NFC North: Matthew Stafford

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – He’s able to come in and meet with his coaches now, finally able to pick their brains about what the new Detroit Lions offense will look like. What he might be expected to do under his new coaching staff that he didn’t have to do before.

Already this week, Matthew Stafford has spent time watching old game tape of both the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens offenses to try and learn. He’s studied the routes those receivers ran, the varying plays both teams implemented.

He knows it won’t all be the same and he anticipates having a lot of questions – but it’s a start.

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDetroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a fixture in the film room during the offseason.
“It’s exciting. These guys have great track records, have worked with some really great players at the quarterback position, specifically,” Stafford said. “I’ll be picking their brains as much as they’ll allow. Obviously Golden [Tate] is a big-time addition to our team.

“He’s going to be a big contributor this year and we’re excited to have him.”

Much of the offseason has been focused around Stafford because of what happened to Detroit at the end of last season. The Lions collapsed at the end of the 2013 season, eventually costing former coach Jim Schwartz his job, mostly due to an inefficient offense prone on drops from receivers and turnovers from Stafford.

So look at what the Lions did this offseason. They hired a head coach, Jim Caldwell, and quarterbacks coach, Jim Bob Cooter, who has worked with Peyton Manning. They hired an offensive coordinator -- Joe Lombardi -- whose main experience was as the quarterbacks coach for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Their two biggest free-agent signings were pass-catchers – Tate and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. They also brought back another big offensive piece, Joique Bell, to complement Reggie Bush.

The focus has been offensive at almost every turn, all to help Stafford be the best version of himself as a quarterback. He also recognizes for the Lions to be good, he has to be good.

“In the NFL, if your quarterback plays really well, your team generally plays really well, and I understand that. We’re no different than any team,” Stafford said. “The better I play, the better we’ll play as a team. Common theory says that. Nobody puts more pressure on me than I do. I want to be as good as I can possibly be, not for myself but to help this team win, and that’s the No. 1 goal.”

Stafford said he has not spoken with Brees about Lombardi but had texted with Manning about Caldwell and the progression Manning made under his former head coach. Since the hiring of this staff, that has been the focus of the questions -- how will they work with Stafford to turn him from a good quarterback with inconsistencies and some accuracy issues into one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

“He’s a sharp guy,” Caldwell said. “He’s smart. He’s dedicated. He wants to be good and still, it’s obviously quite present in his attitude today, yesterday and tomorrow, right? He’s a worker. I have no doubt, with a guy that has that kind of attitude and obviously he has ability, both physically and mentally.

“He has the intellect to do it and I think he’ll be fine.”

Stafford has already put some of the work in by grabbing the old game film to understand the receiver route trees he might now be throwing to as opposed to what he worked with under Scott Linehan. He doesn’t know the terminology yet -- that’ll come -- because the offensive installation has been in meeting-form only thus far.

He knows he needs to improve and make smarter, better decisions. From what he says, he’s committed to doing so. That’ll start now, by making sure he learns as much as possible and asks so many questions it is almost like he’s turning into a reporter.

“I think I can always improve. I’ve had some really great moments, some bad moments, for sure,” Stafford said. “But the biggest thing I want to do is help this team win any way I can. I’m going to be learning a new system and I want to be coached in that system as well as I can.

“I don’t know everything there is to know about this system, for sure, and so I’m going to ask a bunch of questions and do everything as right as I possibly can.”

Detroit’s success depends on it.
DETROIT -- They said this from the beginning and now, after two months of the same mantra over and over again, the Detroit Lions might just have to follow through on it.

Since the Lions hired Jim Caldwell in mid-January, both he and team president Tom Lewand have been consistent in the same message. They hired Caldwell to win. And win immediately.

“It’s a year of, 'Let’s go right now,'" Lewand said during an appearance at the MGM Grand in Detroit. “There’s no five-year plan.”

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe Lions hired coach Jim Caldwell, in part because many of their best players are in their primes.
While that might sound somewhat concerning for Detroit in the long term -- ideally, one would think the Lions should plan for the present and the future at the same time -- it also crystallized his point. Detroit is working with a somewhat shrinking window to win with its current roster.

Calvin Johnson is 28 years old, turns 29 in September, and has been dealing with knee issues the past couple of seasons. Reggie Bush turns 30 next year. Joique Bell will be 30 by the end of his contract. Matthew Stafford is entering his prime, and Ndamukong Suh is about to either enter his last year in Detroit or become signed to a massive long-term contract.

The ages and contract statuses of its stars made Detroit a somewhat enviable place for a coach to land, despite the franchise’s culture and history of ineptitude and losing. It is why Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew really focused on coaches with prior head-coaching experience -- and prior NFL head-coaching experience -- when they conducted their search to replace Jim Schwartz.

It’s how they landed on Caldwell, and in Caldwell they are all entrusting their present and their futures.

“I was one of those people who didn't know Jim Caldwell before we started this process, but I was remarkably impressed with the people who spoke so highly of him,” Lewand said. “Bill Polian. Ozzie Newsome.

“John Harbaugh, who I have known for years, he called me up and said, ‘Look, this is a guy who I sit in the back of the room in our meetings in Baltimore when he’s presenting the offense and I think he’s the head coach. He’s that impressive to me. I couldn't speak more highly of him.'"

This is what sold the Lions on hiring Caldwell, who has now been on the job two months and has hired a staff and brought in his first high-level free agent. He’s the man who Lewand and Mayhew are constructing a team for.

Because Lewand and Mayhew have placed their futures in with this group of players and this coaching staff, so they have no other option except to trust. And to win immediately.

Even if they fail, Lewand was right to dismiss a five-year plan, because it's possible none of them would be around to implement it anyway.

Free-agency review: Lions

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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A week in, here's a quick review of the free-agency period for the Detroit Lions:

Tate
Tate
Most significant signing: Considering that Detroit has mostly signed depth or re-signed its own free agents, the obvious choice is receiver Golden Tate. The former Seattle Seahawk will complement Calvin Johnson and should take pressure and attention off of the Lions' top receiver. He can also spread the field, has elite hands and can block extremely well for a 5-foot-10 receiver. He plays taller than he is and should be a good addition to Detroit.

Most significant loss: Defensive end Willie Young was a productive player who often became overlooked because of the star power in the middle (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley) and the emergence of Ziggy Ansah at the other end. But Young is a long, rangy end who was good against the run and showed improvement. That he went to one of Detroit's top rivals, Chicago, adds to the significance because the Lions will see him at least twice a year.

Biggest surprise: That the Lions didn't make a bigger play earlier in the safety market. Like receiver on offense, safety is Detroit's biggest need on defense after the release of Louis Delmas. The team looked like it was interested in Chris Clemons and had reportedly expressed interest in T.J. Ward, but so far the only safety the team has brought in is James Ihedigbo. While Ihedigbo could fill a need if he signs, Detroit could have tried to make a bigger play here considering the market and the need. Unless the Lions draft one.

What's next: Solving the backup quarterback issue. The Lions need to have a veteran behind Matthew Stafford, and Kellen Moore just is not going to be a viable option there right now. Detroit, be it through re-signing Shaun Hill or signing someone like Luke McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick, has to have a player with some experience ready to come in if Stafford were to get hurt. Detroit has too many other pieces to let that be an actual issue.
DETROIT – Ndamukong Suh doesn't have a contract extension from the Detroit Lions yet, but team president Tom Lewand doesn't appear bothered by this.

Instead, he said the Lions never planned on having a Suh extension as a pillar of what they needed to have done by the start of free agency.

"It's not been frustrating," Lewand said following an appearance at the MGM Grand in Detroit. "We said it months ago. We didn't have a deal with Matthew Stafford done until later in the summer. The timing of the Suh deal was never the factor when it came to planning for free agency.

"We were saying it months ago. We're saying it again now."

The Lions did not sign Stafford to an extension until July of 2013, well after the start of free agency. Lewand would not go into specifics of where the sides are in the negotiating process now or if negotiations have, in fact, begun between the Lions and Suh -- headlined by his agent, Jimmy Sexton.

Lewand also insisted that the Lions wouldn't have had that much more cap room this season had a deal been done to knock down Suh's $22.4 million cap number prior to free agency. His reasoning was that the way he views the cap is in multi-year terms as the team tries to make sure everyone fits in a certain year.

Suh is entering the final year of his original rookie deal -- one of the last top picks to have a deal under the previous collective bargaining agreement, which allowed for higher rookie salaries than the current CBA does. Due to that, Lewand believes many of the teams that have taken advantage of rookie contracts under the new CBA -- Seattle and San Francisco among them -- will soon have cap situations similar to the Lions.

"If you only look at a guy's cap number and you say that all of a sudden that creates a lot more room to sign free agents, it really doesn't because then you're signing new players and you have to fit all those guys into 15 and 16 as well," Lewand said. "So you have maybe a lower cap number for a particular player in one year but it means, almost by definition that it's going to be a higher number in future years so you have to be able to fit all of those dollars in a certain time frame.

"That's why it's not that linear."

The Lions have between $2 million and $3 million in cap space after signing Golden Tate to a five-year deal and re-signing Brandon Pettigrew to a four-year deal last week.

The other issue with Suh and the lack of an extension was Suh's decision not to hire Sexton until March 7, less than a week before free agency began. Combine that with the death of William Clay Ford Sr. and there was little-to-no time to even begin substantive negotiations with the defensive tackle entering his fifth season in the league.

He reiterated what both he and general manager Martin Mayhew have said since the end of the season -- that they believe a deal will get done with Suh.

"Ndamukong has said he wants to stay and we want him to stay," Lewand said. "Generally when that happens, you can get a deal in place."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ken Whisenhunt had interviewed with the Detroit Lions, was thought to be the team’s top candidate, and for a while looked like he would be their next head coach.

Then he ended up in Tennessee and the Lions went with Jim Caldwell after firing Jim Schwartz on Dec. 30, the day after the Lions ended the 2013 season at 7-9, missing the playoffs.

Whisenhunt
While Whisenhunt didn’t say much about his interactions with Detroit at the NFL combine on Thursday, he did indicate that potentially working with Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was not a deterrent.

“Absolutely not,” Whisenhunt said.

Actually, he seemed confident in Detroit’s quarterback situation, and therefore Stafford, saying he liked what he saw. Whisenhunt interviewed with the Lions, Titans and Cleveland Browns prior to San Diego’s divisional playoff game against Denver.

He had been sought after by Detroit because of his work with quarterbacks, notably Philip Rivers in 2013 and Kurt Warner from his time as a head coach in Arizona.

“Once again, I have a lot of respect for Detroit. (General manager) Martin (Mayhew) and I were teammates, and it’s a good organization and I really liked what I had seen in the quarterback,” Whisenhunt said. “But, once again, you’ve got to understand, when there’s a lot going on in a short window, I feel very honored that I was given an opportunity to interview with the Lions. They are looking at different candidates as well, and you don’t have control of that situation.

“So, when it all comes down to the end, I had an opportunity with Tennessee and I feel good about that.”
The madness is already underway as the first set of potential NFL prospects -- the specialists, tight ends and offensive linemen -- are going through their first day of combine work in downtown Indianapolis.

Besides the televised workouts and the mass of prospects meeting with the media, Detroit's representatives will also be chatting throughout the week.

Here's a quick primer of what to expect and prospects to watch in Indianapolis over the next few days. And a blanket reminder -- when it comes to the draft, parse what you hear over the next week and employ many grains of NaCl.

Important parts of the schedule:
  • Thursday at noon -- Jim Caldwell speaks to the media
  • Thursday -- Tight ends (an area of need) talk to the media throughout the day
  • Friday at 11:30 a.m. -- Martin Mayhew speaks to the media
  • Friday -- Wide receivers (perhaps the biggest area of need) speak to the media
  • Saturday -- Tight ends have on-field workout; defensive linemen and linebackers meet the media.
  • Sunday -- Wide receivers on-field workout; defensive backs (another big need) meet with the media.
  • Tuesday -- Defensive backs on-field workout.
Prospects to watch:
The Lions have a few position groups they are likely going to target throughout the draft, some with immediate needs and some to draft for the future as they can learn under the men they'll eventually replace.

Here, in order of potential positional importance in the draft, are some names to watch over the next week. This list will likely change by this time next week and is not a be-all, end-all list by any means. But some of these players are guys to pay attention to in each position group.

1.Wide receiver: Sammy Watkins, Clemson; Mike Evans, Texas A&M; Marqise Lee, USC; Davante Adams, Fresno State; Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State; Jarvis Landry, LSU; Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt; Allen Robinson, Penn State; Paul Richardson, Colorado; Donte Moncrief, Mississippi; Martavis Bryant, Clemson; Shaq Evans, UCLA; Jeremy Gallon, Michigan.

2.Safety: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama; Calvin Pryor, Louisville; Deone Bucannon, Washington State; Dion Bailey, USC.

3.Cornerback: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State; Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State; Bradley Roby, Ohio State; Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida; Marcus Roberson, Florida; Keith McGill, Utah; Bashaud Breeland, Clemson; Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech.

4.Tight end: Eric Ebron, North Carolina; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington; Troy Niklas, Notre Dame; C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa.

5.Linebacker: Khalil Mack, Buffalo; Anthony Barr, UCLA; Ryan Shazier, Ohio State; Kyle Van Noy, Brigham Young; Christian Jones, Florida State; Shayne Skov, Stanford; Max Bullough, Michigan State; Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut.

6.Defensive end: Kareem Martin, North Carolina; Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas; Aaron Lynch, South Florida.

7.Center: Weston Richburg, Colorado State; James Stone, Tennessee; Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma.

8.Quarterback: Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech; Derek Carr, Fresno State; Stephen Morris, Miami (Fla.); Bryn Renner, North Carolina; Dustin Vaughan, West Texas A&M.

9.Defensive tackle: Caraun Reid, Princeton; Anthony Johnson, LSU; Shamar Stephen, Connecticut; George Uko, USC; Beau Allen, Wisconsin.

10.Offensive tackle: Seantrel Henderson, Miami (Fla.); Brandon Thomas, Clemson; Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt; Michael Schofield, Michigan; Brett Van Sloten, Iowa.

11.Running back: Bishop Sankey, Washington; Andre Williams, Boston College; Charles Sims, West Virginia; Storm Johnson, UCF; James Wilder Jr., Florida State.

Five questions that need to be answered during the combine:

Suh
1. Ndamukong Suh. Has he solved his representation question? Where are talks with him regarding an extension? Is this realistic to get done by the time the new league starts on March 11? These questions -- at least some of them -- likely won't be answered this week, but it is by far the biggest remaining question this offseason.

2. Does the team have interest in Brandon Pettigrew? This would be the second-biggest question and with money potentially being a factor, could tie into Suh. Tight end is a place of need with Joseph Fauria and Michael Williams the only tight ends definitely returning for 2014. Pettigrew offers a unique blocking and route-running skill set that could be difficult to replace, but there are options in the draft and some chance-type options likely available in free agency. Is a veteran a big key here considering the inexperience of Fauria and Williams.

3. How does the team plan on making more cap room? There are some other players that could have contracts restructured or could be outright released to make room under the cap to sign both free agents and the eventual rookies the team is in Indianapolis to scout. Right now, Detroit is around $3 million under the cap and that is an insufficient number to fill out the roster with talented players. Something needs to move here, and if question No. 1 ends up being answered, that could be the easy solve.

4. Is Kellen Moore the answer to back up Matthew Stafford? He has yet to play an NFL down and always appeared to be a personal project of former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. With Shaun Hill headed toward free agency, Moore is the only backup on the roster and a decision needs to be made on that. If he is, Detroit should feel comfortable at the position. If not, the Lions need to figure out whether bringing in a veteran backup or drafting a rookie to start developing is the smarter way to go.

5. What is the plan with Joique Bell? The running back has said he would like a long-term deal to stay in Detroit. The team clearly seems to like him as a strong option in the backfield. As a restricted free agent, he is likely to come back to the team in 2014, but the question is at what cost. If the team tenders him, it'll be under a cap value likely around $2 million if he is offered a second-round tender. But if the team can work out a cap-friendly long-term deal, that might make more sense.
Former Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz did the radio rounds in his former haunt of Nashville today on 104.5 FM and was asked a lot about his five years with the team and many of the players he coached.

Schwartz
He defended Matthew Stafford in the morning. Then he defended Ndamukong Suh in the afternoon.

Here are other highlights from his two appearances on 104.5, where you can listen to the morning interview in its entirety. The afternoon interview highlights are below.
  • Schwartz said he felt some of his Lions teams were paying for the ineptitude of Lions teams in the past -- I'm using the word ineptitude, not him -- but he clearly felt that was not fair to the players and coaches he worked with. "I was in Detroit for a while and it seemed like we were always paying for the sins of previous teams," Schwartz said. "There was a road losing streak or division losing streak and we were holding teams and guys accountable for stuff that happened 10 years before. That's not always fair in this league. It's part of the conversation of this league but it's not always fair to the current players, the current coaches."
  • Like every coach ever, Schwartz thought the Lions were close to being bigger winners last season and he likes a lot of what Detroit had this season. As he mentioned during the morning show, depth was an issue, but the Lions had a good group of players beyond the marquee stars of Stafford, Suh and Calvin Johnson. In all of his star talk, he did not mention Reggie Bush, but I wouldn't read too much into that. "I think there are still some good pieces in place, obviously with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh," Schwartz said. "You have three marquee players but it's not just them. There are some other good players. I thought our offensive line was good and we were right in it right till the end of the year. All our games were close last year. I think that's one of the things that I think was so frustrating for our fans and for people around the NFL is that every game was so close."


One thing Schwartz did admit is the team, at times, had discipline issues on the field -- perhaps the most in 2011, the same year the team went to the playoffs. He called it a "legitimate concern" but also felt the team was much better, discipline-wise, during his final two seasons with the Lions.

"A couple years ago, particularly in 2011, in safe to say our playoff year, I think that criticism was fair. We had too many penalties after the whistle and things like that," Schwartz said. "We worked really hard the last couple years to clean that stuff up. But once it's on your resume, so to speak, you have a hard time getting it off. I think that's the way it goes with this league. You pay for the sins of past teams and in 2011, I think that was a legitimate concern but it was part of the growing-up process for our team and learning how some of those things affected and things like that.

"I think if you look particularly the last couple years, including last year, you didn't see the same things come up that came up in the past. They were addressed and our team learned from them and they learned and they held them back. We were just a play away from winning a lot of games and I don't know if you'd consider a dropped pass or missed tackle or something like that, I see those as physical errors. I don't see those as discipline errors."
Former Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz popped on the radio in his old town of Nashville on Tuesday morning, and besides declaring his love for Vanderbilt basketball, he also once again defended his former quarterback, Matthew Stafford.

When asked if Stafford had regressed during Schwartz’s final season with the Lions, he pointed to the team’s collapse in the second half of the season, but didn’t put all of that on his then-quarterback.

Stafford
Stafford
“Yeah, you know, we were 2-6 over the last half of last season, and when you’re 2-6 nobody is feeling good about their performance, whether you’re the head coach, the quarterback or a defensive lineman,” Schwartz said on 104.5 FM in Nashville. “But it’s a team game and I wouldn’t pin it on one Matt Stafford. Matt’s an outstanding quarterback. He led us to the playoffs. Just about every record in the Lions' offense, total offense and passing offense, was set by Matt Stafford in the last three years.

“He’s going to lead that team to many great things in the future. Everybody has some rough spots here and there, and it’s up to the rest of the team to pick you up.”

Schwartz drafted Stafford months after he was hired as the Lions' head coach in 2009, and worked with him the first five years of his career. When Schwartz looked at his downfall in Detroit, especially this season, one of the things that stood out to him was the lack of depth the Lions had on the roster.

“I think it’s a difficult situation there with depth on the team. They are top-heavy on their cap and rightfully so, guys like Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh,” Schwartz said. “Makes it difficult to have a lot of depth, and when you get those injuries, which everybody does, it’s going to be a difficult road to hoe when you get to the second half of the season.

“We didn’t do a good enough job in the second half of the season.”

The Lions are running into some of those depth issues now as they head toward free agency and May’s draft at least $6 million over the proposed 2014 salary cap one month before the new league year starts.
The Detroit Lions solved one of their biggest offseason questions this week, locking up their center position for at least one more season.

Bringing back veteran Dominic Raiola was the correct move for Detroit at this time. He was an anchor on the offensive line last season, and had perhaps the best season of his career.

Raiola
Considering the other holes the Lions will need to fill -- wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and safety -- bringing back Raiola gives the team one less thing to worry about, especially as the offense learns Joe Lombardi’s new offensive system.

In theory, the Detroit offensive line will remain intact for a second season, giving the Lions continuity with the men blocking for Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.

Plus, Raiola never wanted to go anywhere else. He has spent his entire career with Detroit. He was more than willing during this season to take a leadership role even though he didn’t have the captain’s ‘C’ on his jersey. Though the Lions struggled through the second half of the season, he attempted to keep things positive and focused on continually trying to turn things around.

He is one of the few Detroit players left from the 0-16 season in 2008, and has been completely focused on trying to return to the playoffs for the second time in his career. He thought he might get there last season, especially when the Lions were 6-3.

But now, as his career will likely be winding down at some point in the near future, he will be even more focused on obtaining that this season.

The second benefit for Detroit bringing back Raiola for another season is he can now play the role of mentor to his replacement. There is a decent chance the Lions could draft a center this season in the later rounds of the draft. By bringing Raiola back, there will be no pressure on that player to start from the beginning.

He can learn for a year and get used to the speed of the NFL -- and what Lombardi and Stafford are comfortable with -- before he really competes for the starting job. That can be invaluable to the Lions as they make that transition.

That Raiola will be around for that grooming process, whether it is for one season or more, will be extremely important for whatever rookie the team is likely to bring in.
Calvin Johnson has made many jaw-dropping catches in his career, from when he was in college at Georgia Tech to his time with the Detroit Lions.

With Johnson, it has reached the point where the extraordinary has become expected for the best receiver in the NFL and a player who is in the conversation as possibly the top receiver of all-time.

Johnson
So for Johnson to win the Bridgestone Performance Play of the Year on Saturday night is not a huge surprise -- especially after what he did against Cincinnati on Oct. 20.

After quarterback Matthew Stafford scrambled to buy some time, Johnson ran across the field on a deep pattern toward the end zone. Stafford threw it up milliseconds before being hit and Johnson leap and snagged the ball between three defenders for a 50-yard touchdown.

“Oh man,” Detroit wide receiver Kris Durham said that day. “That was in triple coverage. You’ve just got to say ‘Wow.’

“He’s probably the only person I’ve ever seen that could be able to make that play.”

While people will remember the triple-coverage catch, the play was improbable for a ton of reasons. First, Stafford had to buy some time, and stepped up to make the throw after scrambling a bit. Second, he had to get enough height and velocity on it to put it 50 yards on a dime to a streaking Johnson. Third, the Lions had a hobbled left tackle, Riley Reiff, and a right tackle in LaAdrian Waddle seeing his first significant action of his career.

And Johnson was helped by poor timing and coverage by Cincinnati defenders. All of it made an unbelievable play in a career full of them.

If you want to read more on the play when it happened, take a peek inside the play here.
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.

Starter Pack: Matthews on the mend

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
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A roundup of what’s happening on the Green Bay Packers’ beat.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s a moot point now, but Packers linebacker Clay Matthews probably would have been able to play in the Super Bowl.

Matthews twice broke his right thumb during this past season. Both times he underwent surgery to have stabilizing pins placed in his hand. The first time he had those pins taken out (on Nov. 4), he played a week later, albeit with a large club-like cast that made it difficult for him to perform his usual duties.

According to FoxSports.com, Matthews had the second set of pins taken out last Friday.

Matthews missed four games after first breaking his thumb on Oct. 6 while sacking Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. He sustained the same injury on Dec. 22 against the Pittsburgh Steelers while sacking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Matthews missed the regular-season finale and the NFC wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Packers kept Matthews on the roster rather than place him on season-ending injured reserve with the hope that he could return if they made it to the Super Bowl.

Despite missing five games, Matthews led the Packers with 7.5 sacks. But he failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five-year career. After signing a five-year, $66 million contract extension last offseason, Matthews played in a career-low 11 games.

“I need to get healthy,” Matthews told FoxSports.com. “Rehab my thumb and get it back to 100 percent so that way there is no setback starting next season.”

In case you missed it on ESPN.com: Best of the rest:
  • At ESPNWisconsin.com, Jason Wilde wrote about Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon’s long and winding road to the Super Bowl, which included a pair of stints with the Packers.
  • In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz wrote that Mike Neal’s transition from defensive end to outside linebacker was a success, but was it enough to warrant a new contract for the free agent to be?
  • In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tyler Dunne wrote that talks between the Packers and cornerback Sam Shields, who is scheduled to be a free agent, remain on-going but the two sides don’t appear to have moved much closer to a deal.
DETROIT -- From the outset, Jim Caldwell wanted to make something perfectly clear. Quarterback Matthew Stafford did not interview Caldwell when the two met on Jan. 3. Stafford did not watch film with the coach, either.

But Caldwell understands a large part of his role with the Detroit Lions as the team’s new head coach is to work with Stafford and mold him, much as Caldwell worked with quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Peyton Manning and Brad Johnson before.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsPart of Jim Caldwell's job will be to develop Matthew Stafford into one of the league's elite quarterbacks.
“We just kind of talked about some of the things that I had seen on film and things of that nature throughout the years. We just kind of talked back and forth,” Caldwell said Wednesday when he was introduced as the team’s coach. “We had common ground in a number of cases.”

He left an impression on Stafford from his interview, enough that Stafford “spoke highly” of Caldwell in a conversation he had with receiver Kris Durham later on, Durham told ESPN.com.

For this new hire to work, for Detroit to end its continuous losing ways, the Lions need that relationship to be stronger than any other within the franchise. Caldwell is known as a good teacher and a good motivator. And he clearly believes in Stafford; he praised his quarterback often on Wednesday.

Caldwell says Stafford is a good leader and has a ton of talent. The coach also says he can do what Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz struggled to do by the end of their tenure with the Lions -- help Stafford improve to the point that he is an elite NFL quarterback.

The 58-year-old didn’t want to go into much detail about what he needs to do to work with Stafford. Caldwell watched a lot of film on the 25-year-old quarterback when he was preparing for the Lions interview and as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore. He admits he is not an “authority” on Stafford right now, but he plans to be.

Soon.

“He wants to get better,” Caldwell. “And not only that, I think you’re going to see he’ll do whatever it takes to try and get himself in the best position to win. That’s without question.”

Stafford, who played his college ball at Georgia, was the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. In 2011, during Detroit’s only playoff season in the past 14 years, he was a 63.5 percent passer who threw for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In 2012, he dropped off to 59.8 percent, 4,967 yards, 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

This season, he completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 4,650 yards, 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. But during the second half of the season, he dropped to a 54.1 percent passer who threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (13 each) and the team went 2-6, falling out of playoff contention.

So to get a feel for Stafford, Caldwell “clicked through” all of his new quarterback’s throws last season to understand what he might be inheriting. He did that so when he came to his interview, he could at least give an informed opinion of what he saw on film.

So when the two spoke, Caldwell told Stafford what he thought.

“I also talked to him and listened to him about what he thought he needed to work on,” Caldwell said. “We collaborated just a little bit.

“I didn’t have the job at that particular time, either, you know. So I was kind of talking, listening, seeing what kind of guy he was, just trying to get a feel for him. I really like him.”

They better like each other. Both of their futures depend on it.
Jim Caldwell is the new Detroit Lions coach, and though there has been a lot of consternation about the hire, the Lions will succeed or fail based upon his decisions and his ability to develop players, notably quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell will meet with the media for the first time Wednesday, and based on what I’ve heard and been told about his interview on Jan. 3, he has a detailed plan for how he is going to fix both the Lions and Stafford.

Those are his two most important tasks as Detroit’s head coach. If he is unable to do that, he’ll join the line of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz as coaches who couldn’t quite reach the level the team wanted.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDeveloping Matthew Stafford is one of the most important tasks facing new Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
If he can succeed, he’ll have a chance to do something only one coach in the Super Bowl era, Wayne Fontes, has even come close to doing with the Lions: turn the team into a consistent winner.

Here’s a look at five things Caldwell will have to do early in his tenure with the Lions.

1. Hire a competent staff: He could have some names as early as his introductory news conference, but Teryl Austin is a name I’ve been told multiple times as a likely defensive coordinator. Bill Lazor was a name for offensive coordinator, but h has been hired by Miami. If Caldwell doesn’t put together a strong staff, that will be an issue early on. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also could end up on Caldwell’s staff.

2. Make smart decisions about free agents with GM Martin Mayhew: Dominic Raiola and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the bigger free agents for the Lions. Raiola is a strong presence in the locker room, and it might be smart to bring him back for continuity on an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Pettigrew could be interesting. He is an important cog, as was Dallas Clark, Caldwell’s tight end in Indianapolis and with the Ravens this season. Of course, Clark is also a free agent, so Caldwell might push to get him to Detroit.

3. Matthew Stafford: Part of the reason Caldwell was hired was to work with Stafford, with whom the coach met on his interview. Stafford, according to receiver Kris Durham, seemed to like Caldwell. That relationship will be critical to any success Caldwell has in Detroit. He believes he has a plan to fix Stafford -- both Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning are high on Caldwell's ability to help quarterbacks -- and the coach will have to be able to implement that plan as soon as possible.

4. Keep at least two current assistants: This goes with the first point. John Bonamego did a really good job with special teams almost all season, including finding strong gunners in Don Carey and Jeremy Ross. Jeremiah Washburn turned an offensive line with two rookies on the right side into one of the top groups in the NFL, and players seemed to really like him. Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a good job with the defensive line, and Matt Burke was strong with the linebackers. Consider at least some of them to keep some continuity.

5. Get out in the community: This might sound silly, but Caldwell is not a popular hire with the Detroit fan base. By all accounts, he is a good, well-intentioned man, so by doing a lot of community outreach early on, he could turn some people who are currently not pleased about the hire. Of course, the best way to do that is to win games, but getting out in the community would be a strong start.
His interview over, Jim Caldwell spoke with John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, and began to rave.

Caldwell
Caldwell
Caldwell, the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator who interviewed with the Detroit Lions on Friday, said his meeting with the team was one of the best he has ever had.

“I did talk extensively with Jim and he was totally, totally feeling good about what was happening,” Wooten told ESPN.com this afternoon in a phone interview. “He said it was the best professional interview he’s ever had.

“Period.”

While this doesn’t mean Caldwell will get the Detroit job -- the team is still expected to interview other candidates -- Caldwell did meet with a lot of people during his day-long meeting with the team.

Besides meeting with general manager Martin Mayhew, team president Tom Lewand and the rest of the personnel staff, Wooten said Caldwell met with Detroit vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. and quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Wooten said, based on what Caldwell told him, those meetings likely lasted at least an hour each. Initially, Mayhew told reporters Monday that Stafford would not be involved in the coaching search, although Stafford has said he wouldn’t mind being able to give his input.

Stafford’s involvement in the process was first reported by National Football Post.

To prepare for his presentation with the Lions, Wooten said Caldwell watched every game the Lions played last season. This wasn’t too difficult, though, because the Lions and Ravens played in Week 15, so Caldwell still had his scouting reports from that game available.

“Just overall organization,” Wooten said Caldwell presented. “What he knows, first of all, he had looked at all their tapes because in the NFL, everyone gets everybody’s tapes so he looked at all the tapes and he knew the personnel inside out because they had played, so he had his scout report already set up, that was already done.

“And what he saw. I can’t really get into that with you, but what needs to be corrected and how it would be corrected and how he would go about approaching it, in terms of things he felt could turn this club into a winning culture.”

Wooten also said, because of Caldwell’s knowledge of the staff, he would consider keeping two or three members of Detroit’s current staff on with him. Wooten declined to say which staff members Caldwell would retain. Wooten did say that Caldwell would like to bring Teryl Austin, the Baltimore secondary coach, with him as his defensive coordinator should he be hired. Austin has one year of experience as a defensive coordinator with the University of Florida in 2010. Caldwell’s interest in Austin as his defensive coordinator was first reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Caldwell left the interview feeling good about the entire process. He told Wooten that the Lions informed him they would get back to him in a few days about where things stand with the process.

“I think he’s in a very good position,” Wooten said. “I think that they still have other guys, I don’t know all the other people who are coming in, but they know this guy can do what needs to be done.

“That they need this kind of temperament and organization.”

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