Allen Park — Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has looked like a different player since the last time the Arizona Cardinals came to town.
The 2015 matchup was a game the Lions would like to forget. The Cardinals stormed into Ford Field, jumped out to a 28-7 lead at the half and cruised to 42-17 victory, dropping the Lions to 0-5 on the season. It could easily be viewed as the low point of coach Jim Caldwell’s tenure with the franchise.
And while countless Lions struggled in the game, the notable footnote from the defeat was the benching of quarterback Matthew Stafford early in the second half.
It wasn’t the worst game of his career, by any means, but Stafford was off from the start. On his second pass, after escaping a collapsing pocket, he didn’t put enough air under a throw intended for tight end Tim Wright. If the ball had been on target, the Lions were looking at a big gain. Wright had lots of room to run. Instead, the flat pass was intercepted by safety Rashad Johnson.
Stafford was picked again near the end of the first quarter, when defensive tackle Cory Redding worked around a block and jumped a screen pass attempted for Ameer Abdullah. Stafford’s tackle at the 4-yard line only briefly delayed the Cardinals from getting into the end zone.
At halftime, with Arizona already up 21, Stafford was told another mistake wouldn’t be tolerated. So when Cardinals Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson intercepted a pass intended for Calvin Johnson on the opening drive of the third quarter, Caldwell surprised everyone by yanking the starting quarterback.
Caldwell and Stafford downplayed the benching from the start, and two years later, neither consider anything about the decision remarkable.
“Well, based on what had been said, (Caldwell) had to honor his word and I understand that,” Stafford said. “I was frustrated, just like any player would be, and competitor would be, because, shoot, I’ve been in that situation a bunch of times and thrown some touchdowns and brought us back.”
That frustration didn’t linger. Stafford never sulked and his future performance wasn’t negatively impacted. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. In the 27 games since the benching, Stafford’s numbers have skyrocketed. He’s completed 66.6 percent of his passes, and thrown 50 touchdowns with just 15 interceptions.
“I’ve always felt I was a pretty resilient person,” Stafford said. “Came to this organization after an 0-16 and got beat up and hurt my first two years and we weren’t very good, and battled through that. So, I’ve kind of known for a while that I’m a resilient human being. You have to be to play this position in this league. That was just another opportunity to prove it, I guess.”
Stafford’s response to the situation proved his mettle, once again, but no one seems interested in making the larger connection — that the humiliation of being pulled from the game has fueled the overall elevation of his performance, least of all Caldwell.
“If you’re inferring that it had anything to do with the benching, I’d tell you no,” Caldwell said. “I’d tell you no because the guy is the same guy — same drive, same will. Doesn’t mean he’s always going to have a perfect game. But Matthew’s a pretty special individual.”
Caldwell is probably right. And if there was anything to be singled out as a key factor in Stafford’s improvement, it would probably be the promotion of Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator two weeks later.
And let’s be realistic, even if the benching mattered then, it doesn’t matter now. No one is thinking about 2015 with the Cardinals returning for the 2017 season opener. Stafford is looking forward to test driving his fully stocked offense against a defense that led the NFL in sacks last year and has two of the best defensive backs in the league in Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu.
“That’s a good recipe, right there,” Stafford said. “They’ve got guys that can play man coverage and just make it tough on you as an offense, play man coverage and really create one-on-one matchups in the pass protection schemes as well.
“They’re about creating one-on-ones and betting that their guys are going to win more one-on-ones than you are and that’s a challenge, a fun one.”
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