Wojo: This is clear: In Cooter Stafford trusts
Detroit — Whatever this is, wherever it was hiding, it’s something to behold now. Somehow, the Lions have unburied themselves, and started burying others.
Before we debate if it’s sustainable, we have to figure out exactly what’s happening. Matthew Stafford was virtually flawless Thursday, the conductor in a Thanksgiving Day parade to the end zone. But he wasn’t the only one, as the Lions unleashed a season’s worth of wrath on a poor — I mean, really poor — unsuspecting foe.
What the Lions did to the Eagles should be illegal, plucking apart America’s bird. And because Philadelphia is in full meltdown under Chip Kelly, it’s advisable to draw conclusions carefully. But after the Lions’ 45-14 romp, we know several things we didn’t know a few weeks ago.
With three straight victories after a 1-7 start, the Lions have answered the nagging pack-it-in question. They’re playing harder than ever, particularly on defense, for Jim Caldwell in the aftermath of the front-office upheaval. And since Stafford got an offensive coordinator better suited to his style, he has looked more and more comfortable, which makes him more and more dangerous.
This was old-school Stafford, as good as he’s ever been with a career-high 137.8 passer rating, slinging the ball all over the field but still zeroing in on Calvin Johnson. Stafford threw five touchdown passes and Johnson caught three, in only the fourth game since Jim Bob Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as coordinator.
Was that switch the secret? Caldwell isn’t outright saying it, but he also doesn’t believe in coincidences. Now 4-7, with a home game against Green Bay next Thursday night, the Lions are whiffing the faint smell of redemption, and Caldwell deserves credit for that.
“I know you guys are always looking for something magical,” Caldwell said. “Football is a bit simpler than that. When guys do what they’re supposed to do, their technique is sound, then you see good things happen. I also think we’ve been battle-tested. We look good this week, let’s see what we do next week.”
Finding a comfort zone
It’s too early to throw any parity parties — you know, with NFL so balanced, any team can climb back into contention. The Lions certainly aren’t there, but they clearly aren’t as bad as they appeared at first. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is having a monster season, and with 3.5 sacks of Mark Sanchez, he has 11.5 for the season. Darius Slay is becoming a terrific cornerback.
But any hope for the future, and for Caldwell’s job status, rests on the quarterback. And since Cooter took over, Stafford looks more at ease, able to take risks without fear of a tug on the reins. It’s as if the Lions purged themselves with that bizarre 18-16 win in Green Bay, their first in 24 years, and now are playing unburdened.
Stafford was 27-for-38 for 337 yards against the Eagles, and in three games since the 45-10 debacle against Kansas City in London, he’s completed 65.8 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and one interception. He’s in the shotgun formation more under Cooter, and the playcalling has been more creative.
For instance, on a first down at Philadelphia’s 2 in the second quarter, Golden Tate lined up at fullback, then rolled to the right, caught a short pass and walked — yes, literally walked — into the end zone. Later, with 17 seconds left in the half and the Lions facing third-and-17 at the Eagles 25, they considered playing it safe. Then they reconsidered, and Stafford fired a perfect touchdown strike to Johnson for a 24-7 lead.
“We were being aggressive, and I’ll give Jim Bob credit for that,” Stafford said. “He called a short slant route, and then he said, ‘Aw screw that, let’s go get aggressive.’ He gave me four verticals and I was fired up for it, I loved it. … Jim Bob and I have a good relationship. He’s young in his job but he’s not afraid, and that’s fun.”
The relationship lends credence to the argument the offense truly might be evolving, not just getting hot in one game. The line has blocked much better, and Michael Ola’s insertion at right tackle instead of LaAdrian Waddle has been a marked upgrade.
With better protection comes better options, and Stafford targeted eight different pass-catchers. Theo Riddick is a stellar receiver out of the backfield (five catches, 62 yards) and rookie Ameer Abdullah is running with more purpose.
Eagles land with thud
It’s worth reiterating the Eagles are falling apart, and lost to the Buccaneers 45-17 last week. And hey, does this sounds familiar? Most of the questions directed at Kelly on Thursday centered on his job, and whether it was time to fire a coordinator. (Based on the Lions’ example: Sure.)
“I didn’t see this happening,” Kelly said. “I thought we were going to have a chance to come in here (to Detroit) and really compete against a good football team.”
So in the topsy-turvy NFL, the Eagles are a sinking 4-7, while the Lions are a rising 4-7. How high can they climb?
Impossible to guess, but of their final five opponents, only the Packers have a winning record. Players have talked about banding together after the firings of GM Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand, and they respect Caldwell’s effort.
“It starts with our head coach, he’s never wavered,” Stafford said. “Record be damned, he was just, hey, this is gonna work. And when you win games, you start gaining confidence. He’s done a great job of keeping us on the straight and narrow, and it’s a lot of fun when you get on streaks like this.”
Perhaps this is simply the new Thanksgiving normal, festive and fun, the Lions’ third straight double-digit victory on the holiday. The nation got to see them at their very best, and Stafford and Johnson at their dynamic best. It was an amazing show in front of a raucous crowd, and wherever it came from, you just hope to see it again.