ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Julian Peterson(notes) dropped into coverage, watched the rookie quarterback go through his reads and prepared to pounce. One little tipoff from Matthew Stafford(notes) and the veteran linebacker would be off and running with a prolific interception during a full-team drill at Detroit Lions training camp Tuesday afternoon.
Peterson baited, and waited. Wideout Calvin Johnson(notes) had slipped behind him on a dig route, and he read Stafford's eyes to see which way to break. Stafford, however, stared unblinkingly at the right sideline, causing Peterson to take a step to his left. As the ball zipped past the spot Peterson had just vacated and directly to Johnson, who had broken inside, Stafford was still looking to the phantom spot on the sideline.
What the … ?
"The kid threw a no-look pass," Peterson recalled Wednesday, shaking his head. "I was shocked! Calvin just so happened to drop it – he was probably as surprised as I was – but Matt got it in there, man. As rookies go, he's way ahead of the curve."
Whether or not the NFL's answer to Steve Nash is advanced enough to beat out veteran Daunte Culpepper(notes) for the Lions' starting job is the most compelling question facing this struggling franchise, which is coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history. After Matt Ryan(notes) (Falcons) and Joe Flacco(notes) (Ravens) stepped in as rookies to lead their lightly regarded teams to the playoffs in '08, Stafford is a decent bet to continue the trend.
"There is no debating that everything about him has been very, very impressive," says Jim Schwartz, the Lions' rookie coach.
As the No. 1 overall pick, Stafford is supposed to be special, and his physical skills have been obvious to the most casual of observers. What has surprised his coaches and teammates is the way he has grasped the position's responsibilities, from mastering the offensive terminology to projecting a cool and commanding presence on and off the practice field.
"He doesn't even look like a rookie," Johnson says of Stafford. "He picked up the playbook very quick; he's a smart kid. He looks very, very comfortable out there."
If he feels overwhelmed, Stafford certainly won't cop to it. "I think I'm playing well," he says. "Obviously, there are things I can get better at, and I've had some bad throws or bad reads here and there. But there hasn't been a practice or a series of plays where I really feel out of it."
Yet Culpepper, who made three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons as a starter, isn't making Schwartz's decision easy. The 6-foot-4 quarterback has dropped more than 30 pounds since the end of last season and now weighs in the 260 range, as he did during a near-MVP season for the Minnesota Vikings in 2004. Culpepper, says Schwartz, is "moving significantly better" than at any point since the devastating knee injury in '05 that derailed the quarterback's career.
"It just shows the dedication he has toward this team," halfback Kevin Smith(notes) says. "We'll get Culpepper going. He's going to be very good for us. And if Matt plays, he'll be good, too. What it should come down to is, let the best player play, and have the other one ready to step in if needed. It's a good problem to have, and it's a good battle right now."
Reunited with former Vikes offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who now holds that same position in Detroit after a failed stint as the Rams' head coach, Culpepper has also made a big impression on teammates and coaches. He and Stafford have been splitting first-team reps on a 50-50 basis in camp, and Schwartz insists no decision has been made as to who'll start.
"We're charting it about every way you can chart it," Schwartz says. "We're going to be objective. Obviously, Matthew is going to be our long-term quarterback, but two things have to happen for him to win the job now: One, he has to be our best quarterback, and two, he has to be ready. When he jumps over both of those hurdles, he'll be the guy. But for us to go into this process with our mind already made up doesn't make any sense. We need to see them compete."
The notion of Stafford emerging as the winner is unsettling to some Lions fans, some of whom lobbied for the team not to draft him. When the franchise unveiled its new logo at a packed suburban Detroit sporting goods store shortly before the draft, fans exhorted team officials to use the first overall pick on Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry(notes), at one point chanting, "Don't draft Stafford."
It may have been the first time in NFL history a team made its fan base less excited by taking a quarterback No. 1.
Chalk it up to post-traumatic stress syndrome, in this case a byproduct of the ill-fated Joey Harrington(notes) Era. Harrington, the third overall pick in '02, became the starter three games into his rookie season and had a disastrous four-year run before being traded. Many Lions fans viewed him as aloof and soft, and he was not especially popular in the locker room.
"Stafford isn't like Joey was at all," veteran punter Nick Harris(notes) says. "He's not tentative. He's not scared to make a mistake. He's out there slinging it. He looks loose, and he looks confident."
Peterson, who played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 when No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith was installed as a rookie starter, says of Stafford, "He's been great, man. I had a former No. 1 quarterback before, and Matt's way farther along than him. It's good to have a couple of guys you feel comfortable with at that position, and we've got 'em."
Culpepper's fitness drive came shortly after Schwartz was hired in January, when the coach bluntly told him he was too heavy. Culpepper, who started five games after signing with the Lions in November, had mediocre stats (60-for-115, 786 yards, four TDs, six interceptions) and did little to change the perception that he became a less effective player after his '05 knee surgery. (Undistinguished stints with the Dolphins and Raiders and a short-lived retirement preceded his time with the Lions.)
After the team signed Culpepper to a restructured, two-year contract, Schwartz didn't mince words.
"If this team had gone to the playoffs last year, and he was as big as he was, it would've been one thing," Schwartz says. "Guys would've said, 'That's Daunte, he's our quarterback,' and it would've been no big deal. But I told him, 'You can't have the season we had last year and have players look over at you and say, 'That's the same old Daunte.' They had to see change, and to his credit, he made that commitment."
Peterson, for one, would like to see Culpepper win the job. "They're both playing good ball right now, and it's hard to say (who should start)," Peterson says. "But I'd say Daunte, just because he has the wisdom and the experience. You never want to put a quarterback that's No. 1 overall in a situation that could make or break him in the beginning, because if it goes bad, he might never recover. It's a delicate situation."
Schwartz is aware of that line of thought, just as he's cognizant of another shred of conventional wisdom: It makes more sense to start the veteran and bring in the rookie, if necessary, rather than the other way around, because once you play the rookie, there may be no turning back.
So is that the way Schwartz is thinking?
"Oh, they didn't hire me to do the easy thing," he says. "Part of this job is making hard decisions. My skin's not thin."
Nor is Stafford's. Having left high school early and starting for Georgia as a 17-year-old freshman, the kid who grew up on the same street in Dallas as the Lions' last star quarterback, Bobby Layne, doesn't sound especially stressed about the prospect of playing right away.
"That's my No. 1 goal, no question about it," Stafford says. "If it doesn't happen, I've still got a chance to battle every week, and hopefully I'll get in there soon enough."
While attending the ESPYs last month, Stafford was seated directly in front of Ryan, the NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year. The advice Ryan gave him?
Recalls Stafford: "He said, 'Just take care of yourself. Don't start getting worried about what other people are doing or what people are saying about you. That's when it gets overwhelming.' It's good advice. I'm just staying focused on what's in front of me."
Except, of course, when he's suckering a teammate while throwing a no-look pass.
- Jim Schwartz