Why is Matthew Stafford struggling? It's complicated

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There have been missed throws and missed assignments, a quarterback being pummeled and then sometimes, seemingly, not making decisions quite as fast as he has in the past.

While it isn’t all Matthew Stafford's fault -- the struggling offense, the 3-6 record -- there is certainly some blame for the quarterback, now in his 10th season, to share. He’ll admit that, too. He knows he needs to be better.

Is he regressing, though? It’s tough to say, and Stafford on Thursday wasn’t going to go there.

“It’s not over yet, so I think a lot of football to be played,” Stafford said. “I don’t get into comparisons of this year, last year, rookie year, five years ago, whatever it was. Probably a better question for the end of the year.”

Barring the unlikely, that’s a month-and-a-half away. But based on what the Lions have done so far and how Stafford has performed, it’s a fair question to ask.

As part of an attempt to evade questions about Stafford’s performance this year, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said any evaluation of Stafford is “sort of Detroit Lions information.” In other words, it’s in-house and proprietary. What isn’t, though, is what Stafford puts out on the field each Sunday.

And it’s confusing.

If one were to look at Stafford’s raw statistics -- 2,385 yards, 16 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 66.8 completion percentage -- they aren’t that far off from most of his other seasons since the offense he was asked to run switched after the 2013 season.

But Stafford’s season goes beyond just those numbers, many of which rank in the top half of the league. To say Stafford is having a good season or even an average one by his standards would be a misnomer in 2018.

His total QBR at this point -- 54.7 -- is his lowest since 2014, when he was learning a new offense after the Lions fired Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan and hired Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi. Coincidentally -- or perhaps not--– the Lions had their best season under Stafford in 2014, when his QBR of 47.3 was the lowest since his rookie season.

Stafford’s potential slide is more glaring because of what’s going on around the league. NFL teams, led by innovative offenses from Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams, have experienced an explosion of passing. Four quarterbacks -- Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger -- are on pace for 5,000-yard seasons. That’s something only five quarterbacks, including Stafford, have managed in a career.

When asked if he wonders why the Lions aren’t doing some of what the Rams, Chiefs and Eagles are doing, Stafford said he believes “every team is built with different players, different schemes, different ways of doing stuff, and we’re our own unique team. We have to find ways to put more points on the board, no question. It starts with me playing better.”

Cooter on Tuesday had no interest in defending whether his offense is innovative enough for today’s NFL, considering the quarterback he has. The Lions entered Week 11 ranked No. 19 or lower in every major offensive category except time of possession and goal-to-go efficiency.

“I’m going to leave that evaluation up to you,” Cooter said. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

The evaluation, statistically, doesn’t look good--– and the 3-6 record doesn’t, either. Stafford is on pace for 14 interceptions -- if he reaches that number, it’d be the most since Linehan left town.

It could, though, help explain part of his statistical slide comparative to the rest of the league. After ranking in the top 10 in yards every year since 2011, he’s currently No. 16 -- and all but three quarterbacks ahead of him have played in nine games as well (three: Mahomes, Goff and Tom Brady have played in 10).

After averaging 7.8 air yards per attempt throughout his career, Stafford is averaging 7.0 air yards per attempt this season, confirming that the best downfield passer in the NFL last season has been keeping it shorter this year despite having two high-level outside receivers in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. From a single-season perspective, it would be his lowest air yards per attempt since 2015 and the second-lowest of his career (taking out 2010 when he appeared in three games).

His yards per completion -- 10.79 -- is also the second-lowest of his career (taking out 2010) besides 2015.

And teams are letting Stafford do this to himself. They are blitzing him less than any season of his career. He has faced a blitz at least 21.1 percent of the time every season of his career. This year, teams are blitzing him just 17.3 percent of the time.

That, of course, is not all on Stafford. For the first time in his career, he has a higher pressure rate (22.8) than percentage blitzed. That’s solely on an offensive line that has essentially collapsed the past two weeks, allowing 16 sacks.

“The big thing is, when a team gets behind, the opposing defense can pretty much attack,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “So, again, it’s been a tough thing for those guys. When you’re watching games when they haven’t been behind, they’ve played pretty doggone well protecting the quarterback.

“So I think a lot of their situation is really about the situations that they’ve been in.”

That’s on everyone: The offense, the defense, the special teams, the coaching and, yes, the quarterback.

He’s being sacked at a higher percentage (7.9) than the 5.5 percent of the time the first nine years of his career. Somehow, despite general manager Bob Quinn rebuilding Detroit’s offensive line since taking over before the 2016 season, he is on pace for being sacked 52 times -- the most of his career.

He has spent, on average, 2.18 seconds in the pocket this season (second-lowest of his career other than 2015) yet averaging 2.7 seconds before passes this year, 0.15 seconds longer than at any point in his career. That’s in part due to Stafford creating extra time with his feet, in part the Lions receivers not getting as open as they need to, and in part because the pocket isn’t holding up.

Stafford said he “can do a better job of getting it out, no question I’m trying to get it out as fast as I possibly can.”

So is Matthew Stafford regressing? It’s tough to say. The Lions aren’t playing as well as they have in the past with him at quarterback. Some of that is on him. Some of it isn’t. But like so much else with the Lions at this point, how he plays the rest of the season could give an indication as to where he’s headed in the future.