Sunday showed what life without Matthew Stafford is like for the Lions

CHICAGO -- For the first time since the end of the 2010 season, the Detroit Lions found out what it is like to play without quarterback Matthew Stafford.

It was ugly. Not complete ineptitude ugly, but the difference between where the Lions' offense had been headed with Stafford on the field and where it was with the quarterback in a sweatshirt on the sideline was obvious.

Without the franchise's leader in almost every passing category under center, it's understandable that this offense wouldn’t be that explosive. Other than a brief stretch of the fourth quarter -- when the Lions had five of their seven biggest plays of the day -- it was a lot of dink and dunk.

That isn't a knock on Stafford’s replacement, Jeff Driskel, or what he was able to do in the Lions' 20-13 loss to Chicago. It’s just the way it’s going to be when the player who started 136 straight games for a franchise at the most important position in sports is made inactive the morning of a game.

It’s going to be tough.

“He’s the unquestioned leader. He’s the face of the franchise,” third-string quarterback David Blough said. “Matthew is what’s made this team go forever, so it’s definitely different, but he was there, encouraging Jeff, and you could see it in the way Jeff played.”

Driskel played OK, completing 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception. According to Next Gen Stats, he attempted only three passes beyond 20 yards downfield and had 10 of his passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Stafford, however, would push the ball downfield. In the past three games, he threw 11 total passes at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Life without Stafford also accentuated the front office's struggle to find a strong backup quarterback. Driskel might be the best of the recent bunch, but the Lions went through seven reserve quarterbacks, including current backups Driskel and David Blough, from the end of last season to now.

Sunday's game also showed the true value of Stafford to the Lions. He makes this team go. He is the leader. Player after player gushed about this toughness and said they understood that if he can’t play, he must be really hurt. During the week, they didn’t notice a different quarterback than the one they played with in the past.

And the past is tricky when it comes to Stafford. In prior years, particularly around the time he signed his contract before the 2017 season that made him, at the time, the highest-paid quarterback in the league, there were equal numbers of questions of whether he deserved it and whether he was really that good.

That tends to happen when a team doesn’t field a consistent winner for decades. This season, Stafford has finally answered all of those questions. In a new offense, he is in the midst of a career season. The offense has been potent. Sunday showed how imperative Stafford is for that to happen.

He did what he could even in inaction Sunday, standing next to Blough, Driskel and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on the sideline, helping to coach them up and remain in the conversation. Stafford seemed to be everywhere, trying to stay involved, even though he was an informed spectator who could do only so much.

“If you didn’t think this is how he was going to be,” tight end Logan Thomas said, “then you’re wrong. That’s just who he is.”

Who he has been is the leader of a Lions team that needs him back. They already recognize that they need to win out -- or close to it -- to have any shot at a postseason berth. Detroit has no chance at that without Stafford.

“We all know we got to win that mother out," cornerback Darius Slay said. "If we don’t, man, it gonna be ugly. Man, we trying to win out. We got to win out. We know we need to win out, and that’s the goal.”

What does he mean by ugly, though?

“We want to be a playoff team,” Slay said. “So that’s why I say we’ll be ugly. We don’t win out, we’re not going to the playoffs. ... That’s the whole thing.”

Being 0-3 in the NFC North, with the Packers and Vikings well ahead of them in the standings, the Lions recognize what it might take to make the postseason. For that to happen, they need to remain competitive.

The only way to do that, especially with a defense struggling after allowing Mitchell Trubisky to throw for three touchdown passes and record a 131.0 quarterback rating, is for Stafford to come back.

Without him, Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay can’t take advantage of the deep shots they’ve gotten. Play-action isn’t quite as sellable because Stafford is extremely good at it.

Right now, the Lions are a team that, when it comes to actually winning games, just can’t get much done.