Matthew Stafford’s first pass as the highest-paid player in the NFL went about as poorly as possible.
He dropped back to throw. His receiver, Golden Tate, was hit coming over the middle. Never had a chance at it as the ball hit Justin Bethel in the chest and he returned it 82 yards for a touchdown.
Stafford started slow Sunday against Arizona. He completed 5 of his first 8 passes (including 3 of his first 6). His team didn’t get a first down until less than a minute remained in the first quarter. The offense looked out of sync, the quarterback not yet ready for games to begin.
“I’m not fired up having to try and make a tackle on the first pass I throw. Not fun,” Stafford said. “I guess, I think right as I was cutting that thing loose, GT got banged by the Mike. Unfortunate. Wish I would have seen it a little bit better and maybe pulled it back. I mean, shoot, anything’s better than that, right?
“Not fun. But I’ve thrown interceptions in this league. Probably throw another one. I got to keep playing, man, that’s for my team, right? Keep playing. That’s what we talk about. It takes four quarters and I think the guys in our locker room know that. Our head coach knows it. We just go out there and keep playing. Keep trying to play better and play better and play better and we did [Sunday] and got the win.”
What happened after the rough start is why the Lions decided to invest $135 million in their quarterback to keep him around for the next six seasons. After the first quarter, Stafford completed 72.7 percent of his passes. He threw for four touchdowns, no interceptions and 267 yards.
His overall 70.7 completion percentage was the 10th time under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter he completed at least 70 percent of his throws. The Lions have yet to lose a game with Cooter as the coordinator when he’s hit that number.
Stafford did some of this, too, looking like the old, pre-Jim Caldwell version of Matthew Stafford. Not with inaccuracy, but with taking chances downfield. He completed 5 of 6 of his downfield attempts (15 yards or longer). He also made opponents pay for not blitzing in the second half, completing 8 of 10 passes for 105 yards and three of his four touchdowns. He showed touch on a corner-route touchdown to Kenny Golladay and that he can still throw as strong as ever with a 45-yard touchdown to Golladay that helped seal the game.
“Obviously, don’t want to throw a touchdown to the other team on my first pass of the season,” Stafford said. “But we’re a resilient group.”
Resiliency was a word he used a lot this week. He believes he is a resilient person. Showed it, too, both early in his career when he played through an injured shoulder to beat the Browns as a rookie and later on when he led Detroit to comeback win after comeback win last season.
His play Sunday, again, showed his resiliency. Showed that it rubs off on his teammates, too. And after looking around the league at some other quarterback play — even across the sidelines at Arizona’s Carson Palmer, who threw three interceptions right at Detroit defensive backs, there’s little question of Stafford’s worth.
Stafford’s completion percentage was sixth in the league in Week 1. His 292 yards were seventh and his four touchdowns tied with Alex Smith for the most in the NFL.
If it seems like this is harping on completion percentage, that’s an important number for Stafford. One of the reasons he went to an independent quarterback coach this offseason was to become a more accurate passer. One of the goals he and Lions quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan had for this season was to improve his completion percentage 4-to-5 percent. That’s two-to-three more completions a game.
Yes, this is only one game, but Stafford’s 70.7 completion percentage is 5 percent better than last year’s 65.3 completion percentage. So for one week, he’s on pace to match it.
But moreover, Stafford has continued to look like a quarterback who is getting better. Games like Sunday are what are expected from Stafford now, instead of what the Lions hope to possibly get. That’s the benchmark for a player making the type of money he is.
For at least for one week, he showed that he’s able to be reach it, and if he’s able to sustain it, the money Detroit paid him might end up looking pretty good by the time the contract is done.