By Will Burchfield @Burchie_kid
The fans roared, and the Lions cringed.
Matthew Stafford had just taken off on a desperate third-down scramble, highlighted by a shoulder-to-shoulder collision with Tennessee Titans cornerback Perrish Cox. Stafford had plowed through Cox in video-game fashion and then, just as the highlight reel was beginning to roll, he was flattened by safety Da’Norris Searcy.
Welcome back to reality.
The fans delighted in this display of grit, coming to their feet to applaud Stafford’s pluck. In a sport where quarterbacks have become increasingly coddled, here was invigorating proof of a guy bucking the trend.
On the sideline, the Lions weren’t as thrilled.
“He’s a really competitive guy, he’s as tough as anybody I’ve ever been around, but he’s got to know when to save those hits,” said offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. “It’s early in the season, it’s a third down, maybe he slides for two yards and we punt the ball. It’s one less big hit our quarterback takes.”
In the end, Stafford’s courageous effort was in vain. A flag had been thrown on the Titans earlier in the play, giving the Lions a first down. Unaware of this, Stafford put his head down, lowered his shoulder and barreled into Cox like a bull, relishing the chance to be on the other end of a big hit.
Looking on, Golden Tate was relieved to see his quarterback unharmed.
“After playing with Stafford for two complete seasons now, this guy’s taken so many big hits. So I was happy to see him be the hammer and not the nail, for once,” Tate said.
“But we don’t want our quarterback taking on too many hits like that,” he added. “There’s no doubt that he’s one tough son of a gun and he can do it if anyone can, but we’d rather him stay away from that.”
Besides the extra yardage that Stafford might gain by taking a hit instead of sliding, such moxie can inspire his teammates. When they see their quarterback put himself in harm’s way to make a play – eschewing team orders in the process – Stafford knows they get an emotional boost.
“Yea, I think so, but they probably get just as much of a boost if I complete a long pass, so we’ll try to stick to those,” he said.
Plus, Stafford’s spunk is hardly encouraging if it leaves him crumpled on the turf – which, as Cooter pointed out, is exactly what happened on Sunday.
“The first hit was good, the first hit was positive for him. I don’t think the ones after that were,” he said.
Later in the game – later that quarter, in fact – Stafford sought out more contact. After handing off the ball to Ameer Abdullah, he raced down the field to help pave the way.
While the Lions respect his eagerness as a blocker, they wish he’d leave the task to his teammates.
“Sometimes that’s real valuable; sometimes, stay out of the way,” Cooter chuckled.
“You got Stafford saying, ‘C’mon, follow me, follow me,’ and I’m glad the running backs don’t,” he said. “Not because I don’t think that Stafford will lay a hit on someone, but we want to keep him safe. The value’s in his arm and his mental game, not his blocking skills.”
The Lions are counting on Stafford to be their leader on offense. If he wants to help the team, he must first help himself.
“We’ve got to play a lot of ball this year, and we’re going to try to keep him from getting hit as much as we can,” Cooter said. “And he can help us with that.”