Trust is an essential virtue in the NFL.
Adversity is a certainty throughout the course of a season and even the course of a game and can only be conquered by a group that believes in each other.
The Detroit Lions provided evidence of this Sunday by defeating the St. Louis Rams 27-23.
The Lions received the opening kickoff and methodically moved the ball 77 yards on 13 plays before quarterback Matthew Stafford tossed an interception in the end zone.
After a touchdown drive, Stafford threw two more interceptions on the team’s third and fourth possessions – the second being returned for a touchdown.
Stafford was frustrated but not flustered. He knew exactly what he intended to accomplish on each play and the reasoning behind the decision. He just wasn’t happy with the result.
“The one I was throwing to the left side to Pettigrew was a good play, a guy undercut it. Really the goal line fade, same kind of thing. You look at tape and those guys have been turning their backs the whole time, I thought the back shoulder would be there and the kid did a good job,” said Stafford. “Obviously I didn’t throw great passes… It’s going to happen, obviously you don’t want to have three in the first five games and you don’t want to have three in the first half of the first one. The guys, we believe in each other, I believe in all the guys in that locker room, we can get it done no matter what happens to start the game.”
That belief isn’t a faith unique to Stafford but rather is securely embedded in each player.
“Well we’ve been through it before,” said centre Dominic Railoa. “It’s not the first time we’ve done this. It’s not our first rodeo… we believe we can score at any time and we did that on the one drive that was all first downs then the touchdown.”
The Lions have such a collective calm when faced with adversity that there isn’t a need for motivational speeches or pep talks.
“We didn’t say anything,” said Railoa. “We’ve done it from the one-yard line in Oakland to knock them out of the playoffs last year. Nothing needed to be said.”
Faith in each other all starts with faith in the quarterback.
“We know how good (Stafford) is,” said wide receiver Calvin Johnson. “Everybody’s going to mess up every now and then. We have to pull together as a team and keep him going and keep everybody else going that’s having some hard times out there.”
The confidence the team has in Stafford is partially a product of his immense skill but also is simply reflected back to Stafford because of the confidence he maintains in himself and his teammates.
A great example is the game winning play – a five-yard touchdown pass to Smith.
On the play, Smith was the last read in Stafford’s progression.
“I mean, Kevin is the last option on that play. Probably behind ‘throw it away’,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “He’s really part of the play-action and the protection and he’s leaking out really late.”
With 15 second remaining and no timeouts, a throw to Smith is a risky play. If Smith catches the ball inbounds and is tackled, the Lions may not have the opportunity to spike the ball and stop the clock. Furthermore, Smith had dropped multiple passes previously, so you’d think Stafford would have lost faith in his running back. But he didn’t.
“It meant a lot, you know,” said Smith of Stafford returning to him after previous drops. “I rarely drop multiple balls in a game but this is football and it happens. He stuck with me and it means a lot. It means he trusts me.”
That’s also Stafford trusting his instincts and his arm.
“I knew in that formation, Calvin is going to get all the attention in the friggin’ arena and he was going to be waiting for it and I just watched 58 Jo-Lonn Dunbar drop right back into the end zone and knew there were about three or four on Calvin,” said Stafford. “I just kind of had to wait for it for a second and let (Smith) get out there.”
The result was a game-winning touchdown.
As the season progresses there will be more adversity along the way. This will not be exclusive to the Lions but will impact all 32 NFL teams. Only those who maintain their trust throughout the turbulence will have a chance to emerge.
On Sunday, the Lions proved they are capable of trusting each other.