Who gets the game ball for the win over the Cowboys: Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson?
“Yeah, but he has Calvin Johnson. What would he be without him?”
If we’ve heard that once from Matthew Stafford critics, we’ve heard it a thousand times. Apparently any living being with a working arm could line up behind Dominic Raiola and heave the ball downfield in the direction of Johnson and come away with 300-yard passing days and multiple touchdowns. Given that simple premise, I’m stunned that Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton didn’t all pile up record-setting seasons. After all, Stafford is merely a product of Megatron. And without him, he’s just a garden-variety quarterback, right?
That notion is preposterous, of course. Equally preposterous is the notion that Johnson would be nothing without Stafford. Both are very good (Stafford) to great (Johnson) players. Both were at the peak of their powers in Sunday’s dramatic 31-30 win over the Cowboys. And even though Johnson set the franchise record and came within seven yards of the all-time single game receiving record, much of the buzz after the game was about Stafford.
Whether it was his beautiful touch pass to Kris Durham or his equally precise throw to Johnson at the ½-yard line, Stafford was in full command. He appears to be the only person in Ford Field who knew that he was going to dive over the top for the winning score rather than spike the ball to set up one or two final throws into the end zone. And for those of you who like to apply the moniker “Stat Padford” to his gaudy numbers, consider these numbers. The Lions had the ball five times in the fourth quarter. They scored on four of those drives including three touchdowns for 24 points. The very best quarterbacks play their best when the game is on the line. Stafford is not one of the very best quarterbacks yet, but he took a major step in that direction Sunday.
I know that many of you will not be convinced, not yet. True that the Cowboys entered with the 29th-ranked defense in the NFL and left even worse. They didn’t have DeMarcus Ware and by the end of the game, they were trotting out defensive backs who were new to the team, new to the league, and appeared to look new to the sport. There will always be detractors and until Stafford wins in the playoffs, many will withhold the gushing praise. Fine. But can we at least be done with the tired claim that Stafford would be nothing without Calvin Johnson. It’s like saying that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be boring without the peanut butter. Snickers wouldn’t be the same without peanuts. (I’m clearly in Halloween mode, or have been spending too much time with Wojo). Barring injury, you really never have to find out what one would be without the other.
If you’re caught up with which player is more important than the other, you’re missing the point. The Lions drafted Stafford to put him together with Johnson. They knew that they already had one of the best receivers in the sport, but he needed a quarterback to help take him to the next level. When Johnson re-signed with the Lions prior to the 2011 season, one of the biggest reasons why (other than the $132 million) was the presence of Stafford. Together, they’re the most lethal passing combination in football and they should be for years to come.
True, we saw what the offense looked like in Green Bay when Johnson was out. Stafford seemed out of sorts and finished 25 of 40 for 262 yards and one meaningless TD towards the end of the fourth quarter. There’s no doubt that his job is easier with Johnson. But you also have to say that Johnson’s job is easier with Stafford.
In Johnson’s first four seasons in the NFL, he caught 33 touchdowns and gained 4,191 yards through the air. In the past 2 ½ seasons with a healthy Stafford, Johnson has 4,466 yards and 28 touchdowns. He’s gone from being regarded as one of the better receivers in the game to being regarded as the single best player in the sport. Part of that is his maturity. Part of that is his experience. But most of that is because he has a talented quarterback with a big arm getting him the football.
The Dallas win was huge on a variety of levels. It left the Lions with a good taste in their collective mouths heading into the bye week. It kept them very much in the thick of the NFC playoff picture. And it signaled an arrival of sorts for Stafford in the eyes of his harshest critics. He’ll never admit it. The Lions will certainly never admit it. But he needed that game. He needed that comeback. And he got it.
Still, it is just one game. And the critics will quickly point to that if the Lions lose in Chicago in two weeks. But it’s a game that showed once again how potent the Stafford-Johnson combo can be. And it showed how important each player is on their own, and what they mean to each other.