By: Will Burchfield
Kenny Golladay flung the football into the air and forgot all about it.
Who knows where it landed? Who really cares?
Golladay had just come down with the first touchdown of his NFL career, a career that careened into action in the Lions’ 35-23 win over the Cardinals on Sunday.
“At that point, I needed it. I felt like I needed to make a play and I was just happy. Matt threw a great ball, I just had to go get it,” Golladay said. “The rest is history.”
The touchdown, a 10-yard lob toward the back corner of the end zone, thrust the Lions into the lead early in the fourth quarter. It also captured the essence of Golladay’s vast skillset. Throw it up there, and he’s got the height and the hands to go get it.
It’s one thing to have tools. It’s quite another to know how to put them to use. The 6’4, 220-pound Golladay wastes no part of his massive frame. He proved that first during training camp and again in the Lions’ preseason-opener when he hauled in two touchdowns versus the Colts.
Sunday was simply confirmation.
“He’s a boss. But Kenny did what he’s been doing all camp, what you guys have all been talking about,” said Golden Tate. “Once he got going, he played phenomenal. He’s a tough, smart, very talented guy and he helped us big. Without him making some of those plays I don’t know how this game goes.”
His toolbox isn’t limited to his size. Golladay can gallop, too, more fluidly than his stature might suggest. He’s a deep threat as much a red zone target, and shame on the opponent that pigeonholes him as the latter.
Golladay put the Cardinals to bed on a 45-yard bomb down the middle of the field late in the fourth quarter. He got behind cornerback Justin Bethel and then laid out for a spectacular catch, using every inch of his body, as he crashed into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.
“Once again, Matt gave me a shot and just let my skills do the rest pretty much,” said Golladay, who prefers to downplay his achievements. “Just left my feet, used all my hands and made a nice catch.”
Bethel was the man in coverage on both of Golladay’s touchdowns. The first time, Bethel was out-jumped. The second time he was outran.
“He’s a big, tall guy. A strong guy. His range is so wide,” Bethel said. “Balls like that last one, you throw it and he can jump and his range just covers so much distance. Even if you overthrow him, he still can get there. He just did a really good job. When he got those opportunities, I think he made the most of it.”
The game started slowly for Golladay. He failed to corral a well-thrown lob down the sideline on the Lions’ second drive and finished the first half with just one catch on three targets. Through three quarters, he had two catches for 14 yards.
But he never lost confidence. And the Lions, Stafford especially, never lost confidence in him.
“He’s developing,” Stafford said. “He’s a rookie. Did he do everything right today? No. Did he make some big-time catches? Absolutely.”
Stafford said he changed the play at the line of scrimmage before Golladay’s first touchdown.
“And that’s a rookie out there, you don’t know if he’s going to get it. He got it, and he made the catch. And the second one, man, what a great catch. Some other things that we can clean up, absolutely, but it’s nice to have a guy that’s willing to put in the work,” said Stafford.
His diligence stems from his own expectations. Golladay holds himself to a very high bar, a bar that he never allows himself to reach. Most rookies would have been over the moon with the kind of debut Golladay crafted on Sunday.
Golladay was happy, to be sure, smiling through his postgame interview, but he also said, “Look, I had a rough first half, probably a rough second half. But made some good plays for the team.”
Tate said he didn’t talk to Golladay at half time, didn’t pat him on the back and offer a pep talk. He knew Golladay was making the adjustments in his head.
“I think Kenny is already his own worst critic. That’s how you have to be in this league. He didn’t play bad in the first or second quarter, he just missed a few opportunities that he thinks he should make. He holds himself to a high standard, and so do we. He definitely made up, if it was needed.”
For Golladay, the hype will grow. So will the attention he receives from opposing defenses. Was Sunday a flash in the pan? Or a sign of things to come? Golladay can be validated just as soon as he can be exposed.
“This is a tough league. One game doesn’t mean a whole lot. Let’s look at it over a period of time,” said Jim Caldwell. “Do we expect him to be a good player? Yes. But he’s got to go out there and prove it. This is one game where he had a decent finish with the big catch at the end, a couple big plays for us. But let’s see what happens next game.”
Tate was one stall to Golladay’s right in the Lions’ locker room at Ford Field. He shook his head when asked about his teammate’s debut. He sighed, because what is there to say?
“Man, he came out and lived up. That’s a great way to come in this league, two big-time catches and a pair of touchdowns. We needed it,” Tate said.
Then he turned toward Golladay, looked him in the eye and said, “He set a standard, so he better bring that every week.”