No excuses for Matthew Stafford, Lions not to make noise – in the playoffs

Dan Wetzel

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – So here are some of the options when Matthew Stafford, who's merely thrown for 90 touchdowns and nearly 15,000 yards over the last three seasons, takes a snap here at Detroit Lions training camp.

He can look to his best guy, or anyone's best guy, in Calvin Johnson, a 6-foot-5 target that caught 12 TDs in just 14 games last year, which was great, unless you compare to the 16 he hauled in 2011.

He can skip that and go to his newest guy, a true No. 2 receiver in the freakishly strong Golden Tate, who snagged 64 passes for Seattle last year. "He catches everything," Stafford marveled later. Every pass that way, draws attention away from Megatron.

"When Golden starts doing what he does," Johnson told reporters earlier this week, "they can't double both of us."

QB Matthew Stafford has good options to pick from when moving the Lions downfield. (AP)

They also can't cover everyone underneath, which is why Stafford can always target one of his oversized tight ends, 6-5 Brandon Pettigrew, who caught 83 passes a couple years back, or 6-4 Eric Ebron, a gifted athlete and first-round draft pick out of North Carolina.

Then again, he can just hand it off or look to open space for the rejuvenated Reggie Bush, who delivered 1,006 yards rushing and 506 more receiving as he caught 54 balls. Of course, there's always Joique Bell, a bulldozer of a back who came on late in the season as the go-to guy, especially near the goal line.

On a calm, sunny afternoon here in training camp, Stafford did all of those things, reinforcing a single, obvious, undeniable truth about these Lions: they are loaded on offense. Completely loaded, at least with skill position players.

"We definitely pass the eye test," Bush said.

"We have a ton of talent," Stafford agreed.

"It's a shame there is only one football," Bush noted. "There are a lot of weapons out here and it's going to be exciting."

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Exciting, yes, it should be. It also needs to be more, as in productive, victorious or, most important, playoff-bound.

Reggie Bush cracked the 1,000-yard mark rushing last season. (AP)

Forget Detroit finishing 7-9. Forget all the fourth-quarter collapses that cost it the NFC North. Forget the fumbles and bad penalties. Forget the half-century Super Bowl drought. Forget the zero playoff wins since Barry Sanders. Forget that the team is breaking in its new head coach, Jim Caldwell, and two rookie coordinators.

The Lions need to win now because with this much skill racing around the practice fields behind the team facility here, with this much firepower on offense, and with more than enough talent on the defensive side, particularly the Ndamukong Suh anchored line, there are no excuses.

Detroit has holes, issues and questions, but so does just about everyone. And no one is asking for a Super Bowl this season. The playoffs? A division title? Something?

What it can't be is another wasted year, not with Johnson and Bush getting older, with Suh potentially heading out of town as a free agent, with a core group that is this strong still having so much to prove to the rest of the league.

"I think about it every day," Stafford said.

It's bad to squander seasons as a championship window closes. It's worse if you never figured out how to get it open in the first place.

"We definitely have the team here," Bush said. "We have the guys. When you look at us on paper, we look really good. Now it's about nurturing that talent level, using it the right way, making sure the players are doing the little things right, on and off the field."

In other words, following Caldwell's decree that the self-inflicted wounds have to end.

After starting 6-3, the Lions carried a lead into the fourth quarter in nearly every game down the stretch only to kick it away. They finished on a 1-6 skid. Four of the last five losses were by three points or less. If they won just half of the games that sat in their hands, they would've taken the division, hosted a playoff game and Jim Schwartz is probably still the coach.

"Coach Caldwell harps on [us] all the time," Stafford said. "It's fundamentals and techniques."

Caldwell, who arrives with head coaching experience in Indianapolis, and two Super Bowls won as an assistant, carries himself with class, confidence and character. Players talk of just trying to be better people when they're around him. He always commands respect and perhaps that allows him to find a way to get more out of everyone by avoiding micromanagement.

"He treats us like men," Bush said.

Calvin Johnson is hard to miss on a football field. (AP)

Part of that is demanding better. The Lions have long boasted a strong offense. It also didn't mean much in the end. When Caldwell and coordinator Joe Lombardi, who arrives from the New Orleans Saints, first met with the group they brushed off all the big stats and pointed to the win-loss record as proof of how much better they needed to be.

"They came in matter of fact and told us," Stafford said. "And we knew it … the coaches are just matter of fact. It's just nice. What you see is what you get, no hidden agendas. We are all here to win football games."

That requires more than a fantasy football roster of an offense, of course. Still, it's awfully nice to have it.

In Detroit, every tool is available: prime-time players all in their prime, too many options for a defense to defend, a fresh philosophy from a fresh staff to maximize all these game-breakers.

"We have talented guys," Stafford said.

It's long past time for them to win.

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