By: Will Burchfield
It’s been a strange few years for Matthew Stafford.
He guided the Lions to 11 wins and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2014, even while putting up some of the lesser numbers of his career.
He face-planted out of the gate in 2015, then endured perhaps his professional nadir when he was benched for the second half of the team’s Week 5 loss to the Cardinals.
He’s been terrific ever since.
It’s as if the public ignominy of being banished to the sideline in a blowout defeat — at home, no less — forced Stafford to look himself in the eye and demand more.
But the 29-year-old quarterback doesn’t see a connection between his strong run of play and a benching that occurred almost two years ago.
“I don’t think so. I think that game (was) its own game, like every game is. I don’t sit back and go into this week and think, ‘Man, for 27 weeks I’ve played pretty darn good ball. Looks like I’m going to play good again this week,'” Stafford said. “You got to earn it every week.”
Still, consider Stafford’s career numbers through Week 5 of 2015: 137 touchdowns, 93 interceptions, 83.11 passer rating.
And consider them since: 50 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 99.14 passer rating.
The disparity paints a portrait of two different quarterbacks. But Jim Caldwell, the man behind Stafford’s benching, insists Stafford hasn’t changed, even if his statistics have.
“If you’re inferring that it had anything to do with the benching, I’d tell you no, because the guy is the same guy. Same drive, same will,” Caldwell said. “Doesn’t mean he’s always going to have a perfect game, but Matthew’s a pretty special individual.”
Caldwell benched Stafford after warning him at halftime he would do so if Stafford threw another interception. Sure enough, Stafford was picked off — for the third time that game — early in the the third quarter.
“Based on what had been said, he had to honor his word and I understand that,” Stafford said on Wednesday. “I was frustrated, just like any player would be, because, shoot, I’ve been in that situation a bunch of times and thrown some touchdowns and brought us back. But at the same time, you understand where your coach is coming from. You learn from it and you move on.”
Said Caldwell, who stuck with Stafford as his starting quarterback for the rest of the 2015 season, “He handled it like a pro. Nobody likes it when it does occur, but he didn’t pout. He went after it the next week, played well. I’m not saying it was because of that incident, but if you look at the numbers he’s been pretty strong for a long time now.”
That stretch began immediately after Stafford’s benching. He torched the Bears in Week 6 for four touchdowns and over 400 yards. It was an angry, defiant performance from the former first overall pick — like he had something to prove.
He finished out the season on a similar tear, posting 26 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and a passer rating of 107.8. It’s quite arguably the best run of play of Stafford’s eight-year career.
Was it fueled by anger? Embarrassment? Did Stafford experience some kind of self-awakening after enduring such a public putdown?
“No, I’ve always felt I was a pretty resilient person. Came to this organization after an 0 and 16 season and got beat up and hurt my first two years. We weren’t very good, and battled through that,” he said. “So, kind of known for a while that I’m a resilient human being. You have to be to play this position in this league. That was just another opportunity to prove it.”
The more likely explanation for Stafford’s surge lies in the change the Lions made at offensive coordinator two weeks later. Jim Bob Cooter took over for Joe Lombardi and placed an emphasis on higher-percentage passes. Stafford’s completion rate immediately went up.
He grew into the offense as the season pressed on and thrived in it last year prior to injuring his finger in Week 14. His comfort level has come a long way since Cooter first began calling plays in the Lions’ overseas game versus the Chiefs in 2015.
“When we were thrown into it on the flight to London we were picking and choosing a couple plays here and there to implement. Maybe one or two a week, three or four. And then last year, pretty full go. And this year all that is now base, and you add and add and add,” Stafford said.
His fluency in the playbook has allowed his talent to shine. At the same time, it seems, the playbook has kept Stafford within himself. It’s a combination the Lions hope continues to bear fruit in 2017.
“It’s fun as quarterback to have as many tools as you possibly can to try to defeat what a defense is doing to you. And it’s on us as a team and me as a quarterback to make sure that we’re all on the same page on those plays to go out there and execute them,” Stafford said.
He’ll run into the Cardinals in Sunday’s season-opener for the first time since 2015. They might remember a vulnerable, turnover-prone quarterback. That’s not who they’ll see. In some ways, they’re the agents of his change.
“I haven’t really thought about that day in a long time,” Stafford said.
If it’s hard to blame him, so is it hard to believe him that he isn’t fueled by the memory. The episode may not have flipped an emotional switch or triggered a new approach, but surely it left a scar on his psyche.
Stafford hit rock bottom nearly two years ago. It’s more than a coincidence that he’s risen ever since.