Julian Peterson dropped into coverage, watched the rookie quarterback go through his reads and prepared to pounce. One little tipoff from Matthew Stafford and the veteran linebacker would be off and running with a prolific interception during a full-team drill at Detroit Lions training camp Tuesday afternoon.
Peterson baited, and waited. Wideout Calvin Johnson had slipped behind him on a dig route, and he read Stafford’s eyes to see which way to break. Stafford, however, stared unblinkingly at the right sideline, causing Peterson to take a step to his left. As the ball zipped past the spot Peterson had just vacated and directly to Johnson, who had broken inside, Stafford was still looking to the phantom spot on the sideline.
What the … ?
“The kid threw a no-look pass,” Peterson recalled Wednesday, shaking his head. “I was shocked! Calvin just so happened to drop it – he was probably as surprised as I was – but Matt got it in there, man. As rookies go, he’s way ahead of the curve.”
Whether or not the NFL’s answer to Steve Nash is advanced enough to beat out veteran Daunte Culpepper(notes) for the Lions’ starting job is the most compelling question facing this struggling franchise, which is coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history. After Matt Ryan (Falcons) and Joe Flacco (Ravens) stepped in as rookies to lead their lightly regarded teams to the playoffs in ’08, Stafford is a decent bet to continue the trend.
“There is no debating that everything about him has been very, very impressive,” says Jim Schwartz, the Lions’ rookie coach.
As the No. 1 overall pick, Stafford is supposed to be special, and his physical skills have been obvious to the most casual of observers. What has surprised his coaches and teammates is the way he has grasped the position’s responsibilities, from mastering the offensive terminology to projecting a cool and commanding presence on and off the practice field.
“He doesn’t even look like a rookie,” Johnson says of Stafford. “He picked up the playbook very quick; he’s a smart kid. He looks very, very comfortable out there.”
If he feels overwhelmed, Stafford certainly won’t cop to it. “I think I’m playing well,” he says. “Obviously, there are things I can get better at, and I’ve had some bad throws or bad reads here and there. But there hasn’t been a practice or a series of plays where I really feel out of it.”
Yet Culpepper, who made three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons as a starter, isn’t making Schwartz’s decision easy. The 6-foot-4 quarterback has dropped more than 30 pounds since the end of last season and now weighs in the 260 range, as he did during a near-MVP season for the Minnesota Vikings in 2004. Culpepper, says Schwartz, is “moving significantly better” than at any point since the devastating knee injury in ’05 that derailed the quarterback’s career.
“It just shows the dedication he has toward this team,” halfback Kevin Smith says. “We’ll get Culpepper going. He’s going to be very good for us. And if Matt plays, he’ll be good, too. What it should come down to is, let the best player play, and have the other one ready to step in if needed. It’s a good problem to have, and it’s a good battle right now.”
Reunited with former Vikes offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who now holds that same position in Detroit after a failed stint as the Rams’ head coach, Culpepper has also made a big impression on teammates and coaches. He and Stafford have been splitting first-team reps on a 50-50 basis in camp, and Schwartz insists no decision has been made as to who’ll start.
“We’re charting it about every way you can chart it,” Schwartz says. “We’re going to be objective. Obviously, Matthew is going to be our long-term quarterback, but two things have to happen for him to win the job now: One, he has to be our best quarterback, and two, he has to be ready. When he jumps over both of those hurdles, he’ll be the guy. But for us to go into this process with our mind already made up doesn’t make any sense. We need to see them compete.”