It’s not a perfect comparison, but like those Cowboys, the Lions are a young, talented team two years removed from being absolutely terrible and learning to win. And the starting quarterbacks have a lot of similarities.
Highland Park product Matthew Stafford, like Aikman, is a No. 1 overall pick who had a tough first two seasons in the NFL. Aikman, who was plagued by interceptions early in his career, made his first Pro Bowl in his third year. Stafford, who ended up on injured reserve the last two years, will finish this season in Hawaii if he keeps performing like he has during the Lions’ 3-0 start.
“He’s actually had a little more success as far as just numbers go and then year three, it all the sudden clicks,” Aikman said in a phone conversation a few days before he calls Sunday’s Lions-Cowboys game for FOX. “I think there’s a lot of similarities both in our circumstances and our styles of play. I hope he stays healthy.”
Aikman, who lives in Highland Park, has known Stafford since the then-Georgia quarterback introduced himself at Mi Cocina several years ago. Aikman admits he had concerns about Stafford being drafted by Detroit, which was coming off an 0-16 season.
The worry was that the franchise’s issues would be too much for Stafford to overcome. Aikman used former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer’s situation in Cincinnati as an example.
However, Aikman noted that Stafford wanted to go to Detroit. That was partially due to the prestige of being a No. 1 overall pick, but Stafford also wanted a chance to make a mark in a town that hasn’t had a star quarterback since fellow Highland Park alum Bobby Layne in the 1950s.
When Aikman studies Stafford, he sees a smart, strong-armed pure pocket passer with a lot of confidence and the ability to make plays with his feet when necessary. But Stafford’s toughness impresses Aikman as much as any of his physical attributes.
The Vikings’ front four hit Stafford hard over and over again while Minnesota built a 20-0 halftime lead last week. Stafford responded by throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns in the second half and overtime to lead the Lions a comeback win that was their first victory in the Metrodome since 1997.
“He hung in there and took the hits and still stood in the pocket and made the throws later,” Aikman said. “I think he’s the whole package.”
Of course, a quarterback can’t win without a good supporting cast. Aikman believes Stafford has one in Detroit, which has almost completely renovated the roster during Stafford’s tenure. The Lions’ offensive playmakers include three young former first-round picks: Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and running back Jahvid Best.
Detroit’s defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the NFC, is built around an deep, talented defensive line headlined by Ndamukong Suh.
The Lions’ rally in Minnesota is the kind of win that can serve as a springboard for a young team, according to Aikman.
“I think it’s all about gaining some confidence,” Aikman said. “Those young teams that have a lot of ability, you have to have some success before you really start believing. You start stacking some of those successes on top of each other and you start saying, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good.’ That’s what [the early ‘90s Cowboys] did.
“I think this team is for real. I really do. I think they’re going to be around for a while.”