O'HARA: Matthew Stafford embracing change

Posted Jul 14, 2014

From the outside, the Lions’ Allen Park headquarters looks the same as ever. But inside, there has been a renovation of the major pieces that affect Matthew Stafford’s role as quarterback and team leader.

So much of Matthew Stafford’s football environment has changed since he last threw a pass for the Lions in a game that mattered that at times this year he might have felt like a man who returns to work to find that someone has repainted the building, changed all the furniture and landscaped the property.

From the outside, the Lions’ Allen Park headquarters looks the same as ever. But inside, there has been a renovation of the major pieces that affect Stafford’s role as quarterback and team leader.

For the first time since he began his pro career with the Lions as a 21-year-old rookie in 2009, Stafford has spent an offseason adjusting to an almost entirely new leadership team and support system because of a coaching staff overhaul and changes that have followed it.

He has a new head coach in Jim Caldwell, a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi and a new offensive system to run. Even Shaun Hill, his trusted backup, confidante and sounding board the last four years, is gone. Dan Orlovsky, a Lion from 2005-08, has returned as the No. 2 QB.

Stafford’s role and responsibilities haven’t changed. Neither will the pressure he faces. No matter what is new or old, the quarterback’s job is to make it all work – no matter what – or take the fall.

Stafford will report for the first phase of training camp next week with a full offseason behind him to absorb the changes and move forward. He is ready to accept the reality that change can be a good thing.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: Detroit Lions)

“I think I’ve embraced it,” he said in a recent conversation during the offseason. “It’s something that is obviously a challenge. I don’t see this as something that I’m on this path by myself, but at the same time, I know the guys on the team are going to look up to me.

“You never want to see coaches go, or people you’ve been with five-plus years, Shaun Hill included. But sometimes change can be a great thing. That’s the mindset I’ve taken into this.

“Frankly, to be successful after the changes, that’s the only mind-set you can have.“

Stafford is not exactly the last man standing. Most of the offense returns intact, with some key additions – notably free-agent receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron, the first-round draft pick.

But in a season of change, all eyes will be on Stafford to lead the Lions in a rebound from last season’s seismic collapse that triggered the coaching change. They lost six of their last seven games last season to miss the playoffs.

“How does he react to this, to that and the other?” Stafford said, reciting the questions he knows have been coming. “It’s something that I’m conscious of. I try to make sure that I’m setting the right example for guys.”

For five years, Stafford operated under head coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Stafford had a much closer working relationship with Linehan than he did with Schwartz.

 “I spent a lot of time with him – other than with my fiancé, probably more than anybody,” Stafford said. “In the last five years I’ve had different backups, different receivers, but I’ve been in the meeting room for however many hours a week with that guy and TD (Todd Downing, the quarterbacks coach the last five years).

 “The time with Linehan compared to Schwartz was night and day. We saw Coach Schwartz for team meetings and out on the practice field and things like that. Just one-on-one meeting time, it was so much greater with Scott.”

Given Caldwell’s background as an offensive coordinator for the Ravens and Colts in addition to three years as head coach of the Colts, it is likely that Stafford will have more contact with his new head coach than he had with Schwartz.

After the coaching change, Stafford spent time on his own going over the offense with the new staff.

“There was so much uncertainty, just trying to figure out how we’d run this offense,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure that once we started playing and practicing, I was as well equipped and well prepared as I could be.

“It was kind of exciting, honestly, learning something new.”

Orlovsky was impressed with what he saw out of Stafford early in the offseason program.

“The thing that surprised me is, I didn’t know he had this strong of a work ethic,” Orlovsky said. “He’s unbelievably talented.”’

All quarterbacks have a mental loop of plays that they can punch up at any moment – sometimes even when sitting at a traffic light. They don’t need to sit in the film room for that.

Stafford has a memory for detail that can be a blessing or a curse.

In a season like last year, Stafford’s mental loop was more of a curse.

Which plays has he replayed the most?

“Probably the bad ones,” he said.

There was an interception return for a touchdown in a loss to Tampa in a game the Lions dominated. There was another pick on the final possession against the Ravens – after a TD pass to Joseph Fauria had given the Lions the lead. And then the disastrous interception return for a TD against the Giants on a high throw that deflected off Fauria’s hands.

“Just a tough one,” Stafford said.  “It would have been a great catch.”

In the end, because of what missing the playoffs meant, the bad plays outweighed Stafford’s stats – 4,650 yards passing, third most in the league, and 29 TD passes against 19 picks.

None of the stats erased the final record of 7-9 and a third-place finish in the NFC North when a playoff berth seemed a certainty after a 6-3 start.

“We know not only the significance for our season, our team and our livelihoods,” Stafford said. “But for the city, we knew what it would mean. Absolutely, we knew it.

“It wasn’t easy going through it, that’s for sure, but I think coming out of it on the other side we’ll be better for it.

“It was tough . . . not only for me personally but for our team.”