He’s the Last Big Name standing. Matthew Stafford was once one of three famous Detroit Lions players that any NFL fan could recite: Ndamukong Suh. Calvin Johnson. Matthew Stafford.
Suh walked away for more money. Johnson just walked away. This afternoon in Indianapolis, Stafford walks onto the field to start the 2016 season as the only face outsiders associate with the Lions.
They’d better protect him.
Never has Stafford meant as much to the team. He’ll labor behind a line that gave up 44 sacks last year, with only No. 1 pick Taylor Decker as a new member. Lest anyone get too excited by that, remember Laken Tomlinson, another offensive lineman, was Detroit’s No. 1 pick last year, and he spent most of the season like a sailboat lost at sea.
Keeping Stafford safe is priority No. 1, 2 and 3 for this offense, because it all works around him — especially with the angular Johnson no longer an option. Stafford has been fortunate the last few seasons to avoid major injuries that cost chunks of the season. With nearly 90 sacks over the last two years, he takes a pounding better than just about any passer in the game.
But it happens to every quarterback sooner or later. Even well-protected assets such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have missed major parts of seasons after a bad sack or a rough tackle. Stafford, at 28, already is an Ironman. For the last five years, he hasn’t missed a start. He’ll need to keep that streak alive.
Or the Lions don’t have a chance.
A changing offense
Stafford laughs at the phrase “grizzled veteran” but says, “Sure, I’m all for it.” Seven NFL years have taught him plenty. He starts his eighth under his third offensive coordinator, which, for a quarterback, is like moving into a new home and calling someone else Dad.
Jim Bob Cooter is the man of the house now. He took over last year (when Joe Lombardi was fired midway through the season) and began his trial by fire with a game in London.
“We were flying overseas, learning new plays and new verbiage,” Stafford now says. “It was tough.”
Starting from scratch has made both men more confident. Stafford clearly has a rapport with Cooter and gives a slight suggestion of frustrations with previous coordinators: “(Cooter) understands what our team is good at. You can have all the football plays in the world, but if your team is only good at 10, 20 or 30 of those, you should probably call those 10, 20 or 30 more often than the others.”
For these Lions, that’s likely to mean possession throws, high-percentage outside passes and over-the-middle routes with hopes of yardage after the catch. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and former Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin all have reliable hands good for moving the chains.
Gone will be the chance-taking throws that Johnson made seductive.
“Calvin could win routes that you traditionally didn’t win against certain coverages,” Stafford says, admitting that he took chances as a result. “It’s going to be different. I’m going to have to be better.”
On his shoulders
How much better can Stafford get? That’s the question pundits wrestle with. They are all over the place when they rate him. He’s too good to be ignored, not accomplished enough to top a list, too young to write off, too experienced to judge on upside. He’s top 7. He’s top 10. He’s top 15. On and on.
Personally, I think he’s the best quarterback the Lions have had in decades. That’s enough. You don’t judge him against Brady nor Rodgers, because the Lions are not the Patriots nor the Packers. They are not consistently finding talent to surround him, not consistently making the playoffs and not consistently winning, which breeds its own DNA. It’s foolish to expect consistent quarterback performance when everything else in the organization is like the inside of a laundry machine.
But when the Lions are winning, it’s usually because Stafford is going good. His arm strength is unquestioned. His toughness, as well. He doesn’t always find the best receiver and his pocket presence is average; he can’t escape very well.
But he can get hot, he can thread defenders, he’s got a cannon, and the team responds to him. Lesser QBs have played in Super Bowls. Even won them.
Considering the two biggest stars he has played with did not bring a single player in return for their departures, the Last Big Name has had a lot of weight put on his shoulders this season. Keeping him upright will be critical to how he handles it.
Watch with Mitch
Join our live game blog with Mitch Albom around 4:15 and discuss the Lions’ opener!