Matthew Stafford’s coming-of-age moment.
“SPIKE! SPIKE! SPIKE!”
We’ll get to that.
First, some background. Since being the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, Matthew Stafford’s always been young for his peer group. He’s 25, and he’s midway through his fifth season; he won’t turn 26 until five days after the Super Bowl. But he had some Drew Brees, some Peyton Manning, in him down the stretch Sunday, taking Detroit 80 yards in 44 seconds to a victory they had no right to expect. Certainly, this was not Stafford’s first big comeback. This was his 10th fourth-quarter comeback. But this one just felt different to me. Something about the high-tension accuracy and the big-boy decision he made with the game ticking away.
Stafford made two artful throws that he dropped perfectly into the hands of wideouts Kris Durham and Calvin Johnson on the drive, pressure throws that traveled 42 and 27 yards in the air. Those two balls could not have been thrown more to the target, which was important because both receivers were being well-covered.
Let’s start with the first one. Lions ball, no timeouts left, 2nd-and-10 from the Detroit 37, 40 seconds left, Dallas up 30-24. “Three verticals,’’ Stafford recounted, meaning, of course, he sent three wideouts downfield to varying lengths of patterns. “I think everyone in the stadium thought I was throwing the inverse route to Calvin. But they put a new kid in at safety, and I was going after him.”
Dallas made rookie safety J.J. Wilcox inactive because of injury and called up Jakar Hamilton to be active for the first game of his NFL career. Welcome, Jakar. That’s Calvin Johnson, the greatest receiver on the planet, over there. Hamilton played 16 snaps in the game as the last DB on the roster, and was in on the last drive because starter Barry Church went down with a hamstring strain. Stafford rolled to the right and looked to the right, freezing Hamilton, the deep safety, then came back left and lofted a high spiral to Durham. He beat Orlando Scandrick. Perfect throw, and Hamilton was late getting over, leading to a gain of 40.
Next play, snapped at the Dallas 23: Johnson up the right seam. Hamilton late coming over again. Stafford making a perfect throw again. Gain of 22 yards and 30 inches. Ball at the six-inch line. Clock running … :26, :25 … Johnson looks at the official to see if he was getting the touchdown, but no, the ball would be marked just shy of the goal line. From the rear sprints Stafford.
Now :21, :20 … Stafford motioning to the offense to hustle up the field. “I was looking back, yelling for [left tackle] Riley Reiff to hurry up,’’ Stafford said … :19, :18 … Now motioning madly for Reiff to get in place, while also yelling “SPIKE” and giving the universal “spike’’ signal, the hand gesturing hard to the ground, over and over … Reiff in place, at :16.
“So I’m on the line, and everyone in the stadium thinks I’m spiking it, and that was the plan,’’ Stafford said. “The other 10 guys [on offense] thought I was too. I thought I was—but then I saw a couple of their guys, almost standing up, and I just had this thought: Maybe I could make it by sneaking, or just putting the ball over the line. Maybe that was our best chance.’’
But no timeouts left. Clock running. If Stafford failed, there was a chance he wouldn’t get another play off.
“Oh, no question,’’ he said. “That was it. That would have been the last play of the game; we weren’t getting another one off. That runs through your mind. You think, ‘Boy, I’ll get a minus on the play sheet when we go over this.’ ‘’
So why? Why do it? Why not the fade to Johnson, who could win a jump ball against most of the Dallas defenders—shoot, against all of them? If it’s incomplete, another fade, or a rollout pass.
“You just feel it,’’ he said. “Hard to explain. You just go to the line and you feel it sometimes, and I just felt: Our best chance is me taking to the ball and diving it over. I mean, all we were was three inches from the end zone.”
Snap … :14 … Stafford takes the ball, grips it as tight as he can, and with much of the defensive line looking on impassively, he thrusts the ball clearly over the line and brings it back. Touchdown.
“It’s as good as it gets on a football field,’’ Stafford said. “We turn it over four times and there we are at the end, still fighting. What a game. That’s one great moment.’’
Coming later this week: More about three stars of the season’s first half—Dallas middle linebacker Sean Lee, and quarterbacks Andy Dalton of Cincinnati and Cam Newton of the Panthers.