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The New Alex Smith

Matthew Stafford became an MVP candidate by emulating one of the NFL’s most conservative quarterbacks

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The no. 1 overall pick in 2009, Matthew Stafford came into the NFL looking like the romantic ideal of the big-armed, aggressive, gunslinging quarterback. You know the type: Dirty Harry holding a magnum, asking the defense if they feel lucky and ready to lay waste to any secondary that dares him to throw deep. At times throughout his career, Stafford has played that part, launching bombs downfield to Calvin Johnson while racking up exciting touchdowns and big plays.

Except, all too often, those big plays came with backbreaking interceptions, and no amount of arm talent could compensate for the major mistakes Stafford’s style produced.

That is — until Jim Bob Cooter came to town. Since Cooter took the reins of the Lions offense in Week 8 of last season, Detroit’s been running a completely different system. The focus has changed, and Cooter’s scheme eschews the vertical attack in favor of a calculated dink-and-dunk policy.

Of course, "dink-and-dunk" almost always has a negative connotation — a quarterback who can’t make the throws downfield and has to settle for easier underneath passes — but Stafford’s success in Detroit’s new-look, highly efficient offense should have any critics reconsidering the merits of the philosophy that the Lions have embraced: There’s no shame in the short game.

For most people, the phrase conjures up the image of Alex Smith, and with good reason. Smith finished 39th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks in average depth of target in 2014 (6.0) per Pro Football Focus, then did it again in 2015 by finishing 36th out of 36 qualifying passers (6.8). Through seven weeks this season, Smith is again tied for last in aDOT — 35th out of 35 quarterbacks — but he shares that honor with a couple of players you might not expect: Stafford and Tom Brady. Of course, the difference among these three quarterbacks is that Stafford and Brady are both completely willing and capable of throwing the ball deep on any given snap, while Smith hasn’t consistently displayed that skill at any point in his career. In other words, the Patriots and Lions are doing this by choice.

By strategically attacking weaknesses on the defense, working both the sideline and the middle of the field to keep opponents off balance, and throwing it deep once in awhile to keep the defense honest, an offense predicated on the quick, short passing game can be deadly. The Lions are 11th in points per game (24.3) and tied for eighth in yards per play (5.9), but the rate in which they turn their offensive possessions into points is third in the league (2.66 points per drive), behind only the Falcons and Cowboys. Detroit carried the seventh-ranked pass offense by DVOA into Sunday’s matchup with Washington, and that number is sure to improve after Stafford’s efficient 266-yard, one-touchdown performance.

Detroit’s "death by a thousand strategically placed cuts" style requires an especially high level of execution from its players. When you’re not picking up big chunks of yards with each play, simple math says that you’re going to need to run more plays to move down the field. (The Lions are second in the NFL in plays per offensive possession.) That near-flawless execution all starts with the quarterback, and Cooter’s offensive design is centered around the concept of cutting down on Stafford’s turnovers. From 2011 to 2014, Stafford threw 116 touchdowns but also turned it over 76 times (64 interceptions and 12 lost fumbles), and in the first seven weeks of last season, before Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as coordinator, things had gotten even worse. Stafford threw 12 touchdowns and coughed the ball up 10 times (nine picks and one lost fumble).

Detroit’s brain trust decided to make a change, and we now have a 16-game sample — equivalent to a full season — of what Stafford can do with Cooter calling plays. It looks like this: a 68.6 completion percentage, 4,310 yards at 7.6 yards per attempt, 35 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a 105.4 quarterback rating. With Cooter running the offense, the Lions are 10–6.

This season alone, Stafford boasts a 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The sidearm panic throws are mostly gone. The guy that used to force the ball into too many double-teams downfield has grown more disciplined. The sometimes-great-but-too-often-self-destructive persona that Stafford developed in the early part of his career has been replaced with a calm, veteran ball-distributor. Getting the ball into his playmakers’ hands so they can pick up yards after the catch is the name of the game now. While yards may end up on Stafford’s stat sheet, the Cooter offense isn’t asking his arm to pick up all of them. In effect, Detroit sees its short passing game as something akin to a heavy rushing attack; only in this offense, swing passes, screens, shovel passes, and quick dump-offs replace run handoffs.

Theo Riddick — an excellent pass-catching back — is averaging 7.2 yards after the catch on his 26 receptions this season. He’s scored two touchdowns on simple screen plays — the first against the Colts in Week 1, and the second in Week 5 against the Eagles.

The receiver group has become an extension of the run game as well. Golden Tate has consistently been one of the most dangerous open-field runners in the NFL. Thanks to Tate’s speed and absurd balance, he has led the league in broken tackles by a receiver three years running, and he currently leads that position group in yards after contact per PFF. After a rough start to the season, when the Lions struggled to get him involved in the offense, Tate has broken out over the past two games with 14 catches for 258 yards and a touchdown.

Many of Tate’s touches come on these quick screen plays, where Stafford quickly feeds him the ball so he can follow his blockers downfield. Here, against the Rams in Week 6, Tate catches two of these screens and turns them into huge gains, the second of which he takes all the way into the end zone.

Against the Redskins in Week 7, Detroit gets him involved in the screen game again, and he takes two of them for big yardage.

In that game, Tate even takes a little shovel pass as he motions across the formation to pick up 22 yards.

In addition to Tate, the ageless Anquan Boldin has become a trusty option for Stafford over the middle. His ability to sit down in the holes of zone defenses or vary the speed of his routes to create separation has allowed the 36-year-old — who never really had much speed — to carve out a role for himself in Detroit’s passing game. Against the Rams, Boldin ran a route combination with tight end Clay Harbor, slowing up to run parallel to his teammate’s route before cutting inside to make the catch. Here, against Washington the next week, we see the exact same concept.

Boldin caught the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining on Sunday, and on that play, he set up Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller with what looked to be an out-breaking route before crossing him up, coming inside, and making the catch in traffic. Boldin has been a solid red zone threat for Stafford all year because of his precision route-running and his ability to feel out the defense to gain separation. In Week 6 against the Rams, when the 14th-year pro jogs off the line in what looks to be a run-block posture, play-action works like a charm. The nickelback, Lamarcus Joyner, bites on the run fake, and Boldin sneaks in behind him in the soft spot of a zone.

Of course, Detroit’s quick passing short game wouldn’t be nearly as effective if defenses could simply move closer to the line of scrimmage to take away the short options. The Lions need at least the threat of the deep ball in order to keep defenses honest. That’s where Marvin Jones comes in.

Against Washington last week, Stafford hit Jones with a beautiful throw on a post route that gained 52 yards. These deep shots don’t always work, but opposing defensive coordinators have plays like this — and the two deep touchdowns Jones caught against the Packers in Week 3— in mind when they’re calling their defensive looks.

The Lions’ 20–17 win on Sunday was Stafford’s 100th career regular-season game, and while no player has accumulated more passing yards (27,890) in his first 100 games than the 28-year-old signal-caller for Detroit, he entered Game 85 as a reckless thrower in need of a system makeover.

He’s gotten that with Cooter’s dink-and-dunk offense, and the average depth of his throws simply doesn’t matter when his intended targets turn them into big gains after the catch. What separates this Lions offense from some of the anemic check-down-heavy offenses run by limited quarterbacks is that Stafford hasn’t lost the cannon-for-an-arm that helped him earn the gunslinger reputation early in his career. While most quarterbacks can throw a screen pass or dump it off to a running back, Stafford can and will challenge defenses deep when the right look presents itself.

It’s all there for Stafford this season. He’s performed best late in games when the offense needs a big play, and he’s already led game-winning drives in all four of the Lions’ wins this year. He’s distributing the ball evenly to his playmakers in Riddick (26 catches), Tate (31), Boldin (32), and Jones (33). He has been extremely accurate; his 79.6 accuracy percentage ranks fifth in the NFL, per PFF. And what’s most impressive is that the offense’s overall numbers (points per game and yards per game) have both improved over last year despite Megatron’s retirement. And despite featuring one of the worst defenses in the NFL, the Lions are 4–3. Stafford might not be throwing deep as much as he used to, but he’s more of an MVP candidate than ever before.

An earlier version of this story misstated when the Lions played the Packers in the 2016 season. The game was Week 3, not Week 2.