Detroit Lions' Fate Tied to Matthew Stafford's Arm, Not Running Game

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Detroit Lions' Fate Tied to Matthew Stafford's Arm, Not Running Game
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The Detroit Lions scored four rushing touchdowns last Sunday in Jacksonville. They have 10 rushing TDs thus far, a pace that would give them 20 for the season, which would eclipse 2011’s mark by 11.

Yippee.

The game in Jacksonville was an anomaly of immense proportions. The 10 rushing TDs so far in 2012 are cute and all, nothing more.

Get it out of your head if you think the Lions have established a running game that will make them a quote-unquote balanced team.

Ha!

The Lions will only go as far as the golden arm of Matthew Stafford will take them. Period.

Trouble is, that arm has been flinging the football high and wide, and low and outside. If Stafford was a pitcher, he’d be a young Sandy Koufax, who was described by a scout thusly: “He’d be a great pitcher, if the plate was high and outside.”

Stafford has his yards. He’s piling them up like a squirrel does with the nuts for the winter. He’s averaging about 300 passing yards per game. But unlike a squirrel’s stash, Stafford’s yards haven’t all been beneficial to the Lions’ cause.

Some of the yards are paper yards—phony stats that make the day’s work look much better than it really was. The telltale stat is touchdown passes, and that’s where Matthew Stafford, 2012, is in default.

How many TD passes will Matthew Stafford have in 2012?

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Stafford, through eight games, has eight scoring passes. That’s one per game. That’s 16 for the season. That’s lousy.

In 2011, Stafford lasered 41 passes into the end zone, into the willing hands of Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew et al. It was, by far, a franchise record. Stafford, healthy for a full year for the first time in his young NFL career, led the Lions into the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

Stafford also threw for over 5,000 yards in 2011, which was another first for a Lions quarterback. But as nice as the yards were, it was all those touchdown passes that impressed. Let’s face it: No NFL team drafts a hotshot QB because he does a great job handing the ball off.

Stafford’s golden arm, in 2011, bailed the Lions out of one mess after another. Time and again, his team would fall behind early, the hole getting deeper the longer the game went on. A 17-point deficit in Minnesota. More than that in Dallas.

Then Stafford, the kid who went to the same high school as that escape artist of the 1950s, Bobby Layne, would go to work, slinging the football all over the field in a frenetic game of catch-up. More often than not, the recipe worked: start slow, end fast.

Stafford was Dudley Do-Right, his team the girl tied to the railroad tracks.

The comebacks of 2011 weren’t dumb luck. Stafford, even after sluggish beginnings, would carve up the opposition in the second half, a surgeon with a scalpel. His throws were dead-eye accurate, the proverbial needle threaded with lethal precision.

The second half of Lions games last year went like this. Cue the theme from The Lone Ranger. Start biting the nails. Keep one eye on the clock, the other one closed.

Stafford marched the Lions down the field to victory last season with his golden arm, damning the torpedoes and delivering the football into the sure hands of his receivers, always just out of the reach of the defenders. The Lions had no running game to speak of last year, but it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter if every fan in the stadium, the announcers in the booth, the millions watching on TV, the cheerleaders or the chain gang knew that the Lions would send Stafford back to pass on virtually every down. It didn’t even matter if the 11 guys lining up across from him knew that he was going to throw. Stafford came out on top anyway, for the most part.

It hasn’t been quite the same in 2012, not that we should have expected it to be.

The NFL can be a fascinating league. Its seasons are like a series of books written by the same author, but not as an anthology. If you were to chart most teams’ progression over a period of five years or so, it would look like an EKG reading.

Rare is consistent excellence. Only a choice few teams can be counted on to reach the playoffs every year.

Trends don’t last more than a year at a time, either. Your team might be a great inducer of turnovers by their opponents one year, not so good the next. And so on.

Last year the Lions mastered the art of the comeback. This year, they have won three of their four victories by scoring in the final 30 seconds, and they have indeed been coming from behind, but it’s an awfully dangerous way to live, especially with Stafford not being quite the same passer as he was in 2011.

The comeback, trademarked so famously by Bobby Layne in the 1950s, was never designed to be a way of life. It was only supposed to be called upon on occasion, not every damn week.

The Lions fall behind too much, the exception being last Sunday in Jacksonville, a rare frolic for them. Stafford didn’t have to sling his gun. The Lions scored four touchdowns with him handing the ball off. That was the anomaly.

The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.

Too many errant throws.

It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.

The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.

It’s one reason, maybe the biggest, why the Lions muddle along at the halfway point of the season with a mediocre 4-4 record.

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