Allen Park — If the glove fits … ah, forget it.
It’s not going to fit. Not very comfortably, at least. Not after all these years of avoiding wearing one, except in emergency situations or snowball fights.
So no matter how the Lions try to spin it, Matthew Stafford knows his injured throwing hand — and his ability to spin a football like an All-Pro — probably will be an issue for the rest of this season.
And how big an issue will depend not just on how the damaged middle digit responds — and whether Stafford can shrug off this latest bit of adversity — but also how complete his transformation has been as a quarterback these last few years.
The improved accuracy, the better decision-making, the well-drilled footwork — all of it will be tested now in a different way than it was the first time he led the Lions to the playoffs back in 2011.
And while this injury might not be as bad as the one he suffered five years ago — a fractured right index finger in 2011, his first full season as an NFL starter — the timing actually is worse.
That year, Stafford broke his finger in a rout of Denver in late October, then came back after a bye week wearing a splint and a glove on his throwing hand.
As luck would have it, his first game back came at Soldier Field on a brutally windy afternoon. And Stafford struggled mightily, as the Lions fell behind early and he ended up throwing four interceptions — among a career-high 63 attempts — in a 37-13 loss to the Bears.
No time to adjust
In all, he threw nine interceptions in three games wearing that dreaded glove, and though he insisted the injury wasn’t to blame for that, no one really believed him. But after a month, he was able to shed the glove and still had time to play some terrific football down the stretch to get the Lions into the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
“This one will be a little bit different,” Stafford said Monday on his weekly WJR radio appearance. “I don’t think it’s gonna be as bad as that one was.”
This time, there isn’t as much wiggle room in the calendar, however, and the stakes are arguably higher. The Lions are in the driver’s seat to claim their first division title since ’93, but they’re still a win — or possibly two — away from clinching a playoff berth.
And now their quarterback — a legitimate league MVP candidate — is suddenly trying to get a grip on things. On Sunday, Stafford was 6-of-7 passing before suffering the injury when he awkwardly “clapped hands” with Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd at the end of the first quarter Sunday. He dislocated the second joint in his middle finger, with ESPN also citing torn ligaments —typical with a dislocation.
After the play, Stafford said Monday he looked down at his hand and “it just wasn’t all where it was supposed to be.”
But with the help of trainers and a quick tape job — “That was about as makeshift as it can be,” Stafford said — he managed to complete six of his seven attempts on the ensuing drive, including that scrambling 48-yard completion to Marvin Jones.
Stafford went just 9-of-20 for 90 yards the rest of the game, though, and in his postgame comments he acknowledged it was a struggle. Not that it wasn’t obvious to everyone, with some passes that lacked the usual zip and an errant throw that resulted in a pick-six and another fourth-quarter deficit for the Lions. Asked after the game whether the injury affected his grip or velocity more, Stafford joked, “Is there a ‘C, all of the above?’ ”
We’ll see how it affects him from here, obviously. And the weather forecast for Sunday’s game isn’t doing him any favors at this point, with rain showers expected and temperatures in the 40s at MetLife Stadium. But the final two regular-season games likely will be indoors, at least. So would a playoff game if the Lions hang on to win the NFC North.
First, though, he might have to get the hang of wearing that glove again. Like most quarterbacks — Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady among the notable exceptions — Stafford doesn’t wear one even in cold weather. But when forced to Sunday to help him with his grip, Stafford tried a couple of different gloves — and spent the rest of the game fidgeting with the one he settled on, looking more like Victor Martinez in the batter’s box, at times.
“At the time, that was the best option,” Stafford said. “Now going forward, it still may be the best option. But it also might not be. We’re gonna try tinkering and finding what’s the best option.”
Lions coach Jim Caldwell brushed aside questions about the difficulty of playing with a glove Monday. (“I’ve never worn one, so I don’t know, in terms of throwing it,” he said.) And though he cited Peyton Manning when asked if he’d ever coached a quarterback who wore one, it’s worth noting the five-time MVP never really came to grips with it until he had to at the end of his career in Denver, after neck surgeries left him with numbness in his fingertips.
Stafford’s not in that position right now. But he is in better shape to make the needed adjustments, I’d argue. This isn’t the same quarterback who routinely shot from the hip earlier in his career, or the one who helped the Lions throw away their season in 2013. This is a more polished version, clearly a more disciplined one, and with the Lions relying on coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s shorter, controlled passing game, he’s now comfortable taking fewer risks. He’s also better at using his feet to buy time or open windows, which certainly helps when the run game isn't exactly doing the same.
“I mean, you saw him play yesterday,” Caldwell said. “When he threw, he made some things happen. And you would anticipate he’ll be a little bit better by the time we get to next week.”
The opponent will be better, too, this week, and next week, and the week after that. The Giants’ defense, fresh off a dominant showing against Dallas on Sunday night, ranks second in the NFL in opposing passer rating. The Cowboys are fifth in points allowed with the league’s second-best run defense. Even Green Bay is rolling defensively now, allowing 13 points or fewer in its last three games.
But Caldwell knows all that, just like his quarterback knows this: His is a position that relies on "feel," sure, but at this point it really doesn't matter how he feels.
“It’s a little bit more difficult,” Stafford said, “but nothing I can’t get through.”
And if he can, the Lions should, too.