Wojo: As wife recovers, upbeat Stafford stays 'locked in'

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — For a week-long stretch, football didn’t matter anymore. Matthew Stafford was busy tending to his wife, Kelly, as she recovered from brain surgery. He was helping take care of their three daughters. He was gaining healthy perspective, whether he realized it or not.

Lions QB Matthew Stafford, center, hands off to running back Theo Riddick during practice in Allen Park on Tuesday.

Now, as the Lions return to the practice field, football matters again, and that’s notable because it means Kelly is getting better. It also means Stafford can feel good about the game again, with the scariest episodes hopefully behind them.

Is it still difficult? Sure, although Stafford quickly reminds everyone it’s much more difficult for his wife. She underwent surgery April 17 to remove a benign tumor called an acoustic neuroma, and a complication turned it from a six-hour procedure into 12 hours. She has detailed the ordeal on her Instagram account, describing dizziness and disorientation, and praising doctors for saving her from hearing loss.

Stafford began his media session Tuesday by thanking the public for the well-wishes, and his broad smile and easy manner suggest he’s a grateful, relieved man.

“There’s been some long days and some tough times,” Stafford said. “But we’ve had a ton of help and a ton of support. It’s been overwhelming for her, and me, and our whole family. We really appreciate it. She’s tough. She’s doing a heck of a job keeping it all together.”

Because she is, with the help of family and friends, Stafford was able to return to his job, after spending some time away.

He didn’t know how long he’d be gone, but he’d sneak into the Lions’ facility at odd hours to catch up and stay connected.

‘Obligation to this team’

In a crisis like this, people sometimes change in imperceptible ways. Stafford isn’t eager to dive too deeply into the psychological well to explain what it’s done to him, but it sure sounds like he has a heightened joy for the daily routine.

“I’ve got an obligation to this team that I love fulfilling,” he said. “I want to be here, we got a new offense, and I’m having a blast trying to learn it and teach these guys. … Some days Kelly had a good night and I was here loving it. And if Kelly had a bad night, I was trying to get home as fast as I could. So it’s been up and down, but everybody has been extremely supportive. They know I’m committed, I’m dedicated to this team and our future and our season.”

The Lions always have been supportive of their 10-year quarterback, and the new regime hasn’t backed away amid the struggles. But this was a different kind of support, a healthier emotional bond. The Lions need stronger bonds in Matt Patricia’s second season, after last year’s rocky start, when some players resisted his demanding ways.

Patricia vowed to change too, communicating better, showing the upbeat personality that made him popular in New England. He also changed the offense, bringing in coordinator Darrell Bevell, with a greater emphasis on balance and the running game.

But for it to work with the Lions, it has to work with Stafford. And his dedication in the midst of his wife’s recovery certainly resonated with his team.

“Matthew Stafford is an unbelievable guy,” Patricia said. “Obviously, trying to deal with life outside the building, he’s done an amazing job of that, like he does every single day that he’s here. Just couldn’t be more blessed, more happy to have a guy like that.”

‘Ton more to learn’

As general manager Bob Quinn continues to build the roster, it’s Patricia’s job to build a team. And after a tumultuous first season, there are new faces, new schemes and increased pressure to get it right.

It’s trite — and premature — to say Patricia was changed by strife, but he’s a smart guy who surely knows how to adjust. And Stafford, and others, have detected subtle differences.

“With everybody, my wife included, situations like this change your perspective on a lot of things, puts stuff where it should be,” Stafford said. “I’m just happy to be out here throwing the ball around to some really talented guys, having some fun playing some ball.”

He has new touted tight ends in rookie T.J. Hockenson and veteran Jesse James. He has a new slot receiver in Danny Amendola. He may have a new center, as Frank Ragnow has been working at the position, with Graham Glasgow bumping to guard. In Patricia’s system, players must be capable of multiple roles, so those shifts are ongoing.

The biggest shift is with Bevell’s offense, and the installation will take some time.

“I think I’m as far along as I should be,” Stafford said. “There’s obviously a ton more to learn. Verbiage-wise, it’s completely different. … To be honest, having a new playbook is kind of helping. I’m sitting there going, ‘Man, it’s not old hat.’ It’s a bunch of new stuff. I think guys are doing a great job diving in and trying to learn.”

To Stafford, diving in probably never felt so good. A week after the surgery, Kelly had to return to the hospital because of intense pain as she weaned herself off medication. Now she’s improved to the point where they could attend a wedding in Atlanta, and Stafford can keep his mind relatively free.

“I think when I’m here, I’m here,” he said. “There are maybe some times before practice, in the locker room, just checking in and making sure everything is OK. But when I’m out here, I have to be locked in. If I’m out here thinking about something else, it’s going to be an ugly day for the offense. I’m trying to do everything I can to be locked in.”

He’s probably uttered similar words many times before, trying to get locked in during other early practices in other seasons. He probably hasn’t meant them as much as he does now.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski