Niyo: Stafford under gun to do more without Megatron

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — If it sounds like wishful thinking, it probably is. Any suggestion that a future Hall of Famer’s retirement makes things easier for the Lions — and particularly for quarterback Matthew Stafford — falls woefully incomplete.

But this should clear things up a bit now, at the very least. No more passing the buck or deflecting the blame. And fewer guessing games, too, because when Calvin Johnson’s on your team, what you see isn’t always what you get.

Stafford understood that as well as anyone. He became one of Johnson’s closest friends in the locker room in recent years, in addition to being his biggest fan. And each week in the fall, he’d be reminded of that incongruity — a trait that has defined the Lions for what seems like an eternity — while studying film of upcoming opponents.

“It’s a unique thing having Calvin Johnson on your team as a quarterback and watching tape,” Stafford explained recently, in an NFL Network interview with Nate Burleson, his former teammate and Johnson’s former running mate. “You watch all these other teams that don’t have an elite wide receiver and you think they’re gonna do that to you when you go and play a defense. And they don’t. They play something totally different to try and take Calvin away.”

Now he’s taken away for good, though. And we’re about to find out what this team and this quarterback really are without him, much as we did nearly two decades ago when another superstar infamously flamed out. Johnson isn’t quite the player Barry Sanders was in his prime, but he was unquestionably the best one to play for the Lions since Sanders walked away from the game in 1999, ushering in a decade of abject futility in Detroit.

And for Stafford, the man they called Megatron was more than just a favorite target. He was a security blanket, the one player most responsible for his scattered success. In seven years as the Lions’ starter, Stafford, a former No. 1 overall pick, has shattered most of the franchise passing records. Yet Johnson has been on the receiving end of nearly a quarter of those completions, and a third of Stafford’s passing yards and touchdowns.

In a statement the team released Tuesday when the retirement news was made official — Johnson reportedly told Stafford before the 2015 season it might well be his last — Stafford, who was vacationing with his wife in Italy this week, called it “such an honor to play the game with one of the best of all time.”

Johnson, likewise, has credited the quarterback with much of his success, citing a “trust factor” that flourished once Stafford got past his initial injury-riddled seasons.

“He saw early on that if he puts the ball up there, I’m gonna do my best to go up and try to get it,” said Johnson, who could go up and get it better than anyone else in the NFL.

Stafford, 28, seemed to get it, too, realizing early in his career that a team built on a shaky foundation — with a shoddy defense, a shaky offensive line and an anemic run game — all but required him to zero in on No. 81.

QB has been improving

But now that he’s gone, taking with him all those one-sided coverages that opened up things for others on the field, Stafford knows this, too: “We’ll have to play offense a little bit differently.”

The Lions, to their credit, reacted quickly to Johnson’s retirement, locking up arguably the best available receiver — Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones — on the first day of free agency. And while the sure-handed Jones was quick to say in a conference call Thursday he’s no Megatron — “That’s the thing that everybody should know,” he said, “I’m not coming here trying to replace Calvin Johnson; I can’t replace Calvin Johnson” — he’ll certainly help with the transition.

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So will a full offseason with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, whose midseason promotion after Joe Lombardi’s firing seemed to elevate the quarterback’s play.

“You always want to find a system and a coordinator or a coach that sees it like you do,” said Kurt Warner, the two-time NFL MVP quarterback and Hall of Fame finalist, when asked at the Super Bowl last month about Stafford’s resurgence. “You feel like you can play at 100 percent of your capacity with your strengths.”

Aided by a weak second-half schedule, Stafford completed 70 percent of his passes with Cooter calling the plays, throwing 19 touchdown passes — to eight different receivers — against only two interceptions in the final eight games of 2015. And as new general manager Bob Quinn said earlier this winter, “That’s pretty impressive. ... The stats speak for themselves.”

Stafford career in balance

So do these, though. Stafford has started 93 games for the Lions, and banked $94 million in his career, while winning just 42 games. He has two years remaining on his second contract with the Lions, with no guaranteed money left on that deal. And as the last of the Ford family’s Big Three contracts — first Ndamukong Suh left, and now Johnson — the salary cap no longer is the enemy in Detroit, according to new team president Rod Wood, “It can be our friend.”

Still, it’ll be time for another contract extension for Stafford soon, and with most of the team — and the coaching staff — in prove-it mode under new management, he’s the player who’ll be under the heaviest scrutiny next season.

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Not that Stafford’s any stranger to criticism. He’s heard it his entire career, and learned to ignore it, for the most part, something Johnson noted when I sat down with him for an extended interview last fall.

“He’s handling it in his own way, for the most part,” Johnson said. “And I’d say he’s done a pretty good job with it. At first, you could tell it bothered him. The frustration was obvious. You could see it. But he just … I remember one time he said it, ‘Man, that’s just the way it is. They’re gonna hate me for doing everything I do.’ But he’s at a point now where he’s like, ‘I’m just gonna do me. I’m just gonna do the best I can.’ And that’s all you can do.”

But how well he does it from here, without his favorite target, will do more than decide the Lions’ immediate fate. It probably will define his career.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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