Niyo: Boldin contributes to vision that drew him here

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Lions' Anquan Boldin takes off after a reception in the fourth quarter.

Detroit — These aren’t the Same Old Lions.

And that’s part of the message Haloti Ngata was trying to deliver six months ago, when his former teammate, Anquan Boldin, was trying to decide what to do next.

Ngata, the veteran defensive tackle entering his second season in Detroit, kept sending text messages, and Boldin, the 14-year vet on the receiving end, the pro's pro who'd been courted by Washington and New Orleans and others as a free agent, knew they weren’t merely smoke signals.

“That’s my guy, and we’ve been on runs together in Baltimore,” said Boldin, 36, who spent three seasons with Ngata in Baltimore, including that triumphant Super Bowl run in 2012. “I knew what kind of guy he is, and he knows the passion that I have for this game.

“Haloti is a straight shooter. He’s gonna tell me exactly how it is, and let me make a decision from there. But hearing it from him, it was definitely comforting.”

Almost as comforting as it is now for the Lions, hearing Matthew Stafford call Boldin’s number in the huddle and knowing what’s next. He is the oldest Lion, but there is something different having him here, without a doubt.

“Matt’s comfortable throwing it to him now, no matter what,” said Ngata, who at 32 is the oldest defensive player on the Lions roster. “Matt has that confidence in him and, shoot, I think everybody knows it’s going to Anquan. But he still gets open, still catches the ball, no matter what, and … it’s just awesome, man. Fourteen years in the league, and it’s amazing he’s still doing it.”

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The numbers say as much, as Boldin moved into to the top 10 on the NFL’s all-time receiving list Sunday, with 1,064 career catches. But ask him about that and you’ll get little more than a shrug. What does that milestone mean?

“At this point, nothing,” said Boldin, who could conceivably catch Terrell Owens (1,078 receptions) for seventh place by season’s end. “It’s probably for something later down the road. But at this point, I’m trying to win a championship. I could care less about stats.”

His catches mean more than that, though. And true to form, they were all clutch grabs Sunday against the Bears, including the one that moved him past Andre Johnson into 10th place on the career list.

That was a 16-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Boldin that finally broke a 3-3 deadlock late in the first half. And that was a play the tandem helped offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter call, noticing a mismatch they’d created with that same formation earlier in the game. Boldin beat a stumbling safety, Harold Jones-Quartey, on a flag route toward the right corner and made a leaping, sure-handed catch for his team-leading seventh touchdown of the season.

But it was a catch he’d made earlier on that drive that explained his value to this offense even better, perhaps: It was a 10-yard catch on third-and-10 that got things rolling for the Lions offense.

Of Boldin’s 55 receptions this season — second-most on the team behind Golden Tate — 20 of them have come on third down. And all but three of those have moved the chains.

That’s oh-so critical for an offense that’s built around a short passing game. And particularly for an offense that began this past offseason by bidding farewell to Calvin Johnson, Stafford’s favorite target for the entirety of his NFL career.

“The guy’s as competitive as anybody on our team,” said Stafford, who isn’t far behind, something he’ll likely prove again by playing with an injured throwing hand the rest of this season. “That shows with his third-down receptions, his red-zone receptions — the guy wants to help us win any way he can.”

But that competitive drive is only part of what Boldin has brought. And it’s the other part that had both Ngata and Jim Caldwell, who was an assistant coach on that 2012 Ravens team, courting him back in June and July.

“He’s invaluable, just in terms of his presence,” Caldwell said. “He’s such a great example. No one works harder than him. No one is more diligent in terms of studying and making sure he’s prepared for the game. And he’s a great communicator.”

Not in a demonstrative, rah-rah kind of way, though. As Caldwell noted Sunday, “He’s a matter-of-fact sort of guy.” But the fact of the matter is he’s a guy the coaching staff leans on, even going so far as to have Boldin, who last month met with Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill to discuss police brutality and race-related issues, speak with the team’s younger players in an in-house rookie orientation of sorts.

“They need to know what it takes to play as long as he has played and with the level of excellence that he has displayed, week in and week out,” Caldwell said. “He’s a tremendous guy.”

And as the Lions’ oldest guy, he’s seeing something new from this young Detroit team. Something Ngata told him was possible here. Something Boldin himself saw in Caldwell — the vision and the visage — during that championship season together in Baltimore.

“I mean, there’s a lot of talented teams in this league that can’t win,” Boldin said. “And that’s because they don’t play together as a team. I think we figured out how to perform as a team. And I think Coach Caldwell has done a great job of bringing us together and having us on the same page. I mean, he’s a guy with a great vision. He does a great job getting us to see that vision as well.”

And when you’ve seen it all the way Boldin has, that’s not just a welcome sight. It’s a reason to keep reaching for more.