By Ashley Dunkak

PHOENIX – At the NFL owners meetings this week, someone made a comment to Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell about his quarterback Matthew Stafford.

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“I was walking down the hall yesterday, and someone said something about, ‘Hey, don’t you really need your quarterback to really take off?’” Caldwell recalled Wednesday. “And I looked at him, and I said, ‘No, we don’t need him to really take off.’

“He’s been doing well,” Caldwell continued. “He’s improving steadily. Things in this league don’t happen that way. No one makes a meteoric jump. It’s gradual. It’s too competitive. There are too many good players, and it’s a tough league, and I do think he’s making really good progress.”

The Lions ranked 19th in the league in yards per game in 2014. Caldwell does not care about the rankings or the numbers as long as the team wins. Last season, the coach’s first one in Detroit, the Lions won 11 games and went to the playoffs.

For the team to enjoy more of the same in 2015, Caldwell said Stafford needs to just keep working. In the coach’s eyes, the quarterback has all the tools – physical and otherwise – he needs to succeed.

“I think you have to have talent, which he does, and I think you have to have work ethic, which he does, and I think you have to have a real commitment to it, which he does,” Caldwell said. “He loves the game and he has a passion for it. So those are the things I think that are the most important qualities. It’d be different if we were talking about a guy who was deficient in terms of arm strength or didn’t have the ability to carry out some things on the field that he can do. He can do a lot of things. He can buy time. He can make big plays for you.

“He does not flinch – does not flinch – in tough times,” Caldwell added emphatically. “When those games are tight at the end, this guy is as calm, as direct, as focused, as you could be. I’ve been impressed by that aspect of it. He does not shrink or shy away from big moments, and I think that’s a huge, important quality for a guy. So all of those things wrapped up together, I think that he’s going to continue to get better, and his future’s bright.”

Other coaches seconded Caldwell’s praise. Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, whose team defeated the Lions in a wild-card game in January, referred to Stafford as a great player.

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“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Garrett said Wednesday. “I thought he played really well in that game. He played well all year long. We’ve been following him and competing against him for a long time … We have a lot of respect for him as a player and as a person.”

Stafford completed 60.3 percent of his passes in 2014, up from 58.5 percent the previous season. Stafford threw 12 interceptions in 2014, down from 19 the previous season.

Like Caldwell, Garrett attributed the gains Stafford has made to his experience.

“He’s been in a lot of big situations now, and I just think he’s grown so much,” Garrett said. “Certainly very talented coming in, he’s always been able to make plays and do a lot of positive things for his team, but he’s becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the league, and I think experience has a lot to do with that.”

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy extended Stafford a few compliments, too, although he joked he would be reluctant to list more.

“I think Matthew Stafford’s an outstanding football player,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “We’ve gotten the chance to watch him develop up close, and he’s very consistent, seems very professional. He can do everything that you ask for from the quarterback position.

“And that’s about as kind as I’ll be to the division opponents,” McCarthy added with a smile.

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