GREEN BAY – A year ago, the Detroit Lions averaged 22.4 points per game. This season? They’ve dipped to 21.5.
A year ago, the Lions were a top-10 passing offense, ranking ninth in the NFL with 263 yards per game. This season? They’ve dipped to 252 pass yards per game, ranking 14th in the league.
A year ago, future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson was Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s go-to receiver. This season? Johnson enjoyed his first fall of retirement.
Johnson’s premature end to his career was supposed to sink the Lions. Indeed, they have slipped offensively, but the Lions are better in the one category that matters most.
A year ago, the Lions finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. This season? They’re a home win against the Green Bay Packers away from finishing 10-6 and winning their first NFC North title. The last time the Lions won a division was 1993, back when it was the NFC Central.
Even if it takes all three phases to win – offense, defense and special teams – it seems impossible the Lions could have a better team without Johnson. Coach Jim Caldwell wouldn’t agree the Lions are better without Johnson, no matter what their record suggests.
“Oftentimes people try to interject,” Caldwell said, “are you better off without Calvin? You’re never better off without a guy who’s 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds and 4.3 (40-yard dash time), and without question is going to be a Hall of Famer. I really take exception to that, when people even try to allude to the fact that you’re better off without maybe one of the greatest players that’s ever lined up at the position.”
Yet the mystery remains. How have the Lions weathered Johnson’s retirement at age 30?
It’s one reason Stafford deserves MVP consideration. He has engineered eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, an NFL single-season record. Mistake-prone throughout his career, Stafford is having his most efficient season, if not his finest.
He has completed 65.5 percent of his passes, the second-best mark of his career. He's just 20 yards shy of his sixth straight 4,000-yard season, Stafford’s 22 touchdown passes are well behind the 32 he threw last season. But with nine interceptions, he could finish in single digits for the first time playing a full season.
The Lions have needed that type of efficiency from Stafford this season. With no running game – the Lions rank 30th in the league – any mistakes are only amplified.
Stafford has played through a dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand the past two weeks. He wears a specially-made glove protecting the finger, but receiver Golden Tate said he can’t tell any difference with how his quarterback is throwing.
“If anything,” Tate said, “the ball seems like it’s coming a little bit faster. I think 9 (Stafford’s number) is spinning it very nicely.”
Stafford also has had more weapons emerge this season. Tate leads the Lions with 85 catches for 1,000 yards, the second 1,000-yard season of his career. He’s one of five receivers with at least 50 catches, a group that includes tight end Eric Ebron and running back Theo Riddick.
Any given week, any Lions skill player can emerge as the star. When the Lions visited Green Bay in Week 3, it was free-agent acquisition Marvin Jones. He was one of several receivers to torch the Packers' secondary this season, catching six passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
So maybe the Lions aren’t more difficult to cover without a 6-foot-5, 235-pound receiver who clocks a 4.3-second dash. Their depth certainly poses challenges.
“It’s no secret,” Tate said, “that Calvin was and is a great player. No doubt, but at the end of the day, NFL football still has to go on. I think a lot of guys accepted the challenge that we were going to have more opportunity, and we’ll work to further those. Every guy is in there working to earn those extra passes and carries out there that Calvin would’ve gotten.
“So I think it’s obviously been working out well for us. We’re in a great situation right now. I think Matt is playing at a high level. I think he’s doing a great job at spreading the ball around, and we’ve been winning games. So we miss Calvin, but we’ve kind of adjusted.”