Matthew Stafford pops himself up on a table, legs dangling from oversized shorts, backward baseball cap over his moppy hair. In front of him is an empty football field. It’s the picture of a fresh start. A clean slate. And “clean slate” is usually a cherished phrase for returning Lions quarterbacks.
But Stafford, 22, is different. He is, in my view, the first Lions quarterback in decades who has the talent and the attitude to win big. He drapes confidence like a loose T-shirt. He doesn’t want a do-over on last year’s 2-14 season, because he figures it is part of the big picture.
“I never expected I would go out and throw 40 touchdowns, five picks and 4,000 yards,” he says of his rookie year. “I knew it was gonna be a struggle. But I also knew I have what it takes to battle through that stuff.”
This was Friday afternoon, one day before Saturday’s exhibition opener at Pittsburgh, Stafford’s first competitive action since he left the field eight months ago with an injured shoulder. It was the second injury to the same spot, to go with a knee that got rocked in Week 4. He says he never was really right after the knee injury, but never complained because “I wanted to play.”
You can see why. Stafford may not have finished last year healthy, but he did finish entrenched as the future. It’s on the kid now.
Which makes this August different than last.
“The whole dynamic has changed. I’m the starter, that’s clear-cut, everybody knows that now – and I think people understand that I know what I’m doing out there. Â I feel like a lot more guys listen to me now than probably did last year.”
Did you bite your tongue last year?
“I didn’t have to. I knew my place.”
And he knows it now. The front of the line.
It’s on the kid. QB stats don’t put a number on Âswagger’
When you look at Stafford’s stats last season, nothing suggests a future Pro Bowler. He threw seven more interceptions than touchdowns, averaged six yards per pass attempt, had a quarterback rating of 61 and was sacked an average of 2 1/2 times per game.
So why is everyone so high on him? Why do analysts around the country routinely say, “They got the right guy in Stafford”?
Because he has that quarterback “thing,” that swagger, that ease, that intangible that lets you know he’s a natural back there, what he hasn’t figured out, he will, what he hasn’t yet corrected, he’ll correct, and when he hits stride, it will be fun to watch.
“My confidence never went away,” he says.
Wasn’t there a moment, before you ever took an NFL snap, where you wondered if you were good enough for this level?
“Not really. It’s like your first varsity game in high school or first game in college. You get a completion and then you’re like, ÂOK, this is football.’ “
He grins. “Know what I mean?”
I’m not supposed to. But he is. Doesn’t mind not being in the Jet set
There’s an HBO series running this month called “Hard Knocks,” which follows the New York Jets training camp in intimate detail. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez – chosen four picks after Stafford in last year’s NFL draft – gets a star focus from HBO’s cameras.
Stafford doesn’t mind. “I’m about as low-key as they come as far as all that stuff, wanting to be out and about and doing all that.”
He points to his clothes, which could come from a college kid’s dirty laundry pile, “I mean, look at me.”
Look at him. There’s no HBO cameras, but he’s the star, he’s what they’re pinning their hopes on, he’s the arm, legs and brains that make the betting line of every Lions game this year. Yes, he lost more games last season than he lost in his entire high school and college career combined, and he wants no repeat of that. When he talks about his offensive weapons, he rattles off names with the excitement of a publicist. Calvin Johnson. Jahvid Best. Nate Burleson. Brandon Pettigrew.
“We got guys that can catch and run, and guys that can get open quick. You got a guy who gets open real fast, I don’t have to hold it too long, they don’t have to block too long.”
He’s already playing the game in his head. The field before him is empty, the slate is clean, and no hope springs more eternal than a new Lions season. “I really like it here,” he says, nodding. “When we turn it around, it’s gonna be sweet.”
Spoken like a kid. And it’s on the kid now.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).