Stafford fired a rocket over the middle through a tight window to receiver Nate Burleson. We've known about Stafford's arm and aggressiveness since the Lions drafted him No. 1 last year, so that part is no surprise. This was significant.
First, Stafford is healthy again. He's past the knee and shoulder injuries he suffered last season, knocking him out of the lineup, hampering him when he returned.
“I feel a lot better,” Stafford said. “My shoulder feels good. My knee's feeling a lot better. As far as throwing the ball, I can step into it and let it go as good as I ever have.”
Second, Stafford has support. The Lions signed Burleson in March largely because they needed someone to make defenses pay for smothering wide receiver Calvin Johnson. On this play, Stafford made the defense think he was going to the big guy.
“You get to pump to him, look at him for a little bit,” Stafford said. “All the coverage shifted to him, and Nate was streaking down the middle. I just threw him the ball. He did the rest.”
Third, Stafford has the talent to put it all together. You should have seen offensive coordinator Scott Linehan smile - and heard defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham swear - when the ball was completed.
“They were trying to zone us off, which creates small pockets,” Burleson said. “Most defenses, they kind of bank on the fact that a lot of quarterbacks are scared to attack those small pockets. I'm probably thinking that Linehan was smiling because we have a quarterback that can fit anything into any small pocket.”
Stafford fit another ball into a small pocket earlier in practice. The play was more subtle, but perhaps even more impressive. He fired to the left through three defenders for tight end Will Heller, who dropped the ball, apparently surprised it reached him through the thicket of fingers, hands and arms.
“It's not just seeing a hole and fitting it in there,” Burleson said. “What I'm noticing about Matt is, he also sees defenders.”
Heller beat his man, the middle linebacker dropped, and the safety came over. In a split-second, Stafford noticed that all three defenders’helmets were turned. With the defenders focused on Heller, not him, he could take the shot.
“That's strength, confidence and also a little bit of moxie,” Burleson said. “You've got to be cocky to make that throw, and I love it.”
Cockiness can get Stafford into trouble. He threw 20 interceptions as a rookie, many because he was overly aggressive (often trying to make a play in bad situations). I think that could be a fine line he walks his whole career, as it has been for gunslingers like Brett Favre and Jay Cutler.
The thing is, it's easier to have that cockiness and learn to rein it in than it is to be timid and learn to let ‘er rip. It's also easier to make plays when you have playmakers around you.
“You can't teach moxie,” Burleson said. "It's something an individual has with him from the start. As a coach, they've got to be able to talk to him, and as a player, he's got to be able to figure out, ‘This is when I try to make that amazing throw, because I know I'm gifted enough to do it, and this is when I need to pull back and just take what they give me instead of trying to go downfield.'
“It's our job as receivers to make it more clear-cut for him. Our job is to run routes and get open, so his decisions aren't that hard to make. I think what gets a lot of quarterbacks in trouble is when the receivers aren't open, because then you think, ‘I'm going to force it in there and see what happens.’”
If you're still skeptical of Stafford, that's natural and justified. The kid completed only 53.3 percent of his passes and won only two games last year. The history of No. 1 picks and Lions quarterbacks ... well, you know. He still has a long way to go.
But he's working on it, going through his first full off-season, the clear-cut No. 1 now, no longer a rookie, doing extra work with receivers on the side. And you don't hear chants for Aaron Curry, anymore, do you?
“Anytime a rookie comes in, particularly a guy that was drafted No. 1 overall and that's paid that kind of contract, there's going to be suspicion,” coach Jim Schwartz said. "There's going to be people in the locker room and fans and people in the media that are going to take a wait-and-see approach with it, and then after you go through it and they get more comfortable, then that dynamic is out the window.
“It's no longer about proving yourself. It's about improving."