By Jason Keidel
When Calvin Johnson retired at the end of last season, it wasn’t seen as a simple transaction by some geriatric who can’t cut the muster. It was Barry Sanders redux — a giant stiff-arm to a forlorn franchise that hasn’t won an NFL title since 1957, and hasn’t played in a single NFL title game since Lamar Hunt named the game the Super Bowl.
Another surefire Hall of Famer, in his relative prime, was running from his million-dollar paychecks rather than play for the Lions or work in Detroit. It would have been quite normal if football fans assumed this season in Detroit would be like all the others, but worse. Not only did the Lions lose one of the three greatest players in franchise history, it drove him away with some karmic or cosmic tax the team and town continue to pay.
So it must be quite surprising, and refreshing, to see the Roar has been restored, at least through seven games, all by the skill and will of another understated star.
Is there a more forgotten star than the Lions’ QB? Sure, he plays in pro football Siberia, but Stafford was a No.1 pick, and has produced prodigiously. Yesterday’s cardiac win over Washington was Stafford’s 100th game in an NFL uniform. (His record is 46-54.) If he stays healthy, Stafford will notch 30,000 yards passing and 200 touchdowns for his career. And considering his career didn’t really start in earnest until 2011, those numbers are even more remarkable.
And this year, Stafford has been a marvel, with 16 TD passes and just 4 interceptions. He is fourth in completion percentage (68.1) and third in the league with a 105.7 passer rating. All that plus the last-minute comebacks — with yesterday being his third of the year — make Stafford a sleeper MVP candidate.
Sure, it’s hard to attract light when you win 46 percent of your games on a perennial loser, particularly one that just lost its two best players (aside from Stafford) over the last 15 years, in Johnson and Ndamukong Suh.
Free agents don’t long for the Lions. College stars don’t recite Detroit’s epic football history, because there isn’t one. Pundits don’t muse romantically over the days of Eric Hipple, Gary Danielson or Chuck Long. When the Wayne Fontes era is considered the halcyon years, there’s a problem.
But the Lions are 4-3 right now, not far from the formerly undefeated Vikings (5-1) in the NFC North, and right in the center of the early playoff picture. Stafford isn’t doing it alone, but it may feel that way. Perhaps no team is more QB-dependent than Detroit, especially when you consider their eyesore of a running game, which featured Justin Forsett and no one else. Indeed, Stafford was one yard short (32) of leading the Lions in rushing yesterday.
New England went 3-1 without Tom Brady. Does anyone expect the Lions to be anywhere near .500 sans Stafford? In yesterday’s nail-biter, he accounted for 90 percent of the club’s offense and led that sublime final drive, a 75-yard TD march in 49 seconds.
His teammates dig him. His game is only getting better. And you could argue that Matthew Stafford is the best-known athlete in Detroit, among their wide palate of pro sports clubs. It’s hard to think of someone who is producing more while representing his team and town with nobility and enthusiasm.
A team is often an emblem of its city. Like the Lions, Detroit has been hit by hard luck and hard times. It must be nice to know that their football club’s leader, and best player, isn’t going anywhere soon. Because he actually likes the Lions. Imagine that.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.