All eyes in Detroit, and in the NFC North, are on quarterback Matthew Stafford. In seven years of high school and college ball he never missed a game to injury. In two seasons in the NFL he has missed 19. Since the Lions drafted him out of Georgia in 2009 with the No. 1 pick, Stafford has separated his throwing shoulder three times; in January he had the joint repaired by noted orthopedist James Andrews, who said after the surgery, "Matthew has one of the strongest arms in the league, and I am confident he will be as strong as ever."
Fast-forward to an August day in training camp in suburban Detroit. With the first units on the field in passing drills, Stafford riddled the secondary. In 16 plays he threw effortlessly, accurately and beautifully. Six times—almost myopically—he targeted star fifth-year wideout Calvin Johnson ("Wouldn't you?" he said later), completing all six passes. On one of those, a deep seam up the right side, Louis Delmas, the Lions' best safety, and starting corner Chris Houston converged on Johnson, bracketing him side and back ... and Stafford's 42-yard pass dropped into the in-stride receiver's hands as Johnson sprinted past the double coverage.
The Lions' defensive upgrades include free-agent linebacker Stephen Tulloch and tackle Nick Fairley, the No. 13 pick, from Auburn, who will line up next to the NFL's 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Ndamukong Suh. But it's Stafford's ability to stay in the lineup that will determine whether Detroit is a serious playoff contender in the stacked NFC for the first time in years.
"Does your shoulder hurt at all?" Stafford was asked after an August practice.
"Did you see me out there?" he responded with a smile.
The right shoulder was supposed to take six months to heal, Stafford said, but he felt fine in four: "I worked six days a week on it. What else was I going to do? And I rehabbed really quickly. There's no question in my mind I can stay healthy for a full season."
Both Stafford, 23, and coach Jim Schwartz say the quarterback is not going to change his playing style because of the injuries. "I haven't been hurt because I've been out of the pocket scrambling," he said. "I don't scramble a ton."
Well, not really. In November 2009 he went on a wild run with seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Browns and had his left shoulder crushed into the turf by defensive tackle C.J. Mosley. That separation didn't require surgery. But last year the right shoulder was twice separated—the first on a blind-side sack in the pocket by the Bears' Julius Peppers, the second when Stafford fled the pocket against the Jets and got tripped up, landing hard on the shoulder.
On Stafford's wild scramble against Cleveland, Schwartz remembers saying, "Get rid of it, get rid of it." It would make sense for the coach to lean on his quarterback to take fewer chances, but Schwartz won't do it: "I've said nothing to him that I haven't said before. I've told him he doesn't have to have the mentality that he has to make every play. I'm hoping what we can do on defense now makes it clear to him he doesn't have to make a play every time he drops back. On second-and-10, discretion should be the better part of valor. If you know the defense isn't going to make a play, sometimes you take a chance you shouldn't; that should be different now. On third-and-10 if you want to take a chance, O.K.
"That's more of the conversation I've had with him. But I'm not going to dictate to him how to play a game he's been successful at for years."