By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson say 2014 can be different.
The Detroit Lions faltered down the stretch last season despite significant talent, but Johnson and Stafford agree the opportunity for the Lions to win a championship has never been greater than it is now.
“I believe this is our best chance,” Johnson said. “I honestly believe that. You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coach’s philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coach is wanting them to do, and if we’re not, if something’s not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us, and we’re going to get better at it, and he only has to tell us one time.”
Stafford pointed to the team’s talent – including new acquisitions in wide receiver Golden Tate, tight end Eric Ebron and safety James Ihedigbo – as the reason the Lions are poised for a solid season.
If the team falters, it will be for lack of execution, not for lack of ability. The players expect success this time, of course, rather than a repeat of 2013.
“We’re a confident bunch,” Stafford said. “We’re confident in our abilities and schemes, confident in each other but at the same time we have to go out there and execute. We have to get better week to week. We have to get hot and go and see what happens.
“On paper,” Stafford added, “we’re as talented as anybody in the league in my opinion.”
For the Lions to make good on that talent, Stafford – whose numbers have declined since 2011 – must play better, even as he orchestrates a new offense for the first time in his pro career.
Johnson likes what he sees from the quarterback, however, noting Stafford’s continual progress.
“He’s in a great place,” Johnson said. “Every year I can say there’s something that he has improved on, and I can say the same this year. I’m sure he’ll continue to get better and better every year. Not that he’s not already a great quarterback – he can put the ball anywhere on the field. Whether it’s adding more touch on certain throws or getting the ball out quicker, he’s doing a great job, and you can see that the coaches are doing a great job with him as well.
“It’s great to see how coach allows him to sometimes put him in a position to make a call, call a play and put us in the best position that he feels that he can put us in, and that’s pretty awesome to see because that’s some stuff that you see Peyton Manning do all the time,” Johnson added later. “He’ll be at the line and he’ll check out of something to a totally different play that wasn’t on the play call that coach may have called in, so it’s pretty cool to see and gives the whole team confidence.”
Johnson expressed disappointment in how the Lions finished last season and said that the team’s collapse in 2013 – when the Lions started the season 6-3 but finished it 1-6 – has him more motivated than ever.
“So much more motivated because there’s a lot of games that came down to the end, to the fourth quarter,” Johnson said. “I think we filled a lot of holes that we might’ve had last year, whether it be on offense or defense.”
Stafford downplayed the emotion of last year’s failure, when Detroit failed to capitalize on the vulnerability of the injury-plagued NFC North.
“Honestly at this point, I haven’t thought about it,” Stafford said. “I’m just thinking about this year and am trying to get us ready for week one. Any time you don’t win the Super Bowl, you’re disappointed as a team.”
As for all the optimism, words are just words until the Lions prove themselves on the field. Monday Night Football will be the first opportunity for the team to do so, and Stafford smiled with anticipation for the team’s season opener at Ford Field.
“I expect it to be loud,” Stafford said. “I expect it to be a great, fun game and a great atmosphere. I’ve been a part of some Monday nights here, and they’re pretty special. They’re fun. Our fans do a great job of showing up. Week one, what a way to open the season. It’ll be a treat to us as players to go out there and play, and I know our fans appreciate it too.”