Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Xmas Gang Tackle: Putting Stafford's Season In Perspective

"It's the kind of stuff that endears you to a city," said Lions play-by-play man Dan Miller in the above Sound FX video from November, 2009, which features Matthew Stafford leading Detroit to a rare win in his rookie season (only the Lions' second in twenty-seven games at the time) just moments after separating his shoulder and telling team doctors to "get the **** off" him.

It wasn't clear what kind of player Stafford would turn out to be after that display of courage, but it was clear that the man had moxie.

More than two years later, Stafford has led the Lions to the playoffs for the first time this century, and he's also broken franchise records for TD passes, completions and Passing Yards, and led the perennially-inept Lions to a franchise record for touchdowns in a single season.

Stafford himself said it best in the waning moments of that telling game against the Browns, "I can throw the ball if you need me to throw the ball." There is no denying that fact now, and more importantly, after a season that has not been without trials and tribulations, Stafford has proven that not only can he throw the ball, he can also lead the team to improbable and inspirational victories, even when they seem to be on the verge of reverting to "same old Lions" mode.

When you take Stafford's accomplishments this season into context, the results are even more impressive. It takes more than a golden arm and a few good playmakers to change a culture. It takes leadership, belief, positivity, adaptability, and courage -- all traits that are emerging in Stafford as this season progresses.

Stafford has led the Lions to four comebacks in games in which they've trailed by 13 points or more, and this season the Lions became the only team in NFL history to overcome deficits of 20-plus points in consecutive games.

Now, after a Turbulent season that featured a fractured finger and three interception-filled games by a gloved Stafford, the Lions are playoff bound. It wasn't always pretty for Stafford, who threw 9 interceptions over 10 quarters while the Lions chances looked to be dwindling, but there was no quitting, no blaming the poor play on the finger, and most importantly, there was the three-game winning streak that has the Lions sitting at 10-5 with one game left to go.

The fact that Stafford played his best first quarter of 2011 in the season's biggest game on Christmas Eve is perhaps the best sign of all for the still-maturing signal caller. Stafford has proven that he can lead his team back from huge deficits all year long, but on Saturday, he proved that he's not foolish enough to rely on that late game magic. Stafford has been a slow starter all season, but not against the Chargers. He was clinical, focused, intense. The effort was reminiscent of Brady and Brees, of Manning and Rodgers, as was the 24-0 halftime lead.

During the 38-10 win over San Diego, Stafford smashed a few more Lions' records before the final buzzer. Going 29-36 with 373 yards, he broke the Lions' record for single game completion percentage for a passer with at least 25 attempts, and his quarterback rating (137.6) was the highest for a Lions' QB with at least 35 passing attempts.

The Lions have won in a variety of ways this season, from a smothering front four to a big play secondary to Megatron's highlight reel freakishness. But Stafford is the straw that stirs the drink in Detroit. In the end, in a quarterback-driven league, the Lions will only go as far as Stafford can take them.

For a franchise that has spent so much time as the league's doormat, the playoffs are a nice step. If Stafford continues to lead this team with the swagger that he has shown in 2011, it won't be the last.