"He's better than anybody in the building," Linehan says, before catching himself. "Hopefully not better than me, but pretty close."
The night before kickoff, Linehan asks his quarterback to go over the game plan in an offensive team meeting. He expects all of his QBs to handle it, but Stafford leads on another level. In his laid-back demeanor, Stafford can go over anything from snap counts to assignments. He runs though X's and O's position by position, reminding his teammates what the defense will show and what they need to do.
"You never, ever get the sense there's something he doesn't know," left tackle Jeff Backus(notes) says. "I just think that's impressive to be able to do that, to stand up in front of your teammates and basically act like you're the offensive coordinator. He has control at that time in the meeting. He tells everybody what's going to happen."
Linehan trusts Stafford so much, he says he has given him "a little bit of carte blanche" with Johnson. If Stafford sees a matchup Johnson can exploit with his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, he is free to flash a subtle signal – a hand gesture, a nod, a tilt of the head, just a look – to change the route on the fly.
[Photos: See more of Lions QB Matthew Stafford]
"There's really only a handful of quarterbacks that can do that," says wide receiver Nate Burleson(notes), who is working on the same thing with Stafford. "It's not that easy. You've got Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), some of these guys. But they've done that later on in their career. For him to have that confidence now to do that, it's a big deal."
Thing is, ask the Lions for their best example of Stafford showing what he can do, and they struggle for words.
"Um, I mean, we didn't play too much last year," Johnson says. "So there hasn't been too much that I can say right now."
"Man, I haven't really had one yet," Burleson says. "He hasn't really been on the field too much with me."
Stafford is 23, not 32. He has played 13 NFL games, not 13 NFL seasons, and he played only three games last season. He isn't an all-pro; he's the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft still waiting to prove himself.
Knee and shoulder injuries derailed his rookie season. Two shoulder injuries took care of his second season. All of this has been extrapolated into extremes: Either he can't stay healthy and will join the long list of Lions busts, or that pent-up potential is primed to explode in a breakout season.
"I took my lumps, and hopefully we can move forward from it, have a healthy year," Stafford says. "Because if we do that, I think we can be pretty good."
No one questions Stafford's toughness. At least no one should. His signature moment came his rookie year. He took a vicious hit throwing a Hail Mary on the second-to-last play against the Cleveland Browns, forced his way onto the field despite a separated left shoulder and threw the winning touchdown with no time left. He played five days later on Thanksgiving. Kid's tough.
Still, Stafford was supposed to break out last season, coming off offseason knee surgery and shoulder rehab. Then he went down in the second quarter of the opener with a right shoulder injury and missed five games. He came back and threw four touchdowns to beat the Washington Redskins. He put the Lions in position to upset the New York Jets the following week, throwing for two TDs and rushing for another against what would be the NFL's third-ranked defense. But then he left the game in the fourth quarter. Right shoulder, again.
"Bad luck," Linehan says.
It didn't help when teammate Zack Follett(notes) called him a "china doll" in a radio interview in January. Follett called him an "awesome talent" who looked like an All-American in practice, but Follett fed the fears of long-suffering Lions fans – one playoff victory and one Pro Bowl QB since 1957, zero playoff appearances since 1999 – by saying: "Put him in a game, and you hit his shoulder. … Anytime he gets hit, he goes down." (Follett later said he regretted his choice of words. He is now out of football with a neck problem.)
Stafford had surgery on his throwing shoulder in January. He is sure the problem won't reoccur. It can't reoccur. He says his AC joint has been "wired down."
"I would probably break a bone again before I separate it," Stafford says. "I mean, I don't even think it can be separated."
Stafford focused on strengthening his shoulders and back in the offseason. Johnson says he is sure Stafford is more aware that he can't take big hits. But if it really was bad luck that caused his injuries, what can he do about it?
"If you're talking about the AC joint, and saying that if you're bigger and stronger, you're going to be better," Stafford says. "I mean, there's not many people bigger and stronger than that guy."
He points across the locker room to Johnson.
"He had it last year," he says. "It's kind of one of the things like, it's whether you fall on it right or not."
If Stafford does stay healthy, that doesn't necessarily mean he will leap to stardom. He's 23. He has played 13 NFL games. No matter how smart you are or how hard you work in the offseason, nothing can simulate live action. Stafford has some gunslinger in him – 20 picks in 10 games as a rookie – and hasn't played enough to get a full feel for the NFL, let alone master it.
"I'm still going to throw interceptions this year," Stafford says. "I'm going to make mistakes, and it's all about bouncing back from those, forgetting about them and learning from them and trying to get better for the next play. That's part of it. I don't have 100 games under my belt."
But the Lions, who for so long changed coaches and systems and players, have more continuity and better depth. They are entering their third year with the same offense – an offense similar to the one Stafford ran in college. While Stafford was taking his lumps, the Lions added more pieces around him, including Burleson, running back Jahvid Best(notes) and tight end Tony Scheffler(notes). The same five-man unit is returning on the offensive line. Stafford spent much of the offseason in Atlanta working out with Johnson to develop chemistry. Even though the lockout erased the offseason program and injuries to Stafford's supporting cast have been a problem, the Lions have clicked since training camp opened.
"We're at a point where we're not teaching a whole lot anymore," Stafford says. "Guys understand what to do, and we're just making tweaks, trying new things, and guys are picking it up and playing fast."
Burleson is smiling again.
"He's kind of been built for this moment," Burleson says. "All I'm waiting for is for him to catch a rhythm, and mark my words: There's going to be a point in the season where people are going to look at him and they're going to say, 'This guy is unstoppable.' … Once you get that rhythm, you get confident. You've seen it happen. You've seen quarterbacks just kind of like …"
Burleson snaps his fingers.
"All of a sudden," he says, "they're just seeing X's and O's."
Burleson thinks Stafford can replicate what he saw with the Minnesota Vikings, when Linehan was the offensive coordinator and Daunte Culpepper(notes) was putting up huge numbers throwing to Randy Moss(notes). He asked Culpepper why he was playing so well then.
"He said, 'Man, to be honest, I'm in the zone right now,' " Burleson says. "He said, 'It's just like "The Matrix." I don't see players out there. All I see is X's and O's.' "
Stafford knows the X's and O's. But if he's The One for the Lions, he can start by dodging the bullets.
- Scott Linehan