MMQB Mailbag: Hope abounds for Stafford, Lions; early byes useless
One fourth-quarter play defined Matthew Stafford's development
NFL needs to delay byes until Weeks 6 to 12, not 4 to 10
Mailbag questions on Tom Cable, Jeff Fisher, blackouts and more
Late Sunday afternoon, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz and his rookie quarterback, Matthew Stafford, found themselves alone on an elevator leaving Ford Field after the Lions' 19-14 win over Washington. There were many things Schwartz could have said -- how great it was to break a 19-game Lions losing streak, how cool it was for a downtrodden city, how proud he was for both them on their first NFL victory. But this is what Schwartz chose to say:
"Don't you ever go conservative on me.''
"I won't, coach,'' said Stafford.
Schwartz was happy enough about the Lions' first win in 21 months. But also he was happy with his quarterback, and he wanted to be sure he used this opportunity for a teaching moment, to reinforce to Stafford why the Lions drafted him in the first place -- for his arm, for his confidence, for his moxie.
One play in Sunday's game thrilled Schwartz about Stafford. With less than three minutes left and Detroit nursing a 19-14 lead, the Lions had a second-and-nine at their 21. Washington had three timeouts left, so the Lions needed two first downs to bleed the clock down to zero. On this play, Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called for a rollout by Stafford, with his first option a five- to-seven-yard dumpoff to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Stafford rolled out and saw tight end Will Heller open about 20 yards downfield, and he let fly. Heller caught it. Gain of 24. First-and-10. Washington burned timeouts, Detroit milked the clocked, punted, and Washington couldn't go 78 yards in 65 seconds when the 'Skins finally got the ball back.
"I think our coaches were freaking out on that one,'' said Stafford.
Maybe, but the big coach wasn't. "I'm very happy with Matthew's development,'' Schwartz told me Monday night. "That's the kind of play a mature quarterback makes -- he knows when to take a smart chance.''
Big win for the Lions. Maybe bigger for Detroit, in a couple of ways. Schwartz emphasized to his team -- and to me -- that the season has to be bigger than breaking the 19-game losing streak. "Sunday's game was great,'' he said. "The atmosphere in the stadium felt like a playoff game. We've got to get to the point where a Week 3 win isn't celebrated like a playoff win. We're a 1-2 football team. Nothing more. We need to get this win behind us and get ready to play a great game every week. We need to expect to win every week, not just hope to win. Hope is not a good strategy.''
When I spoke with Stafford, I reminded him that he told me at the Scouting Combine, about how much he wanted to play for the Lions. I was so skeptical of his comment that I asked his parents, independent of each other, what team they thought their son wanted to play for. Both said Detroit right away. "That's the way I felt then, and that's how I feel now,'' he said.
Any qualms when he sees how quickly the Jets have put it together with fellow rookie QB Mark Sanchez?
"Never,'' he said. "Maybe it'll take longer here than it does for Mark in New York, but that's OK. We're going to get it done here."
Getting it done there includes playing for a depressed city and region. Both men feel it. Schwartz took his top three draft picks -- Stafford, Louis Delmas and Pettigrew -- to a Ford plant after a mini-camp practice to get his new cornerstone players used to their hardscrabble fan base, and to communicate to this fan base that the team knew the hard time of the auto industry. "That was my first experience out on the town, getting to really feel what the area was like,'' said Stafford. "You could really feel the passion of the fans, and how important we are to them. They're important to us too.''
"It was not a made-for-TV moment, '' said Schwartz. "I just wanted to make sure those guys knew where they were playing -- and how important they are to this community.''
The Lions are going to have some lean days. The next three weeks: at Chicago, Pittsburgh, at Green Bay. But as long as their young coach and young quarterback understand it's about the long haul, they should exit 2009 with more hope than the team has had in some time.
Two other comments before the e-mail:
1. Carolina fans shouldn't fixate on whether Jake Delhomme ought to be benched. He shouldn't. He's played passably well two straight weeks. They should be more concerned, much more, about the defense. Julius Peppers continues to be the most overrated player in football. And the run defense allowed 212 rushing yards to a Dallas team playing without bashing lead back Marion Barber. That should be a bigger concern.
2. I couldn't agree more with the comment this morning by Mike Greenberg on ESPN Radio: Week 4 is too early to have a bye. Byes should be scattered between Weeks 6 to 12, not Weeks 4 to 10. It stands to reason in a 17-week season that byes should be staggered later to allow more injuries to heal, and injuries are more plentiful as the season progresses. If you're Atlanta right now, and you're a healthy team, and your bye is Oct. 4, you've got to be looking longingly at the Nov. 1 bye for Pittsburgh and Nov. 8 for Minnesota. Midseason is when byes should happen, not late September.
Now for your e-mail:
WHAT WILL THE NFL DO WITH TOM CABLE? From John F. of Los Angeles: "That story of Tom Cable punching out the assistant coach has sort of died. But I just heard the coach still insists Cable broke his jaw. Will anything come of this from the Raiders or the league?''
Well, the Raiders want the story to go away, obviously. Jason LaCanfora of NFL Network reports that Randy Hanson has told the Napa Valley Police that it was Cable who broke his jaw with a punch on Aug. 5, and Hanson's lawyer said it's a case of felony assault. If the police decide to bring charges, and if there is any guilt discovered on the part of Cable, the NFL will have no choice but to suspend Cable. If it's true -- and I emphasize if -- you can't condone this kind of violence, even if it occurred within the confines of a team meeting.
TWO DIFFERENT SITUATIONS. From Stew Winkel of Washington, D.C.: "I saw Mark Sanchez's TD run, where he just barely stuck the nose of the football over the goal line for a score . And I compare that to the ruling in the Raiders-Chargers game from Week 1 where Raiders receiver Louis Murphy caught the ball in the end zone, controlled it, went to the ground, and the ball barely moved in his hands -- and the refs said it wasn't a TD. Should there be that much of a discrepancy in the rules between what constitutes a TD when running the ball in and when catching a pass?''
All Sanchez has to do is penetrate the plane of the goal line with the ball in his possession, which he did. That's different entirely from what Louis Murphy did in the end zone. When you go to the ground with a catch, and the ball moves perceptibly in his possession because it has contacted the ground, the officials have to call that an incompletion.
CHILDRESS WILL DO FINE ATOP THE VIKINGS; DON'T WORRY ABOUT HIM. From Todd Schuiteman of Omaha, Neb.: "First, I love the column. Thanks for all you do to keep the masses informed on all things NFL (along with your own unique blend of other topics). My question: Regarding the Vikings, does Brad Childress have the coaching skills (and imagination) to take this team deep into the playoffs? Watching the game Sunday against the 49ers, it was obvious the Niners weren't going to allow Adrian Peterson to gash them. What does Childress do? Run on first and second down then try a short pass on third down. The same as each of the past three years. Only the QB has changed.''
I don't think the offensive gameplan was bad at all the other day, Todd, and thanks for your comments. The 49ers front seven is underrated, and remember that Childress understands very well who he has at quarterback. He doesn't want Brett Favre to go back to pass 35 times, because that's 35 times he's going to be put in harms way. Remember, Favre admitted in July he didn't think he could make it through a season unharmed. So every decision Childress makes, he does so with the health of his quarterback in mind.
ABSOLUTELY NOT. From Zach Schutz of Alexandria, Va.: "This seems to be the time of year for rumors of which head coaches might be on the hot seat. I'm wondering if Titans coach Jeff Fisher has anything to worry about if his team can't get back to their winning ways soon? He's the longest-tenured head coach in the league, but I don't know if that will give him extra leeway or if that means ownership will be more likely to look for a change if the team just plays mediocre. Reminds me maybe of Mike Shanahan last year."
It'd be one thing if Fisher had lost his locker room, which he has not done. But I'll make this not-so-profound statement: If a coach who piloted his team to the best record in the conference last year, and who is 31-17 over the last three years, is in trouble with one shaky year, then no coach west of Bill Belichick can ever be safe. Fisher's in no trouble.
GOOD QUESTION. From Mark Schiff of Denver: "Much of the media, including your Football Night in America colleague Bob Costas, played up the feel-good angle of the Lions' first win since 2007. But no one seems to want to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the game was blacked out locally, yet another indignity for a franchise and city that's already had far too many of them. The NFL's blackout policy is disgraceful; even bars and fans who purchase the Sunday Ticket can't watch local games that aren't sold out. The media should be taking the League to task on this one, but instead seem to be towing the company line. Sad.''
There's one problem with your case, which I agree is compelling and I have much empathy with: Once you let the genie out of the bottle, how are you going to put it back in? If unemployment in Detroit is 29 percent this year and you show the games locally, there are two problems. If it's still 29 percent next year, how do you black out the games again, and how do you sell tickets to a struggling fan base when the fans know the games are going to be on local TV? And then what do you do in Jacksonville if unemployment continues to creep up? How does Wayne Weaver feel -- or understand -- when the league is allowing one franchise to show the games locally when you can't? It's a tremendously difficult problem with no easy solution.
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