Matthew Stafford passed for the sixth most yards in league history in 2011. He threw for the eighth most touchdowns.
On the surface, he followed it up with an equally worthy 2012. His 4,967 yards were second in the league, and yes, seventh in league history. His connection with Calvin Johnson — 122 catches for 1,964 yards — was the most prolific of all time. He averaged over 310 yards per game for the second consecutive year — at the age of 24.
But there were times in 2012 where Stafford didn’t appear to be quarterbacking as much as fly fishing. Marionetting. Paperboying. Soulja Boying. Whatever you want to call it. Contorting his body in Houdini-like fashion seemed almost as important as completing the pass.
It made for a lot of incompletions. 292 of them to be exact. More of Stafford’s passes hit the ground than Josh Freeman’s (252), Ryan Fitzpatrick’s (199) and Brandon Weeden’s (220), among others. Stafford’s 59.8 completion percentage was off 3.7 percent from his 2011 mark, and 0.2 below the “acceptable” threshold of 60.0.
He turned the ball over 21 times, including 14 times over his final eight games. The Lions, of course, went 0-8 during that stretch, sputtering to a disastrous 4-12 finish one year after going 10-6 and making the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.
What Went Wrong
How could a player who appeared on the verge of unheard of greatness as a 23-year-old quarterback stumble so badly in a year where he had the most prolific receiver in the 92-year history of the NFL?
For starters, Stafford had to do too much. Thanks to a disastrous running game and a defense that couldn’t get anybody off the field, Stafford attempted 57 more passes than anybody in the NFL. But that’s not all. His 727 attempts were 36 more than anyone else had ever dialed up in — here’s that phrase again — league history. He seemed to feel the pressure most at the beginning of games. 12 of his 17 interceptions came before halftime, while his QB rating was a full 15.5 points higher after the break (87.0 to 71.5).
Suddenly, you can see why Stafford didn’t get much bang for his 4,967-yardage buck. His 6.8 yards per attempt — which like his completion percentage was 0.2 below the “acceptable” threshold of 7.0 — was a woeful 21st in the NFL, and nearly an entire yard worse than his 2011 mark. Jake Locker, Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck were among the quarterbacks who averaged more yards every time they dropped back to attempt a pass.
But it wasn’t just his running backs and defense that laid too much on Stafford’s plate, but his pass catchers. That might seem hard to believe considering his yardage total, but it’s equally hard to believe just how much went wrong for Stafford’s receiver corps.
In Week 7, he lost his nominal No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson to a broken leg. Burleson may be old, slow and one-dimensional, but he’s also damn reliable, and averaged 5.2 grabs per contest over Detroit’s first five games.
But Burleson’s injury wasn’t necessarily a death blow. That’s because the Lions had the most productive receiver in NCAA history — Ryan Broyles — available to take his place in the slot. Finally 100 percent recovered from the torn left ACL he suffered his senior year at Oklahoma, Broyles didn’t miss a beat, averaging 3.6 catches between Weeks 8 and 12. Not electric, but enough to cover for Burleson’s loss. Broyles had his best game in Week 12, catching six passes for 126 yards and a touchdown.
So naturally a week later he tore his right ACL. Like Burleson, he was out for the year. With Burleson and Broyles both down for the count, it was time for mercurial second-year pro Titus Young to step up. There was just one small problem: As of Week 11, he was also out for the season.
Unlike Burleson and Broyles, however, Young wasn’t hurt. Dissatisfied with his role in the offense, Young intentionally lined up in the wrong spot multiple times in the closing moments of Detroit’s devastating Week 11 loss to the Packers.
That would be the same devastating loss where Stafford missed six of his final seven throws as the Lions desperately tried to overcome a one-score deficit. The same devastating loss that dropped the Lions to 4-6 and effectively out of the NFC playoff race. The same devastating loss that left the Lions with no choice but to send home Stafford’s only viable deep threat outside of Calvin Johnson.
Things were so bad for the Lions at receiver that by the next time they played Green Bay in Week 14, they were starting Kris Durham. Signed off the street just five days earlier, Durham ran the wrong route on Stafford’s lone interception of the evening, and committed a costly fourth-quarter drop in a game Detroit went on to lose 27-20. For good measure, Durham was responsible for another wrong route interception — this one of the “pick six” variety — in Arizona one week later.
Stafford’s lack of weapons at receiver was evidenced in part by how little damage he did outside the red zone. In 2011, he had 12 touchdown throws of 20 yards or longer. In 2012, only five.
If the ravages of injury and incompetence weren’t enough for Stafford’s receiver corps, there was some dumb luck thrown in to boot. A big part of both Stafford’s “real life” and fantasy regression was a fluky-bordering-on-comical decline in his touchdown rate.
There’s no arguing the main reason Stafford’s TD total dropped from 41 to 20 was because his play simply slipped. But you know what didn’t help?
Calvin Johnson getting tackled at the one-yard line an unfathomable six times. Those six plays weren’t the difference in either Stafford’s or the Lions’ down year. But they are emblematic of a season in which everything that could go wrong did. A season where Stafford set the single-game record for passing yards without a touchdown (443 in Week 16).
From Titus Young becoming the NFL’s answer to Aldrich Ames, to the best receiver in the NFL not being able to gain three freaking feet six freaking different times, Stafford didn’t catch any breaks. Coupled with his undeniably worse play, it made for the most disappointing 4,967-yard season you’re ever going to see.