Detroit Lions: NFL confidential

At one point, Matthew Stafford seemed like a plausible answer to the NFL Nation survey question of who you would want to lead your team in the Super Bowl with two minutes left.

It didn’t have as much to do with Stafford’s inexperience in Super Bowl games -- almost every Detroit Lion has that problem -- but what he has been able to do in the past. The question initially came about midseason, right after Stafford had led the Lions to a come-from-behind win over Dallas where he made a fake spike call in the final seconds.

It was a play of moxie and one that showed he could lead a team and depending when certain players were asked, could have been seen as a possible choice for this answer.

Since then, of course, he kind of unraveled. Detroit lost lead after lead in the fourth quarter and the rallying Stafford had done earlier in the 2013 season had been washed away.

But in his five-year career, Stafford has led Detroit on 12 game-winning drives or come-from-behind wins in fourth quarters, including three this season. Of those games, only three of them came in the second half of seasons, though.

So while Stafford was a potential option here at one point -- and some Lions players showed confidence in Stafford for the poll -- by the end of the season he seemed like an unlikely choice.

Instead, the choices that make sense -- New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Denver’s Peyton Manning among them -- ended up being the most realistic options.

But Stafford has a chance to get there. He just has two of the guys who helped mold Manning and Brees as his quarterback mentors now. They just have to get him there.
The Detroit Lions are going through a coaching transition now, so none of them really expected to be playing for a different coach when the survey was taken during the season -- and certainly none of them thought they would be playing for Jim Caldwell.

None of the Lions mentioned Caldwell as the coach they’d most like to play for, at least in part because he wasn’t a head coach at the time so he wasn’t included at all as part of the survey.

But this is who Detroit will have as its head coach now, a much different man than the prior Lions coach, Jim Schwartz, and a different guy than the man who won the survey of over 300 NFL players, Seattle’s Pete Carroll.

From his days at USC, Carroll is a guy who most people who enjoy fun would seem to want to play for. He’s demanding, but keeps things light. He likes to prank his players on occasion. He’s been known to motivate in different ways.

He is, in many ways, the antithesis of what many NFL coaches appear to be. He lets his personality show through and it is an engaging one, to be certain.

Lions players were all over in terms of coaches they wanted to play for, but that shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of times, the personality of a coach has to mesh with the personalities in the locker room. And winning helps, too. So depending what you value in a coach, that would be why players selected who they did.
As much as is talked about player safety in the NFL and a focus on the importance of understanding and diagnosing head injuries, there is one undeniable truth.

When it comes to games of more importance, players just might not care.

Take Dorin Dickerson, for example. The Detroit Lions tight end suffered a concussion in a critical game for the Lions this season in Week 16 against the New York Giants. If the Lions won, they would still be alive for the playoffs. If they lost, their playoff hopes would be over.

And Dickerson had become the No. 2 tight end after Brandon Pettigrew suffered an ankle injury against Baltimore in Week 15. Dickerson had bounced on-and-off of the team for much of the season, and this was his chance to prove himself.

So when he suffered the concussion in the second half, he didn’t tell anyone. He continued playing. It wasn’t until he admitted it to reporters after the game that anyone knew anything was wrong.

“Got a little concussion. Should have reported it,” Dickerson said that day. “Thought I could get through it.”

The Lions eventually said he reported the concussion during overtime of the 23-20 loss to New York -- after he had dropped a pass and was called for holding on back-to-back plays.

So now imagine it is the Super Bowl, the game a player has been waiting his whole life to reach. In the case of the Lions, this would be the first time the team had ever made the championship game.

From the vibe of the players who took the survey inside the Detroit locker room, they would play with a concussion if it meant participating in the game they have practiced and played their whole life for.

Even if they knew it would be the wrong thing to do for their health in the long term.
In a poll of more than 300 NFL players, Calvin Johnson was voted as the fourth-most respected player in the NFL.

It isn't surprising that he is on the list. What is surprising is that he received only 15 votes in the survey, well behind quarterback Peyton Manning, who was the front-runner.

The Lions I spoke to for the survey almost uniformly voted for Johnson, and not only because he is their teammate. Most of the players I spoke with had faced him in one form or another in their career.

And they all said they respected him before. Then they saw him up close and were even more impressed with what they saw. He doesn't talk much. He works as hard as anyone else. And he is willing to help everyone, from another star on the team to a practice squad player trying to find a way on to the 53-man roster.

That is what stood out about Johnson. That is what makes him one of the more well-respected players in the NFL. He is the best wide receiver in the game, but he practices and works as if he is trying to keep his job every year.

He doesn't coast. He just improves. Last month, in an interview with ESPN.com, he explained where he can still get better.

“There's always ways,” Johnson said. “Whether it be shortening my stride so I don't get too elongated so that makes it quicker and better for me to come out of routes. Working my hands at the line of scrimmage. Get off the press. Things like that that you can never get enough work on.”

He studies himself as much as his opponents, trying to find an edge and a way to get better.

That's why he is respected by his teammates in the locker room and by his opponents on almost every team. Rare is the person who says something negative about Johnson and even if they do -- as Dez Bryant and Matt Elam did this past season -- it is usually also in the context of praising Johnson.

When he's healthy he's the best receiver in the game and obviously one of the most respected players as well.
For the entire season, the Detroit Lions have talked about how much talent they have on their roster, how good of a team they could be if they could put everything together.

For them to have the most feared offensive and defensive players in the league in an anonymous poll taken of more than 320 NFL players fits right in with the narrative they would like to create.

Ndamukong Suh was voted the most feared player in the NFL. Calvin Johnson was right behind him. Asking Suh about the honor last month, he said he’d prefer to share the award with Johnson so they could be feared together.

And they are.

But it also shows at least part of the talent level for the Lions.

“From an individual standpoint, if you put us on a piece of paper, we’re pretty well talented,” Suh said. “We may not be the most talented team, but we have some highly rated players on this team. Have an opportunity, guys who are seasoned, have experience. Some young guys that haven’t been in the league that are seen as good, quality players and have talent and have ability to affect the games.”

They are led on offense by Johnson and on defense by Suh. And as Detroit searches for a coach to replace the fired Jim Schwartz, who coached this talented team with two of the most feared players in the league to a 7-9 record last season, it became about more than that.

It became about being able to take those two talents and meshing them with the other players. That was something that didn’t always happen last season for the Lions.

But it is part of the reason the Detroit job is attractive to potential candidates after Schwartz’s firing. The talent is clearly there, from Suh and Johnson to quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Reggie Bush and linebacker DeAndre Levy. The pieces are in place.

The potential for other teams to “fear” the Lions is available, judging from how the other NFL players voted. Now it is about being able to meld that into a cohesive, winning team.

Then Suh and Johnson could share more than just being the most feared players together: They could share playoff appearances.

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