When I think of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, I think of my trip to Lions training camp in the summer of 2011, and the beautiful music they were making together. As I wrote in the Sports Illustrated NFL Preview issue last season:
With the first units on the field in passing drills, Stafford riddled the secondary. In 16 plays with ones against ones, Stafford threw effortlessly, accurately and beautifully; six times -- almost myopically -- he targeted star wideout Calvin Johnson ("Wouldn't you?'' he said later) and completed all six throws.
On one of the throws, a deep seam up the right side, the Lions' best safety, Louis Delmas, and starting corner Chris Houston converged on Johnson, bracketing him side and back ... and Stafford's 42-yard throw dropped from the sky in-stride into Johnson's hands, and he sprinted past the double-coverage. "Calvin makes my job so easy. You throw it up there, and if he's not catching it, no one is.''
On Monday night in Chicago, the strange season of this prolific passing combination continued. Quarterbacks are trained to not force the ball to receivers, but rather to take what's open. But on that 2011 morning in camp, Stafford forced the ball into Johnson, and it kept working. "Wouldn't you?'' were his words. Johnson's the kind of receiver you break rules for. But against the Bears, Detroit was held scoreless for the first 59 minutes of a 13-7 loss -- and Johnson had exactly one catch for three yards in the first 51 minutes of the game.
Johnson dropped a long ball in the first quarter, and late in the third quarter, Stafford overshot an open Johnson far down the right side when the receiver was open. Fifty-four minutes into the game, Johnson had one catch for six yards; he finished three for 34. Notable, again, was the lack of production. Last year, Johnson averaged one touchdown reception per game. This year, he has one touchdown reception in six games. His yards-per-catch is down two yards from last year.
My advice, particularly now that bookend receiver Nate Burleson has been lost for the season with a broken leg suffered Monday night: Stafford has to remember that day in camp in 2011. You throw it up there, and if he's not catching it, no one is. I understand he aimed for Johnson 11 times Monday night, but many of those were long after the Bears had a 13-0 lead. Stafford's in a passer's slump right now -- five touchdowns, six interceptions -- in part because he's not forcing it enough to Johnson. Throw it high, so that only he can catch it. But throw it to him, early and often.
The Bears were terrific Monday night. Playing for the first time in 15 days, their rush got to Stafford consistently and made a veteran quarterback look like a kid fighting for a roster spot. We'll see today -- upon further medical review of quarterback Jay Cutler, smashed to the turf on a scary hit by Ndamukong Suh in the first half -- if Cutler will take a rib injury into the last 10 games of Chicago's season. But to me, the story Monday night was the fact that Stafford-to-Johnson, the most electric passing combination of 2011, continues to be on a milk carton in 2012.
Stat of the Weak
As much as it pains me to write, because of my high regard for him as a person and coach and administrator, Mike Holmgren walks out of the Cleveland Browns facility today, midway through the third year of what he thought was going to be a five-year contract to repair the battered franchise, with a 10-29 record as club president. Joe Banner takes the job now. Holmgren will do an exit news conference today in Cleveland, and if I were him, I'd make one point: There is no way you can turn around a franchise like the Browns in a little more than two seasons. None.
This is a good program, particularly if you know the Seau case.
After the enlightening two-part story on the post-career decline and suicide of Junior Seau by Jill Lieber-Steeg in the UT-San Diego, I hope 40 former players -- at least -- can use the career jump-starter the league has planned for this year at Stanford. The career-transition seminar is set for Thursday through Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif.
"It's designed for players one to three years removed from the league,'' said James Thrash, the former wide receiver who now works in the league's player engagement department (a new-age transitioning-to-the-real-world sector of the league office). "We all have skills that are transferable to jobs in life after football, but because of the time we had to spend on the game for all those years, we don't have much work experience.''
The four-day seminar has classes in personal finance, new careers, continuing education and preparing former players for may be a cold post-football slap in the face to some. "Our message to our former players is we'll walk shoulder-to-shoulder with you to help you achieve your new goals in life,'' said Thrash. "There's such a need for it."
Now for your email:
COULDN'T AGREE MORE. "Watching the Pats-Jets overtime game yesterday with both teams getting a shot at the ball in overtime, it appears to be the greatest no-brainer rule change of all time. Makes you wonder why it took 30 years for the NFL to enact the rule.''-- From Joe Nye, of Bear, Del.
It's only fair, and you're right. I hated the coin flip taking on such a major role after two teams played to a tie after 60 minutes.
YOU MIGHT BE RIGHT. I AM JUST GOING BY WHAT I SEE. "Regarding Robert Griffin III, don't you think it's a little early to be heaping all of this praise on him? I mean, look at where Cam Newton was at this time last year. I'm not suggesting they have the same mental makeup, but there are tons of examples of guys who take the league by storm, and then go on to forgetful careers. What makes you think RGIII won't end up like Cam next year?''-- From Russell Stutsky, of Naugatuck, Conn.
I don't know. No one does. But for a quarterback to come out of college football and be a more accurate passer through seven weeks than Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, well, that gets my attention.
YOU'RE RIGHT. "I get that you are not a fan of Steelers OC Todd Haley, and perhaps he has made his own bed. But you can't call yourself a franchise QB and rip your coaches, even if a guy like Haley deserves it. Shut up and play. To most of us outside of Pittsburgh, Big Ben is a big whiner, despite his success and talent. You don't see Eli Manning pull that crap -- nor will you.''-- From Rob Pantuliano, of Rye Brook, NY
Thanks for a smart email, Rob. I think it's strong to call what Ben Roethlisberger said about Haley running a "dink-and-dunk'' offense a rip job on Haley. But I would agree -- I don't think it serves any good purpose to criticize a coach publicly, even though it's fun for guys in our business. I don't think this will be the last time either.
WHO'S AT THE TOP OF THE AFC? "The bet is to see what team makes it to the Super Bowl out of the AFC; I get Houston and New England, you get every other team in the AFC. Would you take that bet? In other words, is the lack of competition in the AFC a good thing or a bad thing?''-- From Eric B, of Acton, Mass.
Well, I think you probably have the two favorites right now, including the overwhelming one. Seems like a logical bet to me from your side, but I'd still take Denver. Just stubborn.
WHAT A SMART IDEA. "Just a side thought on the Junior Seau situation (and there is no good there): Perhaps this is another data point indicating that the NFLPA and league should be stronger in encouraging retired players to complete their degrees. If nothing else, that will provide a transitional structure similar (not identical) to what they've had during their careers. Going to class and studying isn't THAT much different from going to team meetings and studying tape and the playbook! And particularly for the academically marginal -- like Seau -- the extra maturity, better study habits, and life experience from an NFL career should help ease them back into the classroom next to all of those wet-behind-the-ears kids.
Then, too, sending retirees back to class is good for both the retirees and the other students. It gives the retirees a better chance of doing something other than living on celebrity and/or coaching high school football for a teacher's paycheck. It gives the other students a chance to learn from experiences that the retirees have had. And in a wider sense, it will improve diversity at the schools (given the, umm, disjuncture between the ethnic and socioeconomic pre-pro backgrounds of the retirees and those of typical college students).
Thus, I propose a pretty inexpensive retirement benefit that should be funded by both the NFLPA and the league: For every year of service after the first two, ten semester credits' worth of tuition, fees, and books at the undergraduate institution, full rate (out of state if appropriate), toward completion of a first undergraduate degree. This isn't from a "make it cheaper" point of view as much as it is from a "make it a benefit, and therefore more likely to be USED" point of view; the difference between GI bill usage for tuition waivers and for matching-funds "accounts" was astounding in the early 1980s, even when the dollar figure attached to the matching-funds "accounts" was more!
I'm not going to claim that this would have saved Junior Seau. It might have; it probably wouldn't have by itself. It's like regular medical checkups in that regard: You only notice the difference in the aggregate, over a long run; people still get cancer (you have, after all).''-- From C.E. Petit, of the Bay Area (I guess he means San Francisco area)
I love this idea. Hey James Thrash: Take this to Troy Vincent -- and to Roger Goodell.