Detroit — It’s a bit late to be making a point, but the Lions are trying nevertheless. And Matthew Stafford is making the strongest one, not hedging his thoughts or his throws.
Stafford likes the Lions’ new offense, that’s clear. He likes his long-time receiving buddy Calvin Johnson, that’s very clear. And in a weird way, Stafford’s burst of clarity could muddle the debate about the team’s direction.
The Lions handled another hapless foe Sunday, beating the 49ers 32-17 in a game that means nothing in the standings. But it meant something to the Lions, now 6-9 after a 1-7 start. We have no idea if it means anything to Martha Ford, team president Rod Wood and the advisory committee, who are weighing the futures of Jim Caldwell and others.
The Lions can’t be deluded here, and Caldwell’s job should still be in jeopardy. But this 5-2 closing stretch hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, and Stafford’s tremendous efficiency hasn’t gone unnoticed. When he fired a 1-yard touchdown pass to Johnson for the clinching touchdown, it looked like an exclamation point, or perhaps an explanation point.
Was that Johnson’s final catch as a Lion in Ford Field? I don’t think so, despite his $24-million salary cap hit next season. But in this time of uncertainty, no one knows for sure. Restructuring his contract can alleviate some financial pain — and I’m guessing that’s the ultimate solution — but you only do it if you believe he can stay healthy and effective.
Stafford believes it, and seemed intent on showing it. After the last touchdown, Johnson took the ball to the bench, something he doesn’t usually do. So, was there a message in the souvenir, an acknowledgment he could be leaving?
“Sometimes I keep (the ball) if I think about it, and sometimes I don’t,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It wasn’t on my mind. You can’t help but think about (the future), with everybody talking about it. But it wasn’t anything I was thinking about going into the game.”
The old connection
The debate about Stafford’s future is moot at this point — he almost assuredly will stay, and he should. It’s too difficult to replace a quarterback, and with improved protection from the offensive line, he’s showing signs of real progress. Johnson’s situation is debated mainly because his numbers have declined and he’s battled an assortment of injuries.
Early on, the offense wobbled for a variety of reasons, until Jim Bob Cooter took over as coordinator midway through the season and imbued confidence in Stafford. And now the quarterback is passing it on to others, from the rejuvenated Theo Riddick, to the dependable Golden Tate, to the slowly emerging Eric Ebron. And yes, to Megatron himself, a superstar who never demands attention, but always commands it from defenses.
Johnson had one catch in each of the past two games and one in the first half Sunday, and the murmurs grew. And then it was as if Stafford wanted to reiterate how valuable Johnson still is, when given the chance. On the first play of the second half, he fired a 13-yard strike to Johnson in tight coverage. Later came an 18-yarder, then a 29-yarder. Then with 9:04 left and the Lions clinging to a 23-17 lead, the 1-yard clincher.
“We’re still trying to let him get involved and make them cover him, because that opens everybody else up,” Stafford said. “We don’t pay too much attention to (the speculation). It’s just, he’s our best receiver and we gotta get him chances as much as you possibly can.”
Johnson finished with six receptions for 77 yards and nearly had another 22-yarder to the 1, but the ball just got away as he hit the ground. (Hey, a Calvin Complete the Process ruling for old time’s sake). It’s not like he slid any more than the rest of the dysfunctional offense during the 1-7 start, and he does have 78 receptions for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns.
But money and age (30) and the expected new direction have created a swirl of conjecture. Stafford already stated his case in favor of Cooter, in words and actions. In this game, he emphasized it with another excellent performance – 29-for-37 for 301 yards.
The case for keeping him
Caldwell made the same case for Johnson, while acknowledging what we all know — that no one knows anything.
“I don’t anticipate it’s going to be anything other than what it’s been — that he’s here, he’s a great Lion and does a tremendous job,” Caldwell said. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. You guys are expecting me to talk into the future, and I don’t even know who my boss is yet.”
At least the Lions are playing as if they care. In the first eight games, they averaged 18.6 points and Stafford tallied 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In the past seven games, they’re averaging 26.4 points and Stafford has 16 touchdowns and two interceptions.
That’s a significant turnaround, and while it can’t be overemphasized because of the lesser competition, it can’t be overlooked. Johnson sounded like a guy seeing an identity he hadn’t seen in a while, even if it was just one game.
“I felt good, the opportunities (in single coverage) were there,” he said. “It makes anybody optimistic, the way we’re moving the ball up and down the field. We just keep getting better and better, dominating time of possession. Matt’s been playing pretty dang good, taking complete control, down on turnovers, that’s how you win games.”
Stafford has talked many times about his comfort level with Cooter. Others express similar things, as the offense is aggressive without being reckless. If you’re going to keep Stafford, you’d like to keep Cooter, but that can’t be a mandate to a new regime.
Same thing with Johnson. If the Lions are going to find a way to keep him, it has to be for the right reasons, not simply because he’s a cherished star. On this day, Stafford helped remind everyone why Johnson has been so ingrained here, and why he still could be.