When Calvin Johnson retired, that was supposed to affect Matthew Stafford. And it did, just not in the way everyone figured.
Stafford has actually been a better quarterback practically across the board for the Detroit Lions since Johnson retired. That’s no slight on Johnson, famously known as “Megatron.” He’s one of the most dominant receivers in NFL history, and he should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer (but ask Terrell Owens, these things are hard to predict nowadays). But the numbers make it pretty clear Stafford has been better without him:
2009-15, with Johnson: 109 games, 2,246-3,691 (60.9 percent) 25,976 yards (238.3 per game), 163 TD, 98 INT, 85.8 rating
2016-17, without Johnson: 25 games, 594-923 (64.4 percent), 6,788 yards (271.5 per game), 41 TD, 15 INT, 94.4 rating
The most startling number, other than the spike in rating, might be the interception percentage. For most of his career Stafford was pretty much known as Jay Cutler lite, a quarterback who had a big arm that would lead to too many ill-timed turnovers, but that hasn’t played out the last two seasons. He has thrown picks on just 1.6 percent of his passes, which is a fantastic mark.
There’s never one reason a player starts playing at a different level. But an in-depth profile on Stafford from SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg puts forth some reasons Stafford has been playing his best football. The Johnson part of it is interesting. When he retired — SI.com reported that Stafford’s wife Kelly knew about it before Matthew ever found out, having heard it from Johnson’s girlfriend — it made logical sense that Stafford wouldn’t be as good. But the opposite is logical too. How many times would Stafford force the ball to Johnson because, well, he’s Calvin Johnson?
“Early in my career, it was first-and-10 on the first play of the game and I thought I needed [a first down],” Stafford told SI.com. “Part of that came with, Man, I know what kind of weapon I have on the outside in Calvin.”
This has played out before. In 1994, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre lost all-world receiver Sterling Sharpe, who he relied on heavily his first three years as a starter. When he couldn’t force passes to Sharpe anymore, Favre started spreading it around and won the first of his three MVP awards in 1995.
There are other reasons Stafford’s play has improved, and they have nothing to do with Johnson. Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has been a great influence on Stafford (one has to assume Cooter will be a hot head-coaching candidate next offseason). Cooter became the Lions offensive coordinator during the 2015 season, Johnson’s final year in the NFL. SI.com also wrote that having twins last March (SI.com explained the difficulty he and Kelly had in having children, too), grounded him and has positively affected his play. That is certainly possible.
It’s also possible this would have happened with or without Johnson, and with or without a bright offensive coordinator. Stafford is portrayed in the story as a remarkable student of the game, a smart player who is devoted to film study. He always had insane physical talent. Maybe it was just a matter of time.
Whatever the reason, any concerns about how Stafford would react without Johnson have been erased. He has been just fine. Better than ever, really.
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