going to be on the field, Stafford is expected to play better than that.

On the whole, though, Stafford looked at "change" as why the offense didn't work this season as well as it had in the past.

"I think there's been quite a bit of change," Stafford said. "Of personnel, players, guys especially in the second half of the season. And then it comes down to execution. Us as players, we have to go out there and make plays. We haven't done a good enough job of that this year."

One could make the argument that the injury had something to do with the regression if the entire season hadn’t been rough. Then again, Stafford has been banged up all season. Some of the problem is inconsistent line play combined with a drop in receiver talent, injuries to Kerryon Johnson and Marvin Jones Jr. and game plans clearly designed to keep Stafford from holding on to the ball too long. Stafford’s time in the pocket this season -- an average of 2.13 seconds -- is a career low, but his time before pass of 2.64 seconds is a career high.

That comes from a combination of deciding to escape the pocket earlier than ever and making plays with his feet to avoid pressure and get a throw off. Neither of those situations is completely his fault, but they help explain some of Stafford's struggles. All this has been happening while he faces his least pressure and blitzes per dropback since the 2014 season.

This might also explain some of his season-long statistics, which are an enigma in trying to decipher how he has actually played.

Unless he throws for 489 yards against the Packers (he threw for more in Week 17 of 2011 at Green Bay, for what it’s worth), he will not eclipse 4,000 yards in a season for the first time since his injury-shortened 2010 season. Based on how the Lions have played and the options Stafford has available, pulling a massive game like that is not realistic. He hasn’t thrown for 489 yards in his past three games -- combined.

The numbers themselves, though, don't matter quite as much to Stafford.

"Not as important to me. Obviously, all those numbers are markers for you guys to write about and talk about more than anything," Stafford said. "If you can throw for 2,500 yards and win 14 games, that's a great season. I just want to win more games than we won this year."

Stafford is on pace for his fewest yards per attempt (6.71) and yards per dropback (5.82) since 2010. Both of those numbers rank in the bottom six in the league, something that can be blamed on Stafford, the line, the receivers, the playcalls coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is sending in and the conservative style Patricia appears to favor.

Stafford has already thrown more interceptions (11) than he has in any season since 2015, has his lowest touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.73) since 2013 and needs to throw at least one touchdown pass against the Packers to reach 20 for the season -- a mark he has hit every season since 2010.

His passer rating (88.7) and total QBR (52.3) are his lowest since 2014, a season when Stafford was picking up a new offense (then-OC Joe Lombardi’s version of the Saints' offense, which lasted a season-and-a-half before Lombardi was fired).

He needs to throw for 17 first downs to hit 200 for the season -- something he has done every season since 2010. To highlight some of the issues with the offense -- at least the passing offense -- Stafford has thrown for 17 first downs twice in a game this season (both were losses). In the past three games combined, he has thrown for only 21 first downs.

Yet throughout all of this, Stafford's completion percentage is around the same as it has been the past four seasons (66.3 percent in 2018). That could be due to a combination of a lack of downfield shots and a proclivity to hit short passes, whether to the since departed Golden Tate, the now on injured reserve Bruce Ellington or running back Theo Riddick, Stafford's longtime safety valve.

League-wide, Stafford is outside the top 10 in every major statistical category. He’s No. 11 in attempts (523), No. 12 in completions (347), No. 17 in completion percentage and No. 15 in yards. In Detroit's division, he ranks no higher than third in any category.

All of this is to say that on the face, Stafford’s season has been inconsistent and not commensurate with the pay he’s receiving or the expectation, in his 10th season, that he be a franchise quarterback. It hasn't been good.

Next season is going to, once again, be a litmus test on Stafford's potential future with the club.

But at least with the issues that came up in 2018, not all of it was on him.