Wojo: Lions’ Stafford must keep exercising control

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — Matthew Stafford is fired up, maybe even angry. Good. Whatever he is — whoever he is — he needs to keep showing it, not to restless fans, but to teammates who need to see it.

If the wait for consistent success and a dynamic offense is ever to end, Stafford is the only one who can push it. Not Jim Caldwell, not offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, not Calvin Johnson. Stafford has to push it with his arm and his edge, as he did in the Lions’ 37-34 overtime victory against the Bears.

It will be tougher this Sunday against a Vikings team that mauled him last month. It will be tougher now that defenses realize Johnson still roams the deep expanses of Ford Field, and still can make plays that turn games. Stafford threw for 405 yards against the Bears — 166 to Johnson — and the Lions rolled up 546.

Stafford took a game with force, like he used to do, back when it was the only way the Lions could win. No offense to the defense, but for these 1-5 Lions, it’s again the only way they can win. It’s important Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick run, setting up deadly play-action passes, and it would help if Larry Warford and rookie Laken Tomlinson can stabilize the offensive line.

But if Stafford truly wants to be a franchise quarterback, he has to act like it. That means commanding the field and demanding an aggressive mindset. That means saying things the soft-spoken Johnson never says, and playing as if his reputation as a quarterback is at stake, because it is.

Stafford has been here for seven years and is under contract for two more, but there are simmering debates about his future. Rick Gosselin, the respected NFL writer for the Dallas Morning News, wrote Wednesday the Cowboys should go after Stafford (who’s from Dallas) when he’s a free agent, to replace Tony Romo.

Benching the right move

Maybe others would shop for a trade even sooner. If the Lions stagger through the season and Stafford struggles, they could contemplate a change. Stafford was benched in the third quarter of the 42-17 loss to the Cardinals two weeks ago. It may have been a risky move by Caldwell, but it was the right one, the first clear sign that Stafford isn’t untouchable.

To his credit, he responded as a competitor should. He downplayed his fiery locker room speech before the Bears game, but there’s a reason teammates raved about it. It’s not that it was out of line, just out of character — born of anger? — and that’s fine.

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It was only one game, but there are ample reasons for Stafford and the Lions to keep letting it all out.

“I do recall what I said (before the game), but I’m going to keep it between me and my teammates, the way it should be,” Stafford said. “I don’t speak a whole bunch, but when I do, I’m sure they’re listening.”

Stafford has limitations in accuracy and pocket awareness, and he certainly has been limited over the years by the lack of a running game and a leaky line. But many were blinded by the aura of a No. 1 overall pick. It takes more than plucking a preordained star to win, something the forlorn Lions seldom have grasped. And it takes more than a strong arm and a franchise’s blind trust to be a winner, something Stafford is learning the harsh way.

Teammates didn’t want to belabor Stafford’s pregame message, but it resonated. In the long run, it might mean nothing, and the Vikings might batter Stafford again. But in a snapshot, it was a clue Stafford was willing to fight — for his reputation and his teammates.

Rallying for Stafford

“A lot of times in this league, you go as the quarterback goes,” safety Glover Quin said. “So you rally behind your quarterback and protect him. And for him to speak up, it means a lot.”

It can’t be a momentary response to a humbling. As Stafford grows calluses from the criticism, he also grows roots here, a contributor in the community, a Detroit booster. But the biggest thing he can grow is a feisty resolve, and it doesn’t matter if it’s evident in a speech or in a deep throw to Johnson in overtime.

That urgency isn’t just something fans crave, but teammates crave. The downside is, it can lead to interceptions, and Stafford throws too many on a team that leads the league with 18 turnovers. Quarterbacks have to take their shots and be willing to absorb them, physically and mentally. Stafford has displayed his physical toughness numerous times, but this is a whole different test.

“Sure, he gets frustrated like everyone else, but he’s incredibly mentally tough and incredibly positive,” backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “He doesn’t get to a point of pessimism, but a point of motivation. He’s very good at blocking out noise. I know fans don’t like to hear it, but I don’t think he pays attention to it a whole lot. As quarterbacks, we have egos, and we want to be the guy that 52 other guys are looking to. We have that DNA wiring. He has that wiring.”

Wiring requires positive connections, with people and passes. I don’t know if Lombardi or Stafford got the point about throwing deep, but Johnson had catches of 39, 43 and 57 yards against the Bears, his longest three of the season.

In today’s NFL, rules are set up to help offenses, and you have to take advantage of it. A long completion is the biggest play an offense can make. You know the second-biggest? A long pass interference penalty.

Quarterbacks don’t suddenly change their styles after seven years, so if Stafford is what he is — wildly inconsistent — he at least should play to his strengths. In a brief video produced by the NFL, Stafford is seen after the Bears game speaking to the team, his words wrapped in emotion.

“Like I said before the game, remember who you play for!” Stafford said after Caldwell called him up to speak. “Man, that was a (expletive) testament to that!”

Message delivered and received. Message sustained? Can’t wait forever.



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