During the second half of the Lions-Browns game, the press-box PA announcer informed us that "Joey Stafford" had just set a Lions rookie passing record.
I think it is fair to say that will be the last time that anyone connected with the Lions confuses Matt Stafford with Joey Harrington.
Joey had physical skills, but he struggled to earn the faith of his teammates. Stafford, though, won't ever have that problem. If any of the Lions still doubted his courage and his leadership, he took care of it at the end of a crazy 38-37 victory.
The Lions were losing 37-31 and only had time for a Hail Mary from the Cleveland 32. Stafford took the snap and started scrambling. As time expired, he was was running for his life, heading toward the sideline with linebacker Marcus Bernard in pursuit. He ducked Bernard's tackle attempt, and reversed direction. Now he was going toward the center of the field, with Bernard still close on his heels.
Kevin Smith got a piece of Bernard, giving Daniel Loper a chance to knock him down with a solid block. That allowed Stafford to keep scrambling for another second or two while his receivers frantically tried to get open in the end zone. Stafford finally ran out of time, but hung in long enough to get a pass off before getting crushed by defensive end C.J. Mosley.
In the next couple moments, several things happened. Mosley drove into Stafford's left armpit and ripped his left shoulder out of place. Cleveland cornerback Hank Poteat shoved Lions receiver Bryant Johnson out of the back of the end zone. Two more Browns defensive backs committed assault and battery on Calvin Johnson, while Brodney Pool intercepted Stafford's pass.
Pool sank to the ground in the end zone, the Browns began to celebrate and the Lions realized their rookie quarterback was lying in an agonized fetal position. At that point, the Detroit players are thinking that they've just lost to the horrific Browns at home to fall to 1-9 and they've lost Stafford to an injury. The Browns are excited about their second win of the season, especially one coming on the road after they blew a 24-3 lead.
That stage lasted about two seconds and abruptly ended when people realized that the officials had thrown a pair of flags. Only one penalty was announced - pass interference on Poteat - but there appeared to have also been a call made against the pair of defenders that mugged Calvin Johnson.
So, even though the clock had expired, the Lions would get an untimed play from the Cleveland 1. Score a touchdown, and they win. Anything else, and they lose. They also have to do it with Daunte Culpepper, since Stafford had been helped off the field, left arm dangling uselessly at his side, and was now lying on the sidelines, surrounded by trainers and doctors.
The teams line up, but the Browns are still confused by the rapidly changing events and call timeout. That decision by Eric Mangini might turn out to be the best favor an opposing coach has ever done the Lions.
During the short break, Stafford gets to his feet and puts himself back into the game. It wasn't clear if the doctors actually approved that - I suspect they did not - but he wasn't going to stay on the sidelines. So, even though his left arm still wasn't working very well, he managed to take the snap and throw a game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew.
(That was his fifth touchdown pass of the game - the first time a rookie had done that in the NFL since the immortal Ray Buivin threw five for the Bears against the Chicago Cardinals on Dec. 5, 1937. Those all-Chicago games were crazy.)
Stafford's coaches and teammates were lining up to sing his praises after the game. Kevin Smith said that he almost cried seeing Stafford coming back on the field for the final play. Jeff Backus raved about the courage shown by a 21-year-old kid. Jim Schwartz said that Detroit's comeback from 24-3 down was because they had a quarterback that was getting them touchdowns instead of field goals.
Don't get me wrong - this is still a terrible football team. The Browns hadn't scored more than 20 points in a game all season, and had only scored five offensive touchdowns, but they were up 24-3 after 13 minutes. Detroit's pass defense allowed previously hapless Brady Quinn to throw for 304 yards and four touchdowns. Keep in mind that Brady had only thrown three touchdown passes in his career before Sunday. Jamal Lewis rushed for 75 yards about 10 minutes before his retirement. Players named Mohamed and Chansi scored touchdowns. Former Lions Legend (FLL) Michael Gaines scored a touchdown.
The offense looked fantastic, but great googly moogly, the Browns pass defense stinks. Smith and Aaron Brown averaged over 25 yards on five screen passes, Calvin Johnson had 161 yards receiving and Dennis Northcutt - about to be declared legally dead - caught three passes. Even on the last play of the game, when they just needed to defend a Hail Mary, the Browns managed to commit multiple pass interference penalties.
Stafford threw two interceptions - one that gave the Browns a first-quarter touchdown and one that should have cost the Lions the game. The second one was a throw into triple coverage that was a guaranteed interception from the moment it left his hand.
And if the Lions know how badly he's hurt, they aren't saying. There's a very good chance that Daunte Culpepper will be starting Thursday against Green Bay, and he might have to go without Calvin Johnson, who also got hurt on the Hail Mary attempt.
In the long run, though, that's not important. Matt Stafford earned the unquestioned respect of his teammates Sunday, and that's something that will be crucial in 2010 and 2011, when the Lions might actually be playing important games.