Houston — James Ihedigbo wishes the 2014 Detroit Lions had the 2016 version of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The veteran safety has watched in awe as Stafford developed into a more complete passer, with increased accuracy, reduced turnovers and the ability to lead comeback after comeback.
In 2014, the Lions had one of the NFL’s most formidable defenses, finishing in the top five in both in yardage and points. But the offense, led by Stafford under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, was middling.
The Lions went 11-5 that season, but fell in the opening round of the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys. Ihedigbo wonders what might have been had Stafford been playing at the level that had him generating MVP buzz late into the 2016 campaign.
“The way he played this year, if he played like that in 2014, we would probably be playing in (the Super Bowl),” Ihedigbo said. “I think his maturity — being married, having kids, all that good stuff that you do — I think he’s showing his maturity as a player. “
Ihedigbo, who left Detroit last offseason after his contract wasn’t renewed, has maintained a relationship with a number of players on the roster. From afar, he’s been impressed with the way Stafford has filled the leadership void and feels we still haven’t seen the quarterback’s best years.
“Being the true alpha of that team and everyone following his lead was great for him,” Ihedigbo said. “Next year he’s going to be even more lights out. I think he’s going to get better and better and the best has yet to be seen with that guy.”
As for Ihedigbo, he struggled to find a new home last season. He latched on with the Buffalo Bills and former coach Rex Ryan midseason, but his year was quickly derailed when he suffered a fractured tibia in his fourth game with the team.
The story generated buzz around the league because Ihedigbo finished the game after suffering the injury in the second quarter.
“An offensive lineman fell on my leg as I was running. I got up and I thought it was a high ankle sprain,” he said. “Went to the sideline, was going to ask them to tape it, but I’m like, ‘Nah,’ so I just tightened my shoe. I was able to run straight ahead, so vertical it was good, but if I had to run side to side, it sucked. It hurt like crazy.”
Ihedigbo, 33, hasn’t begun training, but he’s hoping to play one more season. In those four games with the Bills, he twice was among the team’s tackle leaders, which he feels showcased his ability to adapt on the fly..
With Super Bowl LI in his hometown of Houston, Ihedigbo is promoting a fundraiser for his charity Hope Africa, which provides African students scholarships to American universities.