ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford’s golden right arm is an obvious asset, allowing the Detroit Lions quarterback to thread passes into tight spots across the middle or connect with Calvin Johnson in stride deep down the sideline.
Behind the scenes, Stafford’s teammates believe he’s just as impressive.
Offensive guard Rob Sims marvels at Stafford’s ability to tell the other 10 players on offense exactly what he wants them to do on various plays when they gather the night before each game.
Receiver Nate Burleson still can’t believe Stafford told him to be ready for a pass on a long crossing pattern when Detroit was facing a third-and-19 against San Diego in Week 16.
“He told me in the huddle, ‘Stay alive, I’m coming to you,’” Burleson recalled. “He anticipated the coverage they were going to be in before he even got to the line. Sure enough, I was open and he stepped up in the pocket to make the throw.”
Stafford’s record-breaking season lifted the Lions to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
He threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, smashing Scott Mitchell’s single-season team records
But Stafford is more interested in helping the franchise match its number of playoff victories since winning the 1957 NFL title when they play Saturday night at New Orleans.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Stafford said.
Stafford can’t do it all as his 520-yard, 5-TD performance proved Sunday in a 45-41 shootout loss at Green Bay. It looks as if help is on the way for the Lions.
Starting safety Louis Delmas practiced Tuesday, moving a big step closer to playing for the first time since injuring his right knee on Thanksgiving. The Lions were healthy enough to put their top six defensive backs on the field to prepare for the Drew Brees-led passing attack.
Johnson and rookie Titus Young were limited to watching the workout.
Johnson said he was just resting Achilles tendon ailment, declining to say which one was hurting, and Young insisted he was simply giving his entire body a break.
In hindsight, the Lions got a break when they became the NFL’s first — and still only — team to go 0-16 because they used the No. 1 pick overall in 2009 to select Stafford and end their decades-long search for a franchise quarterback.
After being limited to just 10 games as a rookie and three last season because of injuries, he bounced back to play in every game during this past regular season to become a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
His refuse-to-lose moxie helped the Lions become the first team in league history to win four games in a season after losing by at least 13 points, giving them 10 wins for the first time since 1995.
The 23-year-old Stafford, Brees and Hall of Famer Dan Marino are the only ones in league history to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 TDs in a season.
“I really didn’t know that so few people had done it,” Stafford said. “But it was a total team effort.”
No one, though, had to force Stafford to spend hours each week watching video of opponents and thinking of ways to come up with plays to pick them apart.
Stafford’s father said he’s been doing it for years.
His coach, Randy Allen, at Highland Park High School in Texas used poker chips to represent players on offense and defense, then move them to test his promising pupil.
“Before Randy could take his hand off a chip, Matthew was moving his chips around,” John Stafford said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
During a recruiting trip to Texas, the future Georgia Bulldog sat in a dark room with then-Longhorns offensive coordinator Greg Davis and coach Mack Brown to study the program’s offense.
“Once Davis paused the video and asked Matthew what he’d do,” Stafford’s father recalled. “Without hesitation, Matthew told him the progression and used their terminology. Davis told him he could start right now because he didn’t have a quarterback at the time who could do what he just did.
“Matthew has always loved the chess match part of the game.”
Even from afar, other coaches see Stafford has more than just a powerful and accurate arm.
Saints coach Sean Payton answered an open-ended question by starting off saying Stafford has progressed quickly to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league thanks in part to his stature and arm strength and ended by talking about the mental aspect of his repertoire.
“Just as importantly, he has that anticipation you look for in the position,” Payton said. “He does a real good job at the line of scrimmage with his checks and audibles.
“What you see is someone playing with a lot of confidence.”