The Fever is at its pitch. The Detroit Lions are 3-0 this preseason and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has bulled into the head (sometimes literally) of every quarterback he has faced. But for now, at least, I suggest you put Suh's newfound celebrity aside and consider the most important development for the Lions this summer.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has arrived.
(Cue the "It's preseason for cripes-sakes, you hyperbolic two-bit blogger" response.)
I fully recognize Stafford hasn't done anything that counts in 2011. And yes, there is great danger in drawing dramatic conclusions from 31 preseason passes. But if you've watched those throws, and if you've seen Stafford running the offense in training camp, it's reasonable to consider him in a new light.
Does this mean Stafford will rank among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks this season? You know how irrelevant I think such rankings are. To me, the important point is that Stafford can be the difference this season between an entertaining Lions team and a winning one.
With all due respect to Suh, only a quarterback can singularly impact a team's winning percentage. Some quarterbacks aren't up to it. This summer, Stafford has shown us he can be.
"It's hard because he's missed a lot of time on the field [in his first two seasons]," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he's taken in this offense. ... It's not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He's spot-on. He's going to have a great career, I really think."
Now in his third season with Stafford, Linehan should know. At every NFL stop, Linehan and his staff have coaxed substantial improvement even from established veterans. In his third year with the Minnesota Vikings, Linehan presided over quarterback Daunte Culpepper's 4,717-yard, 39-touchdown season in 2004. The following year, he resurrected veteran Gus Frerotte's career with the Miami Dolphins.
Now, Linehan appears to be putting the final touches on Stafford, whose development has been overshadowed by two well-chronicled years in injury rehabilitation. In both the preseason and in the training camp practices I covered, Stafford displayed a level of accuracy and confidence that comes only with multiple years in a good system.
That development has manifested during the games in this way: 24 completions in 31 attempts for 356 yards and five touchdowns. Stafford hasn't been intercepted and has a near-perfect 154.0 passer rating. He has looked as comfortable throwing touch passes into the back of the end zone, especially to receiver Nate Burleson, as he has in launching ropes to tight ends in the seam or aiming back-shoulder passes to receiver Calvin Johnson.
I've tried to provide some context for that preseason performance in the chart. It's important that you note I am not suggesting Stafford has risen into the stratosphere occupied by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. What I do want to note is that Rodgers annually has put up some inflated preseason numbers that have drawn attention and suggested he was on the cusp of greatness.
Rodgers, however, has never had a preseason as efficient as what Stafford has produced through three games.
"The only thing that has set Matthew back before this have been [the injuries]," Linehan said. "He's had his share of bad luck early on, and he needs to put that all behind him and not even think about it."
I'm guessing Stafford reached that point Saturday night, when the New England Patriots sacked him once and hit him on two other occasions. Most notably, Stafford absorbed a crushing hit from free-blitzing linebacker Jerod Mayo, resulting in a rare underthrow. But Johnson quickly adjusted to haul in a 30-yard reception.
Linehan said Stafford is a "really smart guy, even though he isn't one to tell you that." More than anything, when I sat with Stafford for a few minutes in training camp, I got a sense that Stafford has fully bought in to how successful he can be in this scheme with the skill players the Lions have surrounded him with. When he gets hit and can't follow through on a throw, for example, he knows he has players like Johnson who can make the adjustment.
"I love playing in this offense," Stafford said. "I'm a big fan. You've got answers versus everything, and [Linehan] gives a lot of control to the quarterback, which is fun for me and good for me. I know when I'm protected, I know when I'm hot, that kind of stuff. But we have the personnel to be really good. We've got three really good tight ends, four or five really good receivers. We have a lot of special talent."
Public discussion about Stafford naturally has centered on his injuries, mostly in the absence of any new developments on the field. I think we've seen enough this summer to move the conversation forward. It's time to start discussing Matthew Stafford in the context of his skills and performance. He has taken that step, and Lions are poised to follow him.