The Detroit Lions are a weird team. They have a reputation as a high-powered passing offense, because the balance of their identity is so skewed by a lousy defense and an absent running game, and because quarterback Matthew Stafford has been known for a high volume of passes and yards. (Stafford is one of only five NFL quarterbacks ever to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season; he has two seasons in the top 10 all time by yards and Sunday night he surpassed Randall Cunningham on the career passing yards list—Cunningham who played 16 seasons, exactly twice as long as Stafford has so far.)
In some senses, Stafford is even having a career year. His interception rate is the lowest it’s been in any season when he threw at least 100 passes and his QBR of 70.7 is eight percentage points better than his previous best and nearly 20 points higher than his lifetime average. Stafford also contributed to the offense with a career high in rushing yards. Before the Lions lost their last three games to finish 9-7, Stafford was even being considered for the league MVP.
A lot of that had to do with Stafford leading Detroit to eight fourth quarter comebacks, an NFL record. And Stafford’s improvement is credited to the promotion of Jim Bob Cooter at the midpoint of 2015, whose playbook added an element of efficiency to the Lions’ offense that helped Detroit win six of its final eight games after that switch last year and make the playoffs in 2016 despite having the least efficient defense in pro football.
In addition to grooming Stafford, the Lions have also invested heavily in the passing offense around him. Detroit spent free agent contracts on wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, used a first round pick on tight end Eric Ebron, and have first round picks starting at both tackle spots—left tackle Riley Reiff is the second-highest paid player on the team—and another recent first round pick at guard, 2015 selection Laken Tomlinson, backs up rookie third-rounder Graham Glasgow. Since the Seattle Seahawks will play Detroit in the Wild Card playoff round Saturday, and since so many people say the reason Seattle’s offense isn’t more effective is a lack of investment in talent on that side of the ball, in particular on the offensive line, I thought it would be interesting to compare the Lions’ spending to the Seahawks’ to see if Seattle could afford an offense like Detroit’s.
The short answer is no: According to Spotrac, the difference between the amount of the salary cap the Lions allot to offense and how much the Seahawks have bound up in that side of the ball is more than the cap space Seattle has left. And that’s not even counting the nearly $13 million on hold because of prorated bonuses already paid out to the retired Calvin Johnson (the Seahawks similarly have five million in dead money marked because of Marshawn Lynch’s signing bonus, plus about another five million taken by Cary Williams’s and J’Marcus Webb’s deals—without all this dead money Seattle would indeed have room for Detroit’s active offensive contracts, but accounting for such things is literally what accounting means; the Green Bay Packers, for example, are able to spend as much as the Seahawks on defense and more than the Lions on offense because they don’t have any dead cap hits costing more than $400,000).
But even when you just look at players on Detroit’s roster in 2016, the Lions’ wide receiver group is the third-highest paid position on that team after quarterbacks and defensive backs (the secondary gets a lot of money because it has so many members—13 players in Detroit’s case, 15 for Seattle; but the Seahawks’ group together earns about twice as much). On Seattle, you have to go past the DBs and defensive line before you even get to quarterbacks and then linebackers still comes before any other offensive unit. Let me say that again: Every defensive position group on the Seahawks gets paid more than any offensive group except the quarterbacks.
For the Lions, offensive line is the next-highest paid group after receivers, getting a combined $17 million, roughly, or about 11.3 percent of the total cap (which is actually only the 27th-most expensive line in the league, but it’s still a greater emphasis per player than spending on any defensive group, and remember also the cost of the draft capital). After Stafford and Reiff, Detroit’s third-highest paid individual player in 2016 is a linebacker, DeAndre Levy. Seattle’s linebacker Bobby Wagner is the ninth highest paid player on the Seahawks this year, and he makes about as much as all the current members of the offensive line combined, around $6.25 million. That’s 4.2 percent of the cap.
And yet, for all this spending on receivers and drafting of linemen, and despite the public impression of passing “success” described at the top, if you look more closely at the numbers, Detroit’s offense hasn’t been particularly good at moving the football or scoring points in 2016. Indeed, it really hasn’t been any more productive or efficient than Seattle’s.
Whether you use traditional metrics or advanced stats, the two squads are neck in neck in almost every category: Heading into week 17 the Lions were 17th in offensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders, one spot ahead of the Seahawks; Seattle averaged 5.6 yards per play over the whole season while Detroit averaged 5.5; the Seahawks ended the year tied for 18th in points per game at 22.1—the Lions were 20th at 21.6 ppg.
Of course, these offensive numbers are dragged down by both teams’ running games. Like Seattle, Detroit finished the regular season with a leading rusher who was no longer on the active roster—Theo Riddick, who went to injured reserve with 357 yards. Like the Seahawks, the Lions backfield was struck by injuries, with season-opening starter Ameer Abdulla fracturing his foot before Riddick hurt his wrist. But also like Seattle, the running backs kept getting hurt partly because that young offensive line—no matter how many early draft picks—was terrible at run blocking. The Lions were better only than the San Francisco 49ers in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
Detroit’s comparatively expensive line allowed five fewer sacks, but otherwise its passing offense is also basically interchangeable with the Seahawks’. Seattle threw for 13 more total yards than the Lions, and one fewer touchdown. Russell Wilson threw one more interception than Stafford; the pair had identical adjusted net yards per attempt rates: 6.6. Detroit is simply not a high-volume or a dynamic passing attack anymore. The only category in which the Lions were a top-10 passing team is completion percentage, where it ranked ninth thanks to Cooter’s shorter passing plays, but Stafford’s rate was only 0.6 percentage points better than Wilson’s—while Wilson had a higher basic yards per attempt by a half-yard, 7.7 ypa compared to 7.3. Stafford had slightly better advanced stats, but not significantly and certainly not MVP-worthy, and the team’s passing DVOA as a whole was again only 0.6 percent better than the Seahawks’.
I would trade any numbers for more game-winning comebacks, sure, but, as Steven Ruiz pointed out at For The Win last month, crediting Stafford or the offense at all for those fourth-quarter drives is rather flimsy: More than half of those “winning” drives produced field goals after turnovers created short field position for Stafford, including one negative-two yard “drive” that set up a kick to beat the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving. As we saw Sunday against the 49ers, Russell Wilson and his motley line can do that when the defense makes timely takeaways. It just doesn’t necessarily happen in the fourth quarter.
Indeed Stafford was often in position to make comebacks specifically because the offense had struggled to score earlier in games, or made other errors. As Ruiz puts it, “Stafford’s record-breaking game-winning drive was only necessary because he threw a pick-six that gave Chicago the lead in the fourth quarter. Stafford’s MVP case may have been boosted by his interception.”
Look, the Detroit Lions aren’t a case study proving you shouldn’t pay for offense. Plenty of teams do better with an offensive emphasis than the Lions, as these mediocre numbers say for themselves. But seeing what they did this year—even before Stafford hurt his finger—does mean prioritizing offense isn’t any guarantor you will put up performance better than what Seattle got in that department on a much lower budget.
We think John Schneider may be able to use those resources more wisely than Martin Mayhew, the architect of most of Detroit’s current salary structure before he was fired last year. Then again, the dead Webb contract and many recent offensive draft picks don’t definitively support that he would. If you can’t trust your talent evaluation, perhaps undrafted, uncostly players are a suitable protector from ungainly contracts. The Lions have their own version of Schneider now, a rising executive stamped from the mold of a championship front office, so we’ll see where they go from here. And maybe Schneider himself takes a more offensive direction soon. But in January 2017, these Seahawks get to play this Detroit bunch, and perhaps answer the question what would it look like if Seattle’s defense could go against its own offense.