No wilting: Stafford, Lions beat the heat

TAMPA – Matthew Stafford laughed. He slapped hands with teammates. He drank a lot of fluids. Most importantly, on a Florida afternoon as stifling as the back room of a bakery, he walked off the field the way he needs to walk off – upright, with a victory under his arm, looking forward to next week.

Take heart, aged Lions fans. The lesson from this season’s opener was one we learned as kids: It’s more fun to play with ALL your toys than SOME of them.

How great to have a yard-gulping Jahvid Best instead of a limping one? How great to have a full-speed Nate Burleson instead of a hobbled ankle version? How nice to have tight end Tony Scheffler doing a really bad touchdown dance instead of favoring injured ribs, or Jason Hanson kicking field goals instead of sitting on injured reserve?

And, oh, yes – how sweet to have the most important player and the future of this franchise doing his thing with a football instead of a clipboard?

Stafford, totally healthy, was a thing to behold much of Sunday afternoon. He had command, he had control, he had composure and he had numbers: 24-for-33, 305 yards, three touchdowns, no sacks.

He even threw one pass with his legs so badly cramping from the heat he said “I almost fell as I was throwing it.”

Instead it landed right where it was supposed to – in the leaping, outstretched grip of Calvin Johnson for a touchdown – and the margin of victory in this 27-20 affair.

Hot fun.

We’ve seen this before – but not around here

“It was nice, it was great,” Stafford said of playing his first game that counted in 10 months. “The guys up front kept me clean … and when they do that, the sky’s the limit for this team.”

Didn’t you feel that way watching the first half – before the heat and cramping players made it survival-by-substitution? Gone was the memory of the 13 games Stafford missed last year with his shoulder injuries. Gone was the usual prevailing sense of doom. Sunday was a reminder of why people got excited about this kid in the first place.

It wasn’t just his numbers. It was his touch passes to tight ends over the middle, timing passes to running backs, an angel-kissed toss to Johnson down the sidelines for one touchdown – on fourth-and-two! – and that surgically precise fade for another.

“He did a good job taking care of the football,” coach Jim Schwartz said of Stafford, but Schwartz was downplaying everything, angry over a stupid late penalty by Gosder Cherilus and intent on not getting too excited over one victory. That’s fine. He’s the coach. Coaches should be that way.

Fans can get nuttier. And Stafford looked better than a man “taking care of the football.” He looked like the captain of a ship, a painter with a full palette. He looked like the other young stud quarterbacks we have gotten used to seeing on other teams in the NFL.

Only this one is in Detroit.

Stafford-to-Johnson clicking from the get-go

“It’s just one, it’s one win,” Stafford, 23, said, repeating the mantra of his coach. Of course, in years past, we heard “it’s just one” in reference to a loss. This was the Lions’ first 1-0 start in four years. And they beat a favored team, on the road, that was 10-6 last year.

They did it with ball control (36-plus minutes of possession), with the newly celebrated defense (just two field goals allowed until the final minutes) and with a healthy dose of Stafford-to-Johnson (six catches, 10 attempts, 88 yards, two TDs).

“We have high expectations,” Johnson said in the upbeat locker room. He laughed. He joked. He spoke for a long while. That’s more outgoing than the Pro Bowl receiver has been in games past.

Maybe because a few feet away, his third-year quarterback was wearing a baseball cap, a towel and a huge, goofy smile. That’ll improve your mood.

It’s just one. We got that. And Schwartz warned: “It’s not gonna be a real pleasant film session tomorrow.”

That’s OK. It was pretty pleasant Sunday. The quarterback is laughing. Everyone’s standing. Some guys came home with a tan.

Hot fun. What’s wrong with that?

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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