In one of the Lions’ darkest moments last season,
Stafford was the man in charge, the leader who sent out vibes that he had command in a dire situation when the Lions’ playoff hopes had taken a nose dive.
It was Game 14 at Oakland, and Stafford led a rally from a 13-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to give the Lions’ a 28-27 victory. Raiola and his teammates were led by a quarterback who wasn’t swallowed up in a moment that was too big for him to handle in his young career.
In one of the key intangible categories that separate elite quarterbacks from the rest of the pack, Stafford put another check mark next to his name to go with all the physical categories that rate quarterbacks.
“In the difficult days,” says Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, “his job is to be the solid rock.
“That takes a pretty unique individual.”
The Oakland game was one of those difficult days. Stafford faced – and passed – the most critical test of personal athletic adversity of his first three seasons as a Lion.
Stafford had been sacked and fumbled deep in the Lions’ territory midway through the fourth quarter. Aaron Curry ran the ball in for a touchdown and a 27-14 Raiders lead with 7:47 left. It was a dramatic change in momentum. One moment, the Lions were huddling up for a long drive to take the lead. In the next, they were down by two possessions, and most realistic fans were figuring out how the Lions could sneak into the playoffs on a tie-breaker with two games left.
Raiola, the Lions’ veteran center, recalled how Stafford left no doubt in the huddle about what he intended to do.
“He came in the huddle, looked at Calvin (Johnson) and said, ‘Let’s go,’” Raiola said.
And go they did – two straight TD drives for a 28-27 win. Stafford finished off a 98-yard drive with a 6-yard TD pass to Johnson with 39 seconds left to win the game. In a strange way, having the pressure ratcheted up by the fumble made the game more exciting for Stafford.
“There’s nothing like fumbling, having them score, then knowing, ‘OK, it’s on you, let’s go,’” Stafford said in an offseason interview.
Linehan has told the story of Stafford’s response when he asked him what he likes most about football. “Everything,” was Stafford’s answer.
His passion is hottest in the fourth quarter.
“The best part for me, just No. 1, is the competition,” Stafford said. “And No. 2, there’s nothing like the fourth quarter in a tight game. You know you’re going to have the ball in your hands the whole time. You’re going to be the guy making the decisions.
“You’re going to be the guy giving your teammates an opportunity to make plays. That’s the drug of playing quarterback. That’s what keeps you going. That’s the best part for me.”
The Oakland game was one of three the Lions won with scintillating rallies on the road. They won at Minnesota on a field goal in overtime that was set up by a long completion to
Stafford’s career arc accelerated last year in his third pro season, but statistics alone – 5,038 yards passing and 41 TDs – do not define a quarterback. Being comfortable in the role of team leader is vital.
“The great thing about him, nothing is ever about him,” Linehan said. “He does not get concerned with where he factors in with the top 100 players.
“He’s ready to take the next step of being a Pro-Bowler and all that. He’s motivated by all that, but it has not distracted him. He’s all about winning.
“I haven’t been around every quarterback, but I’m not sure you can say that about every quarterback.”
Raiola has seen a Stafford’s steady acceleration in the mental part of the game.
“You have knowledge of your offense, you have knowledge of the game,” Raiola said. “He has it all. You get in the huddle, he’s always reiterating what needs to happen on this play: ‘You get it, you have to go down right away. We only have 20 seconds.’ He’s saying all that.
“He knows everything that’s going on on the field. It’s not just knowing the offense. You can be book smart. You have to be street smart, too.”
Stafford’s demeanor in the huddle helps.
“When he speaks, it’s meaningful,” Raiola said. “It’s, ‘Uh, let’s see if we can do this.’ “He’s real direct in the huddle. He takes command of the huddle.”