Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford speaks on his improvement, the tight end unit and Taylor Decker's injury on the second day of training camp. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Allen Park — Football coaches have long marveled at Matthew Stafford’s photographic memory, his instant recall, and his ability to see things before they happen on the field.
But he’ll be the first to admit that fatherhood brings new challenges in that regard, particularly with those 2½-month-old girls at home. Defensive coverage disguises are one thing. Identical twins are another, it seems.
“It was tough at first,” laughed Stafford, who’ll celebrate his first Father’s Day as a new dad on Sunday. “I’m not 100 percent getting it right sometimes on pictures and stuff. But I’m getting pretty good at (telling them apart.)”
And the same is true here at work, where Stafford looks right at home running the Lions' offense, beginning his second full season under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. The two aren’t just speaking the same language these days, and saying the same things. They’re also seeing the same things.
“And I think he’s starting to mesh even more as far as thought processes,” Cooter said last week. “It’s ‘Hey, I knew it was this coverage, I was thinking this …’ As I’m walking to him, we’re having sort of the same conversation: ‘Well, I was thinking of checking to this play’ and ‘I was thinking of checking to this play’ and, boy, they’re really similar. Those types of things are happening more often now than they used to.”
And while Lions fans are probably used to hearing this kind of thing at this time of year, there’s ample evidence to suggest it means something more this time around.
In 25 games with Cooter as coordinator — not including that transatlantic debut when Joe Lombardi was fired just before the Lions flew to London to face the Chiefs in October 2015 — Stafford’s numbers are hard to ignore.
He’s completing 66.5 percent of his passes (611-of-919) for 6,711 yards and 43 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions. (He also has rushed for 315 yards and three more scores in that span.) And while the Lions are 15-10 in those games, 10 of the wins are the result of fourth-quarter comebacks led by Stafford, who at age 29 is heading into his ninth NFL season.
“Obviously, he’s an extremely smart guy and he is constantly finding ways to get better,” head coach Jim Caldwell said. “You can’t improve in terms of his arm strength. ... But just the little things, with getting us into plays, at the line of scrimmage, how he goes about manipulating the cadence, things of that nature. Almost in every area, he has been improving. And I think that’s a sign of good things to come.”
Including a contract extension, most likely.
The Lions will wrap up their offseason work today with one final minicamp practice. Then they’ll take a six-week break before putting on the pads for training camp, by which time Stafford just might be the NFL’s highest-paid player.
Stafford is in no rush — “I’ve got no timetable,” he said Wednesday — nor is he spending much time worrying about it.
“Yeah, the only time I ever talk about it or think about it is when you guys ask me questions about it, honestly,” he shrugged.
But while both Stafford and the Lions would like to get a deal done at some point this offseason, Stafford’s camp likely is content to wait until Oakland’s Derek Carr raises the market price with his next contract. Carr, coming off a Pro Bowl season, has said he wants to have a new deal in place with the Raiders by the start of training camp in late July. If he does, it may trump the five-year, $123 million deal Andrew Luck signed a year ago. And whatever Carr gets, Stafford figures to get even more, both in guaranteed money and average annual value.
“I’m not too worried about what those guys do,” Stafford said. “I’m just trying to get better out here. That’s pretty much all I can say.”
On the line
As for what he can do, that’ll depend in part on the health of the offense around him. The shoulder injury suffered by left tackle Taylor Decker is a significant setback, without a doubt. For now, it appears last year’s developmental rookie, Joe Dahl, will get first crack at that starting job protecting Stafford’s blind side. The Lions won’t get running back Theo Riddick (wrist) and left guard T.J. Lang (hip) back until camp, either.
But what gives everyone confidence is Stafford’s command, and that he seems so at ease with it all, empowered by Caldwell and Cooter and making good on their encouragement to take ownership of the offense. Caldwell calls it a “quarterback-centric” system, and the coordinator has made sure Stafford has more autonomy to implement it, much as it was in previous stops with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Denver.
“We have great communication, not only in the meeting rooms but also out here on the field,” Stafford said. “This is a creative offense. He allows me a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage to get in and out of plays that I think may or may not work.”
And it’s evident even on the practice field in the middle of June, as Stafford’s acting like a short-order cook during scrimmages, barking out orders with authority. Again, this is hardly the real thing, what you see from your own defense in minicamp. But it’s a glimpse, nonetheless. And as we all saw in some of those frantic, fourth-quarter drives last fall, Stafford seems to relish this authority. Give him a more reliable running game — maybe even an explosive one, at times, with a healthy Ameer Abdullah now — and who knows what this offense might become?
“I think one of things about that is it allows you to be aggressive,” Stafford said. “You’re not playing on your heels, you’re playing on your toes. Seeing things from our defense today and checking into plays and throwing it down the field. We’re not gonna hit it every time, but, shoot, let’s get a good matchup and try and go play and see what happens.
“And that’s kind of what you get from having a lot of experience and information.”
And of all the things the Lions have going for them right now, that quarterback is still the most important one. The comfort that experience brings, and knowing that what you see is what you get.