Matthew Stafford has played just 13 games in his first two seasons with the Detroit Lions. Shoulder and knee injuries slowed him down. Last season he had just three starts and one complete game.
Did it humble the No. 1 overall draft pick from 2009?
“I don’t think it humbled him, I think it (ticked) him off maybe. I don’t think anybody is happy with being injured and being on the side watching. In his case being the first pick in the draft, knowing what he can get done on the field, I think it just (ticked) him off watching and I don’t think he enjoyed that,” center Dominic Raiola said.
Stafford agreed with that assessment. Yet he swears he no longer thinks about his shoulder which was surgically repaired in January.
“He worked really hard this offseason to get to where he needed to be and where he’s at right now, we’re all seeing that,” Raiola said.
It’s been a sensational start for Stafford.
In the preseason he was 25 of 33 for 395 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 154.7 quarterback rating.
His injuries were flukes, he never missed a game in college because of injury.
“I don’t think about it at all, it’s frustrating for the last year and a half really where I haven’t been super healthy, but I feel great now and I’m moving on,” Stafford said.
Stafford, all of 23, does seem different as he prepares for the regular season opener on Sept. 11. at Tampa. Perhaps a little more relaxed and jovial. He exudes a certain confidence, moreso than in his first two seasons.
“He’s a little more vocal, he’s a little more controlled, he’s making a few more plays on his own, he’s changing things at the line of scrimmage, he’s really matured as a quarterback,” wide receiver Nate Burleson said. “I don’t know if Scott (Linehan, the offensive coordinator) kind of took a little bit of a leash off, right now he’s out there perfoming and leading the offense as if he’s been in the league longer than he has been.”
Coach Jim Schwartz said Stafford has been ahead of the learning curve since he was drafted out of Georgia.
“Usually when you’re a rookie quarterback you’re trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do and you really don’t understand what the defense is doing. Matt’s always had a good understanding of that I think,” Schwartz said.
“I said this a couple years ago (prior to the 2009 draft) when we went down to Georgia and spent a couple days with him.”
The Lions put on film of Alabama, an NFL-style/Nick Saban defense to test Stafford’s knowledge.
“He could talk through all the defensive responsibilities, how they were attacking the defense, all those different things. He was beyond his years, you could say, then. But any time you do something a lot of times you’re going to become better at it,” Schwartz said. “Having experience within the division, having experience in the NFL, and the conference, familiar opponents, I’m sure there’s a comfort level that goes with that. But this has never been a deficient area for him.”
That said, Schwartz doesn’t see a big difference from last year to this year coming out of training camp and that’s mostly because Stafford was so good last year.
“I don’t know there’s been a big progression from year two to year three,” Schwartz said. “I think he was already pretty good in year two, I think we’re seeing a continuation of that.
“Another year older, a couple pounds heavier just like all of us. Like I said, he had very good command, he had very good understanding of our offense, he’s in a good position because it’s his third year in an offense, it will make him feel a little more comfortable,” Schwartz added.
The coach said it’s a natural part of his development, that’s what others see too.
“He does look more comfortable, even though he didn’t play that much (last year). I think it’s more, he’s bearing more weight on his shoulders, like taking the bull by the horns, more responsibility as being the franchise, as being the leader of this organization,” Raiola said.
He’s just 23, but it doesn’t really show.
“I don’t find it scary. I’m excited he’s that young and has turned the corner so fast. Usually it takes a while for a guy to get comfortable to be able to speak, in front of his team, to be able to lead his team,” Burleson said. “I was afraid to talk to my teammates for about four or five years, I always delegated the responsibility to someone older than me, but Matt’s not doing that, he’s taking control.
“I’m appreciative that when he’s in the huddle and he’s calling a play I want to look into he eyes of a very confident almost cocky quarterback, that can make any throw, make any call and get us in the end zone and he does that,” Burleson added.
During the NFL lockout several of the Lions met for two four-day informal workout sessions at Birmingham Detroit Country Day. Stafford was instrumental in gathering the players and he ran the offensive drills daily.
“He came back with a sense of urgency, he knew it was this year make or break, that was definitely evident,” Raiola said.
Stafford success, of course, depends on others around him.
That may be the biggest change from his rookie season to the start of his third season.
“I’d say the most important thing for his progression is players around him — having Calvin and Nate and Titus (Young) and (Maurice) Stovall and Rashied (Davis) and (Brandon) Pettigrew and (Tony) Scheffler and Jahvid (Best). We haven’t out that whole group on the field for any of the preseason games yet,” Schwartz said.
“It’s a lot different than when he was out there as a rookie without as much support. If you really talk about his progression you have to look at the progression of the offense along with him, particularly at the talent level,” the coach added.
But it’s not just the changes on the offensive roster that have helped Stafford.
In his rookie season the defensive line was a mish-mash and perhaps the biggest question mark on the team other than the defensive backfield.
“Part of Matt’s progression as a player is our building of the defense and having the patience that you can throw a ball away and knowing that we’re not going to give up a touchdown on the next drive and the game would be over,” Schwartz said.
Continuity is another factor. Stafford has been in the same offense under the same coordinator since he first stepped foot in the Lions’ practice facility.
“I think that has something to do with it, we’ve been in this system for two and a half, three years now. We have a lot of returning players and guys that understand the offense. When you’ve got guys that understand the offense, when you get guys who know what to do, they can play fast and relaxed and really let their ability come out,” Stafford said.
When they’ve got a leader like Stafford who works as hard or harder than all of them it helps.
“We all know the talent, we know the other things that come with it — the smarts, another year under his belt, he’s hungry, he’s’ extra hungry,” Raiola said. “I think he’s working extremely hard, not that he didn’t do it before, but he’s hungry and it’s showing.”
(Paula Pasche covers the Lions . Follow her on Twitter @PaulaPasche. Read her Lions Lowdown blog at TheOaklandPress.com. Get Lions news delivered directly to your phone by texting the keyword “Lions” to 22700.)
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