I have called Detroit Lions games a couple of times in the past month and will have them once again to finish the season next weekend against the Green Bay Packers. Of all the things you can point to in identifying how they have transformed from the laughingstock of the NFL to a playoff contender, including coach Jim Schwartz, Calvin Johnson, their defensive front seven, etc., at the top of the list must be quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The faith the Lions' players and coaches have in Stafford is immediately evident when you sit down and talk with them. Stafford currently ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,145 and fourth in touchdowns with 33. Keep in mind the guys he's ranked behind in TDs are pretty good: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
Brady and Brees are both on pace to break Dan Marino's 1984 passing yard record of 5,084. Brady's single-season TD record of 50 appears to be safe with Rodgers currently at a league-leading 40 TDs. However, Brees (37), Brady (35) and Stafford have a real chance of being in the 40-plus TD category, which would be the first time four QBs did it in the same season.
To lump Stafford in with these great QBs is not a stretch, particularly when you look at their comparative numbers over the first 27 starts for each of their careers (see box, right).
Keep in mind that Stafford is doing it on a team that has not been to the playoffs this century. In addition, the Lions are currently 31st in rushing attempts. With injuries to running backs Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, the Lions are the only team in the NFL without a player with at least 100 rushes. Hence, the burden of moving the ball falls exclusively on Stafford.
The Lions took a chance on Stafford making him the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and giving him a reported $41.7 million guarantee. It was risky, given the spotty success of QBs selected No. 1 overall the previous few seasons (JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, David Carr, Michael Vick and Tim Couch).
There were questions about Stafford's accuracy coming out of Georgia, where he had a career sub-60 percent completion rate as a three-year starter. He had 51 touchdowns but 33 intereceptions as well. But the numbers he has generated since coming into the league are undeniable. He is the second-youngest QB in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 TDs in a season, behind only Marino.
If Stafford indeed makes the transition to elite status, last week's game on the road against the Raiders may be the tipping point everyone talks about. Down by 13 points with less than eight minutes to go, Stafford led the Lions on a 10-play, 71-yard TD drive and then capped it with a final drive that began on his own 2-yard line with 1:35 left to play. Ninety-eight yards and a TD pass to Calvin Johnson later, the Lions are in control of a wild-card playoff spot.
When Stafford left Dallas to attend Georgia, there were a number of players over the next three years who matriculated to Athens out of the highly recruited Highland Park High School. It was dubbed the "Stafford Effect." If he can get the Lions into the playoffs over the next two weeks, that moniker may be stolen and used on a much bigger stage.