Let’s get this straight. Matthew Stafford wants to be loved, but not like one of those broken playthings in “Toy Story.”
He is not damaged goods. He is not wrapped in duct tape or held together by safety pins.
He is an NFL quarterback who has been injured before and does not plan on getting injured again. “Around the (Lions’) facility,” he said Wednesday, “people are looking for a good year from this team. They’re not looking at me.”
But outside the facility? Well. Name a Lions prediction that doesn’t begin with “if Matthew Stafford stays healthy…”
Which he should take as a compliment. In just 13 games over two seasons, he has become the engine of the Detroit machine. Yes, the Lions have won when Stafford was out. But they never look like they could win a lot unless he’s in.
It’s moments like that threaded touchdown pass to Tony Scheffler against the Patriots a few weeks ago, or that back-shoulder toss to Calvin Johnson against the Bengals, or that first half he had against Chicago in last year’s opener, before getting slammed to the turf and missing the next five games.
Stafford doesn’t just throw passes. He throws promise. There’s a quick release. A laser intensity. When he’s clicking, it’s as if the Lions go from Popeye to Popeye With Spinach.
No reason to dwell on the past
Of course when Popeye emptied that can, he popped muscles that made him twice his size.
Stafford has merely undergone rehab – intense rehab, shoulder-strengthening rehab, but still rehab. He doesn’t get any body armor Sunday. He’s as vulnerable as any player out there.
So questions will remain.
“Is being thought of as injury-prone new to you?” I asked.
“Yeah, it is,” he said. “I’ve never been that way. I look at what’s happened so far as a freak thing. Not a whole lot of rhyme or reason.”
And then he added: “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
This, I’ve noticed, is Stafford’s polite way of saying, “Can we change the subject?” Like many successful athletes, he has been schooled in the positive, taught to envision success. He has no stomach for introspection about setbacks. Leave that to shrinks and TV analysts.
Stafford, 23, still has some collegiate optimism – but mixed with professional realism. He’s not as rah-rah as, say, Joey Harrington, but he’s not as cynical as Scott Mitchell, either.
And he loves being here.
“I feel a lot more at home in Detroit than I did two years ago,” he said. “I have my bearings now. And I kind of understand the heartbeat of the city.”
Then he knows it races when he takes a snap, and it warbles when he takes a hit.
It all starts in Tampa
That’s because Stafford boasts what fans have longed for around here, a low-key swagger and a quiet confidence. As with Mark Sanchez, Aaron Rodgers and others, Stafford embraces the cool factor of today’s young NFL quarterbacks: be the star but don’t act like it.
So he flips his cap backward and grows a stringy beard and wears loose sweatshirts. You don’t hear about him flashing money or hitting the clubs. And there are no regular updates on who he’s dating or what he’s tweeting.
He admits Ndamukong Suh is a higher flier in Detroit. “He’s also bigger,” the quarterback said, laughing. “He’s like 6-foot-5, 390 pounds, so he’s way more recognizable. And he’s more out and about. That works for him. Laying low works more for me.”
On Sunday afternoon at Tampa Bay, Stafford begins his quest to lay low and play big.
Do not worry for Matthew Stafford. He’s not worrying for himself. He is not Woody or Rex or Buzz Lightyear in the wounded toy box. He doesn’t want pity – although he knows the questions won’t stop.
“Let’s be real,” he said. “Obviously, what happened has happened. So I don’t really mind answering the question. Especially when the answer is, ÂI feel great.'”
Is that the answer? I feel great?
Let’s get it started.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.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.