By Will Burchfield
Last month, a trio of analysts on NFL Network were naming the best quarterbacks in the league under the age of 30.
Cam Newton was mentioned. So were Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Routine banter.
Then came an unexpected nominee: Matt Stafford.
It was former Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson who went a different route, and his peers instantly laughed in his face. For one, they had a hard time believing Stafford was still under 30 years old. (He’s 28.) Moreover, they couldn’t fathom that anyone would mention him in the same breath as Newton, Luck and Wilson.
Burleson didn’t budge.
“The thing is, he’s made so many plays that you think he’s been in the league a lot longer than he has. I played with Matt Stafford. There were moments in games where he said, ‘You know what, this is the playbook, let’s rip this up, I’m going to do my thing,’ Burleson recalled, shredding a piece of paper for dramatic effect.
“And there’s nothing more special than a quarterback that hears a play, looks us all in the eyes and says, “I’m going to right this ship the way I want to.’ And we won games like that. I was there in moments that count, and these are real-deal movie moments, stuff that you can’t script. So I got Stafford in the last two minutes of a game.”
More laughter. More mockery. More exaggerated disbelief.
So when the same three analysts revisited the topic on Wednesday on the heels of yet another Stafford-led game-winning drive – at Luck’s expense, by the way – Burleson was stroking his chin and smiling in satisfaction.
“Here’s the thing about Matt Stafford: when he gets in those moments he arrives to a certain stage that not a lot of quarterbacks can in this league,” Burleson said.
Then he took it several steps further, and suggested that Stafford stands to benefit from the retirement of Hall-of-Fame-bound wide receiver Calvin Johnson, that he is poised for a career year and that the Lions are legitimate contenders in the NFC North.
So let’s break this down.
First of all, Burleson, like many others, feels that Johnson’s retirement will allow Stafford to grow as a leader.
“Now you got Megatron gone. Who’s the veteran, who’s the voice, who’s the guy that has to be stern in these (late-game) moments?” Burleson said. “I saw a young Matt Stafford take control of fourth quarter moments, now you have the veteran Matt Stafford who understands, ‘We win or lose, it’s on my shoulders.’”
Burleson pointed to Stafford’s fiery fourth-quarter demeanor on Sunday as evidence of his growth as a leader. For what it’s worth, Jim Caldwell and a number or Lions players rebuffed that notion on Monday.
“You haven’t watched him closely. He’s always been that way,” Caldwell said. “He may not do it in a demonstrative way where you can visually see it – the things you guys like to see where it’s quite evident – but he’s always been that way. He’s always been a great leader.”
Ameer Abdullah echoed his coach.
“Matt’s always like that, but sometimes in games where he has to be more demonstrative, like how loud it was in Indianapolis, you may see it more. But offensively he’s always doing that,” he said.
So maybe Burleson missed with his first theory. But he seemed to be on target with the idea that Stafford – and the Lions offense as a whole – will be more dangerous with a diversified attack.
“When it comes to Stafford and now not having Megatron, having to get the ball out to different receivers, it makes it a little more difficult for teams who don’t just have to game plan for Calvin Johnson. Now they have to go in to face this whole host of guys,” Burleson said.
Ironically, Colts coach Chuck Pagano said last week that he found it much easier to prepare for the Lions without Johnson in the picture.
“Heck of a lot better than it is with him. Calvin is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer as far as I’m concerned, or anybody in this organization is concerned. He’s a great, great football player and he’s a matchup nightmare, obviously.
“We’re kind of excited [we] don’t have to battle him,” Pagano said.
Instead, the Colts had to battle a cadre of offensive weapons unlike any the Lions have displayed in recent seasons. Stafford completed passes to eight different players, finishing the game 31/39 for 340 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts couldn’t keep up.
“I mean it’s hard to defend us when you have three running backs that score touchdowns, you have two of those running backs that are running the ball but also going out of the backfield and catching the ball,” said Golden Tate. “It’s hard to guard us when you have a guy like Anquan Boldin down the middle, it’s hard to guard us when you have Marvin (Jones) down the sideline.
“So as long as we just do our job, stay on schedule, we should be dangerous this year.”
Stafford said the Colts’ defensive schemes looked mostly the same without Megatron on the field, save one big difference.
“You’re just not seeing as many outlandish double-coverages, and things of that nature. It was a little bit more straightforward when it comes to defense, and our guys did a really nice job of getting open and making plays,” he said.
True, it was only one game. And true, the Colts’ defense, already one of the worst in the league, featured a depleted secondary. But the early returns suggest that the Lions’ offense may indeed be better without one of the greatest wide receivers ever.
In short: less predictable, more balanced.
“Definitely,” Burleson confirmed. “And I feel like this is going to be a career year for Matt Stafford.”
As for those Lions, those undefeated Lions, Burleson thinks they are a dark-horse contender to win the NFC North.
“100 percent. They have a shot.”
“Because they have Matt Stafford,” he said.
The Lions have yet to win a division title with Stafford under center. But in his first season without Megatron on his wing, Burleson thinks the still-under-30 quarterback just may buck that trend.