In 2019, nobody attempted passes further downfield than Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. At 10.7 Intended Air Yards, Stafford’s eight-game stretch was one of the best in his career before he lost the back half of the season to injury. In a play-action heavy approach under offensive coordinator Darrel Bevell with skyscraper vertical receivers in Marvin Jones (13.2 Targeted Air Yards) and Kenny Golladay (15.4 Targeted Air Yards), the Lions passing game and their veteran quarterback suddenly vaulted into the ranks of explosive attacks, which had many believing in a potential Lions playoff push in 2020, with Stafford returned to health.
Things got off to a bad start there. The Lions handed out back-to-back wins to division rivals (Bears and Packers) after holding multi-score leads over both. In both games, the Lions offense came out to a hot start and faded down the stretch.
But this time, the offense wasn’t missing Stafford: it was missing Golladay, who was absent for the first two weeks of the season with a hamstring injury. In those two games, Stafford was below his 2019 average, at 9.3 air yards/attempt and 8.8 air yards per attempt, respectively. When Golladay returned for Week 3, everything changed.
On top of that, Stafford was again one of the deeper passers in the league in Week 6 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, at 9.6 air yards/attempt. In those three contests, Golladay has seen 21 targets for 16 yards/reception and 10.67 yards/target—both numbers are top 20 in the league, and his 2.57 yards/route run is top 10. Marvin Jones, who had 14 targets in two Golladay-less games, has 10 total in the three games Kenny has played, and with that new target distribution, the Lions’ passing offense has soared from 25th in Dropback EPA/play to 7th in Dropback EPA/play.
The Lions have grabbed two wins since Golladay’s return, only dropping another multi-score lead against the Saints in what was Golladay’s quietest game back. He is inarguably the heartbeat of this offense and even as the Lions continue to figure out their running back distribution and incorporate second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson in the red zone, Golladay is the feature weapon of this offense.
But is his return enough to put the Lions back on that path many expected from them in 2020: that of a playoff-caliber offense? The argument is surprisingly sound. Golladay gets the Falcons’ depleted secondary this week, and after a tough matchup against the bend-don’t-break defense of the Indianapolis Colts that denies a lot of deep targets, then sees Minnesota, Washington, Carolina, and Houston—some of the best defenses for a wide receiver to play.
On that five-game stretch, it is reasonable to expect the Lions to win three of them and enter December at .500. With their bye week long passed and a slew of tough divisional games awaiting them, the Lions will need to be measurably better, on offense but especially on defense, to make waves in the late playoff race. Their willingness to fight for head coach Matt Patricia’s job will also play a factor here.
But the core of what remains strong about the Lions will continue to grow: a fringe top-100 pick in 2017 who has blossomed into one of the best vertical receivers in the NFL, and the quarterback who trusts him more than anyone else to uncover on time and win contested balls. With Golladay, Jones, and slot receiver Danny Amendola all approaching free agency following the 2020 season, the Lions are positioned for a line shift at wide receiver, but there simply is no excuse for any front office, new or old, not paying Golladay. They’ve gotten a taste of offense without him, and the difference is marked: he’s their guy moving forward, and with his chemistry with Stafford considered, keeping the Stafford/Bevell/Golladay nucleus in place should be a priority for any staff that holds the Lions’ job in 2021 and beyond.