With Stafford, Lions finally have an answer

by | Jan 6, 2012 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

We’ve got a quarterback.

No matter what happens Saturday night in New Orleans, no matter what unfolds in this first Lions playoff season since the last millennium, Detroit fans can say that sentence and take comfort in it.

We’ve got a quarterback.

It is no small deal.

Until Matthew Stafford came of age this season, the guy behind center for Detroit was a phantom. He changed faces, numbers, body types and 40-yard dash speed, but he remained invisible, a shadow, a wispy symbol of a team that was, in the end, going nowhere.

Stafford changed all that. He can flat out play the position. He’s not the fastest, strongest or biggest. But he has the intangible, the “it,” he makes a play, he leads a huddle, he swaggers, he yells, he engineers comebacks and puts the ball on a dime.

You know the “other guy”? That quarterback who always played for the great teams that came into Detroit and kicked butt?

That “other guy” now plays for the Lions.

And he just passed for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns – 12 in his last three games.

“Is it safe to say you’re peaking?” I asked him this week.

“I would think so,” he said. “The numbers probably say that…. My body of work in the NFL isn’t a huge number right now, but hopefully we’ll get a little bit of experience in January and February.”

Notice he said February?

Notice no one was laughing?

From Long to Ware to Mitchell …

That alone is a huge change. Consider the list of Detroit’s starting quarterbacks since the ’80s. From Chuck Long to Daunte Culpepper, there haven’t been that many wrong guesses since Khloe Kardashian took her SAT. The Lions were wrong on high draft picks (Long, Andre Ware, Joey Harrington) and low draft picks (Rodney Peete, Dan Orlovsky, Mike McMahon), on other teams’ veterans (Culpepper, Scott Mitchell, Ty Detmer, Jeff Garcia) and their own longshots (Charlie Batch, Erik Kramer).

Not once, if we’re honest, did any of those guys truly look like a franchise quarterback, one who could lead a beleaguered franchise into the realm of high expectations.

Stafford does.

“I think it’s just experience,” he said. “Obviously I didn’t get to play in a whole bunch of games the first couple of years. So much of a quarterback being able to throw the ball in the right spots is having done it.”

For Lions fans, watching Stafford “do it” isn’t just admiration, it’s relief. Finally, a guy who can thread the ball between defenders. Finally, a guy who can look off a play and go to the open man. Finally, a guy who can adjust on the fly, sidearm it, flick it deep. Finally, a guy who gets more confident as the game goes on, who expects to succeed, who salivates at the idea of a comeback. Last Sunday’s game in Green Bay may not have ended well, but it was a virtual showcase of Stafford’s growth, resilience and variety of throws. Five touchdowns. Over 500 yards.

Finally, a quarterback who seems up to it.

A weapon other teams fear

Let’s not kid ourselves. The Lions’ winning in the Big Easy on Saturday would be the story of the NFL weekend. The Saints are two years from a Super Bowl championship, haven’t lost at home all season, and have arguably the best quarterback in the game. They aren’t shivering at the idea of playing Detroit, having crunched the Lions, 31-17, last month.

The Lions likely don’t have the defense to stop Drew Brees, nor the staying power to match point-for-point with that offense. But it’s a game, a real game, precisely because Detroit has a quarterback. Like it or not, that is the measure of a team in the NFL. And what the Saints are worrying most about right now, I promise you, is Stafford’s ability to bull’s-eye the hands of big receivers like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew.

“We learned a lot from the last game,” Stafford said. “The buck stopped there. Guys understood what it was gonna take to win, how we couldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. … So now we got a chance to go back to where it all started and hopefully reverse the outcome.”

If it happens, this city goes insane. If it doesn’t, there’s still a hopeful feeling. It’s a 10-6 team, it’s pointed in the right direction, and most important, nobody is wishing for someone else under center anymore.

We’ve got a quarterback.

And he’s only 23.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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