By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford knows – has always known – that the success of the Lions rests on his shoulders, just as the fates of the other 31 teams in the NFL depend on their respective quarterbacks.
Stafford, 26, had to start from scratch this offseason when Lions head coach Jim Caldwell arrived and hired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who brought with him an offensive system similar to the one run by the New Orleans Saints, Lombardi’s former team.
Caldwell said Stafford has handled the transition to the new offense well and worked to understand the offense’s details better than anyone else.
“He embraced this thing right from the onset,” Caldwell said. “He was trying to find ways – all within the rules – of trying to learn as much as he could about the offense in a very short period of time. He didn’t want to come in with the situation in the spring and not be ahead of his teammates. He exhibited the same type of willingness coming into the fall, obviously coming in a little bit ahead of the rest of the veterans, and he’s worked at it extremely hard.
“A lot of times, guys will look for an excuse of maybe why they weren’t as effective in certain phases like, ‘We’ve got a new system, it’s a little tough, it’s a learning curve, it’s a little difficult,’” Caldwell added. “He’s made none of those. He came out, he’s worked, he’s functioned, he’s gotten better as a result of that, and I look for him to keep improving.”
Teammates have noticed improvement in the locker room as well as on the field.
Center Dominic Raiola said taking command of the team is the next step for Stafford, who Raiola said had high standards to live up to because of the quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco – with whom Caldwell and Lombardi had worked previously.
“They were eager to see development from him,” Raiola said, “and he’s shown it through the preseason.”
Caldwell said he had a positive impression of Stafford from their very first meeting, the one that took place before the Lions had hired Caldwell. Stafford impressed the coach, and he noted that other players in the locker room seem to gravitate to the young but experienced quarterback.
“He’s vocal,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think you can really operate at that position and not be vocal. It doesn’t mean you have to be boisterous and loud; it means you have to be a communicator, and I think he does a fine job with that, telling guys where he expects them to be, how deep he wants those routes, the little nuances involved with the passing game, particularly with attacking spatial awareness areas and things of that nature, how the receivers have to adjust and what he’s anticipating and hoping happens.
“All of those things have been very, very positive,” Caldwell continued, “and I think you can see by his play that all of those things are improving within the system and I look forward to him having a great year.”
Always lauded for his arm strength and intelligence, Stafford has posted gaudy numbers in the past, but success has eluded Detroit as a whole. Stafford understands he has to be the catalyst for any change.
“When you look at successful teams in the NFL, the majority of them are having their quarterback play at a high level,” Stafford said. “That’s something that I’ve always tried to do and hold myself to that standard. This season is no different. The one thing you can’t do is get ahead of yourself. I think you just have to go out there and work hard every single day and try and be as good as you possibly can every single week for your team.”
As far as what constitutes playing at a high level, Stafford said a standard cannot be set using numbers.
“You just want to go out there and make good throws, make good decisions, limit turnovers, make sure we’re in the right play every time if you can,” Stafford said. “Lead this team, that’s the biggest thing. Score points and keep the ball.”