The sidearm giveth and the sidearm … giveth. Matthew Stafford escaped the pocket, went scrambling to his left, then spotted Theo Riddick wheeling past his defender in the end zone. There were seconds left, the crowd was insane, the Lions needed a touchdown to win, and at moments like that, Stafford would say, “your body just takes over.”
So with his legs still moving, he flung a pass that took him back to a sandlot, a cross between a baseball slider and Huck Finn skimming a stone. The ball curled magically toward Riddick like one of those bent bullets in “The Matrix” and — bang! — it was in his hands, missing the defender’s red gloves by inches. Riddick fell to the turf, popped up with ball, and the Lions had just burst through the invisible ceiling of a 6-2 mar and had ensured first place in their division and a tie for the second-best record in the NFL.
The sidearm giveth.
“That’s just instinct there,” Stafford said, grinning, after yet another come-from-behind victory, 20-16 over Miami on Sunday afternoon at Ford Field. “You draw ’em up and then sometimes, the way football goes, you gotta go out there and make a play.”
Stafford has been making those plays since entering the league. Particularly late in the game. Sunday was his 15th come-from-behind victory, which is ridiculous unless you’re in the cardiac business.
“It was giving me a heart attack, personally,” linebacker DeAndre Levy confessed. “But as long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”
And as long as they’re winning, Lions critics who jump on Stafford for his sometimes less-than-pinpoint passes will bite their tongues. Does he make periodic simple throws too high or too low? Sure. But does he suddenly heave a 49-yard touchdown between two defenders to Calvin Johnson — as he did Sunday — or make two incredible sidearm whips in the last-gasp drive — as he did Sunday?
Yes, he does.
The sidearm taketh away. The sidearm giveth.
“I learned a long time ago, particularly when you’re talking about passers, they’ve developed their rhythm to throw — and how they throw — from the time they were in seventh or eighth grade,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “There are certain things they’re gonna do that are just part of who they are. …You can waste a lot of time trying to adjust something for a guy who does it well.”
And so the Lions ride their gunslinger, and the city rides the afterglow of seven victories in nine games, the first such Lions record in more than 20 years.
And with it comes amnesia.
Which is a good thing.
So we quickly forget that it took a delay of game call to win the previous game (in London). Or that Sunday, the Lions had many chances to salt this thing away early, but didn’t capitalize. Instead they had a pass intercepted in the end zone, dropped their own would-be pick in the end zone, had a field goal blocked and returned to the 3, and drew so many momentum-killing yellow flags you could see skid marks all over the turf.
As a result, a game they should have led 17-0 or 24-0, they trailed late, 16-13. And yet, when they had to, they won it. Isn’t that all we care about? The hounding defense rose to the occasion, and the offense — Stafford, Golden Tate, a healthy Johnson, Riddick, the O-line — drove 74 yards in the final three minutes to win it. Caldwell spoke about dips and drags during any NFL game (“Parity is real,” he noted), but clearly he has instilled a stay-calm-and-play-to-the-last-second mentality that the combustible Jim Schwartz never did.
It doesn’t hurt that their quarterback loves drama.
“I just had a good time,” Stafford said. “There’s no better feeling than when you come out of that drive successful.”
So good, that he did a combination fist pump-electric slide celebration by himself that is best described as … unorthodox. But then, so is his delivery. The thing is, guys can throw pretty passes all day and die at the finish. Stafford’s line Sunday (25-for-40, 280 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, three sacks) may be all over the place, but he was where he needed to be at the end. That final pass was a Rembrandt. You couldn’t copy it.
“He never gets flustered, never loses his poise,” Caldwell said. “That’s why he’s able to bring you back when most teams falter.”
Or as Johnson put it: “The guy gets it in his mind that he’s gonna win the game and that’s what he does.”
And as long as he does, who really cares, for now, if some are high or some are low, as long as the ones that count are right on the money?
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter@mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go tofreep.com/sports/mitch-albom.