It looked so easy, almost too easy. Matthew Stafford was on the field for about five minutes Friday night, and still got to show just about everything.
Short pass, deep pass. Light touch, firm touch. Touchdown to Calvin Johnson. Touchdown to Nate Burleson.
Playing the first two series in the Lions’ 34-3 exhibition romp against the Bengals, Stafford did everything except the one thing nobody wants to see, but eventually has to see. He didn’t take a hit because, well, the Bengals barely got close enough to say hello.
I suppose that’s one way to squelch health concerns about your quarterback — don’t let him get touched. Stafford was quick and decisive with his throws, never coming close to danger. At some point, he will be touched, and his surgically repaired right shoulder will be tested, and then Detroit football fans will breathe better.
Until then, catch your breath, because against the sad-sack Bengals, Stafford and the first-team offense were brilliant.
In case you forgot, you saw why so much of the Lions’ rising expectations revolve around Stafford. He completed six of seven passes for 71 yards, and both touchdowns — a pump-faked 26-yarder to Johnson and a 7-yarder to Burleson on fourth down — were perfectly thrown, squeezed into the tightest spots along the sideline.
Stafford praises line
For starters, for a good five minutes, this went about as well as it could for the Lions.
“I definitely want to be out there and want to be healthy,” Stafford said. “I think we’re pretty exciting to watch when all the pieces are together. We just wanted to get the ball out quick and get it in some other guys’ hands to make plays.”
Stafford said the offensive line blocked so well, he didn’t once feel a hand on him.
And that’s pretty important, considering no one can begin a sentence about the Lions without adding the Stafford-must-stay-healthy caveat. He hears it, coach Jim Schwartz hears it, everyone in the dressing room hears it, but they’re done worrying about it.
The defense, of course, is in the good, grubby hands of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, who were viciously aggressive against the Bengals’ poor rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton. The Lions’ menacing line can compensate for weaknesses elsewhere on the defense.
Stafford has the potential to change the offense just as dramatically. The paradox is no one wants to see him get hit, but everyone wants to see him get up.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick has played only 13 of 32 games in his career because of various injuries, but he was sharp in this one. He has his swagger back after missing the final six games in 2010. He has his weapons back, including Johnson and fleet running back Jahvid Best.
Bigger and bulkier
And there’s every indication Stafford has his strength back, and more. He’s bulkier in the upper body after an intense off-season regimen, and it has been evident during training camp. Against the Bengals, it was really evident.
“He’s bigger and stronger, and he’s still got that great head on his shoulders,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said this week. “I can tell he worked harder this offseason on his game and himself physically than he ever has.”
Stafford exited the game with the Lions up 14-0 and 9:44 still remaining in the first quarter. He left with a passer rating of 148.5, a gaudy number we’re more accustomed to seeing posted against the Lions.
The second TD drive covered a mere 16 yards after the Bengals fumbled the kickoff, but it was full of brashness. On fourth-and-1, Stafford heaved a pass to Burleson in the right corner of the end zone. Officials ruled him out of bounds, but Burleson got his toes in and Schwartz won the replay challenge.
Johnson thrilling again
There were a few acrobatics for the Lions, and Johnson exhibited his standard play-making, with two catches for 37 yards. He sat after suffering a mildly bruised shoulder that wasn’t considered serious.
The Lions didn’t run the ball well, but that’s not what this first night was about. This was about seeing their franchise quarterback on the field, tying all those pieces together.
“We were pretty methodical, and Matt had great command,” Schwartz said. “When you have confidence you can just take one step and throw it up to 81 (Johnson), or an outlet pass to 44 (Best), that makes it easier to protect.”
This was an easy one, mainly because Stafford and the offense made it that way. The hits will come, and all you can say is, Stafford looks ready for them.