ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford started playing quarterback back in the fourth grade when his father also put him at linebacker in six-on-six tackle football.
He played both ways over the next two years before moving onto middle school and sticking to taking snaps and throwing spirals.
As Stafford enters the 100th game of his career with the Detroit Lions on Sunday at home against the Washington Redskins, his first coach fondly recalls his hard-hitting start in the game.
“What Matthew loved more than anything else was playing middle linebacker because he just loved to tackle,” John Stafford said Wednesday. “And, he still loves to hit even when he shouldn’t.”
The latest example was after the final snap in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Rams. Stafford was startled, and clearly upset, when one of his linemen was pushed back into him on the first of two kneel-down plays in the final minutes. So after going down on a knee the second time, Stafford charged into the lines and started shouting at the Rams.
Sometimes, his old linebacker mentality does come to the surface.
“I used to love, still kind of do, the physical part of the game,” he said. “We don’t get to block or run over people, or do a whole bunch of stuff that tough guys get to do at quarterback.”
Stafford’s toughness was questioned early in his career. After Detroit drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009, he missed six games as a rookie and 13 his second season because of injuries. Since the 2011 season, though, he has not missed a game and that durability has quickly added up to 99 games overall.
“Certain days, it feels like a blink of the eye,” Stafford said. “Other days, physically, it feels like eight years.
“But I feel good.”
He has been playing better than good this season, carrying over his performance from the second half of last season when he and new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter began to click.
Stafford has career highs in completion rate (69 percent) and quarterback rating (106) and has 14 touchdown passes, ranking among the NFL’s top three in each category. He has thrown just four interceptions in six games.
In Detroit’s past two wins against Philadelphia and Los Angeles , he completed three-fourths of his passes with seven TDs, no interceptions and set up game-winning kicks within the last 2 minutes.
“He’s got the arm to make all the throws,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “The touch throws, the launch throws, the drive-it-between-two-or-three-defender-type throws.”
For the first time in his career, Stafford doesn’t have Calvin Johnson to throw to and it isn’t slowing him down. And to make Stafford’s start even more impressive, he has won games with the team’s top three running backs and top two tight ends unavailable because of injury.
With Johnson the previous seven years and receivers such as Marvin Jones and Golden Tate this season, Stafford will be at the top of some lists for NFL quarterbacks when he hits the century mark for games played Sunday.
He already has thrown for more yards (27,624) than anyone else through 100 games, putting him ahead of Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
He also has more completions (2,392) than anyone in league history through 100 games, leading a list that includes Matt Ryan, Manning, Drew Brees, Marino and Warner. His total number of games (18) with 350 yards passing also surpasses any quarterback through 100 games, just ahead of Marino and Warner.
Matt Millen, the man who selected Stafford, pumped the breaks on comparisons between Stafford and all-time greats.
“The thing I would temper when you look at the company he’s with in those categories is that the game has changed so much,” said Millen, the former Lions president and general manager. “You can’t put your hands on receivers after 5 yards.”
Stafford said he cares most about wins. He has fewer of those than he has losses, giving him a career record of 45-54 with a franchise that has been historically bad since winning the 1957 NFL title.
“The talent base wasn’t really good when he got there the year after they were 0-16,” his father said.
NOTES: TE Eric Ebron (ankle, knee) didn’t practice, but was able to run without a limp. … WR Corey Fuller, who has been on the physically unable to perform list since Aug. 30, did participate in practice. … LB DeAndre Levy (knee, quadriceps), DT Haloti Ngata (shoulder) and RB Theo Riddick (ankle) were held out of practice while DE Ezekiel Ansah (ankle), OG Larry Warford (groin) and RB Dwayne Washington (ankle) were limited. … S Glover Quin said he was fined “significantly,” for hitting the head and neck area of Los Angeles Rams WR Tavon Austin on a play that drew a penalty for unnecessary toughness in Sunday’s win. Quin said he will appeal.