Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stafford and Company Will Restore Lions' Roar for Years to Come

Sometime, 10 or 12 years from now, the face will be more chiseled and hewn. It’ll be the look of a man instead of a boy. The care-free smiling will be replaced by looks of introspection. The peach fuzz will be long gone—sandpaper in its place.

Matthew Stafford will find this out, first hand.

The mug of the NFL quarterback who’s been able to survive the league from college to his mid-to-upper-30s is the “after” following the “before.”

They’re handsome and unblemished when they enter the league. Then they leave looking like a tractor wheel drove over their face a few times.

Check out John Elway, 1983, and then compare it to Elway after winning his second Super Bowl in 1999. They could be son and father.

They all had the look.

Dan Marino bounded into Miami from Pitt with floppy, dark, curly hair. He had the looks of someone who should have been on the silver screen, not the gridiron.

Then came 17 years of beat downs from defensive linemen the size of Delaware, and Marino retired with a face that looked like it was morphing into corduroy. The hair wasn’t curly, it was matted.

No wonder defensive linemen love to kill the quarterback. Every one of those signal callers looks like the guy who always gets the girl.

The Lions’ Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh are cordial because they wear the same colors on Sunday. But make them opposites and Suh would treat Stafford like any other quarterback—with the epitome of rude violence.

Stafford has his good looks and his curly hair and his peach fuzz. And a rocket of a right arm. It’s like going up against an armed and dangerous Doogie Howser.

Stafford is 23 years old and when you gaze at photos of him in 2021, you’ll smirk and remember what a young NFL quarterback looks like before the brutes rearrange him.

That’s OK. The numbers will be enough to more than make up for the loss of looks.

The Lions finally have themselves a quote franchise quarterback. When Stafford gets done, he will have obliterated every team passing record and maybe a couple league ones, too.

Stafford will have thrown hundreds of touchdown passes and for tens of thousands of yards and his No. 9 will go up in Ford Field somewhere. A bust of his likeness will be made ready for Canton, Ohio.

He’ll retire with the face of the wise old quarterback—the one who aged like he spent four years in the White House, not 15 years in the NFL.

The amount of damage that Matt Stafford could leave in his wake is staggering to consider. Especially if he has someone like Calvin Johnson to throw to for most of his years in the league.

This Stafford-to-Johnson connection is in its third year but it seems brand new. Stafford has missed so many games due to injury in his first two seasons that you wonder if Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw an ice-cream social at the beginning of training camp in August to reacquaint his star QB and receiver.

The connection has done its thing for two games in 2011 and already it should be causing defensive coordinators to curl into the fetal position.

It’s not just that Stafford and Johnson connect; it’s in how many ways they do so.

Is there a needle that needs threading? A howitzer that needs firing? A touch that needs to be floated?

You want a five-yard pitch and catch? A 12-yarder at the sidelines for a first down? A 25-yard strike down the middle? A two-yard fade route in the end zone?

And that’s just Johnson.

The Lions have a franchise quarterback but they also have people he can throw to. It takes two to tango in the passing game.

Let me switch gears for a moment, and take you back 30 years.

When Isiah Thomas joined the Pistons fresh out of Indiana University in 1981, he had a concern. And it was a valid one.

Isiah was used to winning, number one. He won an NCAA Championship with the Hoosiers in ’81 as a sophomore. He was surrounded by a talented bunch at the college level.

Then he was drafted by the Pistons—a team that won 16 and 21 games, respectively, in the two seasons prior to Isiah’s arrival.

So Isiah had a concern. He initially kept it private, revealing it only to those in his inner circle.

Isiah Thomas wondered, quite frankly, to whom on the Pistons he’d pass the ball. He wouldn’t exactly be playing with a bunch of future NBA Hall of Famers.

Stafford has no such concerns, playing for the Lions in 2011.

There’s Johnson, of course. Which is like a menu that starts with lobster tail.

But there’s also Nate Burleson—the John Taylor to Johnson’s Jerry Rice.

There’s talented, athletic rookie Titus Young, who comes from Boise State, where they do more passing than on a Florida expressway.

There’s the cache of tight ends—Tony Scheffler, Brandon Pettigrew and Will Heller, who are basically power forwards with hands of Velcro.

There’s a jitterbug of a running back, Jahvid Best, who can catch the football and motor up the field 10 yards before the defenders notice him running between their legs.

Still, it’s Calvin Johnson on whom Stafford will rely most. Which is smart. If I was a quarterback, I’d rely on a skyscraper with hands, too.

Stafford-to-Johnson has the potential to be the best tandem in Detroit since Fisher and Body.

And 10, 15 years from now, after Matthew Stafford has shut people up about a Bobby Layne Curse and has rewritten the Lions record book and has put No. 9 into moth balls forever, we’ll look at him and see, somewhere, that boyish, peach-fuzzed face of 2011.

And the smile—the one he displayed as the NFL Commissioner presented Stafford with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Don’t snicker. The Lions pre-Stafford are the “before.” Lord knows what the kid will do as he authors the “after.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lions Coach Schwartz Has That Winning Look

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

They’ve all had it, from Schmidt to Forzano to Clark to Rogers (who had the look from the moment he signed his contract) to Fontes to Ross to Mornhinweg to Mariucci to Marinelli.

It’s the look of exasperation combined with defeat and humiliation. Sometimes the look is expressed on the sideline, after watching another fumble or completed pass to the other team or a game-killing nine-minute drive by the opponent to eat up the rest of the fourth quarter.

Sometimes the look happens during training camp, when the coach realizes that his players don’t have that thing called talent.

Sometimes the look occurs during one of those post game press conferences, when all the geniuses holding tape recorders and microphones ask, “So what happened?”

The look has claimed some fine football coaches in Detroit, and some clowns.

Schwartz is different, and that’s why I don’t trust him.

When is he going to have the look? And if he isn’t, then I’m really suspicious of the guy.

Schwartz bounced into town in January 2009, just weeks after the Lions pratfall to a still unbelievable 0-16 record. The NFL is a league of parity and, at times, mediocrity is enough to get by.

To go 0-16 in the NFL is longer odds than beating the house at blackjack. But the Lions pulled it off. Someone could have won a mint.

So here comes Schwartz, fresh off a defensive coordinator’s gig in Tennessee, and he had that typical “just hired” look that all the Lions coaches had at one time or another: smiling, at ease, no crow’s feet. He looked like the Presidents of the United States do on Inaugural Ball night, before the job turns them into the gray-haired, wrinkled and crucified.

The cameras snapped and the tape recorders whirred and a beaming Schwartz posed with a football and a Lions helmet and all you could think of was, “That poor, poor man.”

Now, it must be pointed out that to follow 0-16 is like being a singer going on stage after a comedian who bombed; you’d have to be a pretty God-awful crooner to not get applause.

Schwartz’s Lions won three games that first year, in 2009. It was a decent enough honeymoon, especially considering that his starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, missed some playing time due to injury.

Then came 2010 and Stafford goes down just before halftime with a severe shoulder injury on Opening Sunday—surely that would have been time for Schwartz to flash the look.

The Lions gamely soldiered on during that game in Chicago and had a potential game-winning TD pulled back from them by the officials, and all the Lions could do was look on like they were at a dinner table with a sleight of hand artist.

All this happened before the season was 60 minutes old.

Still, Schwartz never got the look.

After 12 games last year the Lions were 2-10 with Stafford having suited up for all of three contests, his shoulders ravaged with injury. Even the backup, Shaun Hill, went down with a bad wrist.

Schwartz kept his cool and his composure. He didn’t fly into a Bobby Ross-like rant. He didn’t talk of pounding the rock like Rod Marinelli. He didn’t wonder, like Darryl Rogers did, what it took to get fired around here.

Schwartz didn’t stand in front of the inquiring media minds and say, “See you at the graveyard,” like Monte Clark did in 1983. Schwartz didn’t take the wind instead of the football, like Marty Mornhinweg.

And he didn’t quit, like Ross did—and had done before and after coaching the Lions—in the middle of the season.

Schwartz stayed the course, working with a third-string quarterback, a second-string running back and a defense that was front heavy and back light.

Then something funny happened. The Lions beat the Packers for their third win of the season. They knocked Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers senseless before halftime.

Then the Lions went down to Tampa and ended a road losing streak that dated to 2007, by booting the Bucs in overtime.

The day after Christmas, the Lions returned to Florida and stunned the Miami Dolphins with a fourth quarter comeback that included the once-light secondary making some big time plays—something we haven’t seen in these parts since Lyndon Johnson was president.

That was three straight wins, and the best part was that not only did Jim Schwartz not have the look, he didn’t have the other look, either—that of someone who thinks he’s accomplished something, when he really hasn’t.

Some of the Lions coaches of the past have had that look, too.

The Vikings came to town on the season’s final weekend and the Lions thumped them, for a season-ending four-game winning streak.

Never before did a 6-10 record look so good in the history of the NFL.

Through it all, Schwartz had a different kind of look.

It was the look of the in-control football coach—the rock steady, steely-eyed man who, when you look at him, you can’t tell if he’s winning or losing by 40 points.

Schwartz may not have always been the perkiest coach during his weekly press conferences. He may have become bristly when discussing injuries. He wasn’t Dale Carnegie.

But he wasn’t a snake oil salesman or a phony, and Lord knows we’ve seen those types on the Lions sidelines, wearing headsets.

The Lions four-game winning streak to cap the 2010 season, along with the anticipated health of Stafford and continued massaging of the roster by GM Marty Mayhew, have caused even the national football observers to look at the Lions as serious playoff contenders.

A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.