‘He did everything he could’: Ex-Lion Burleson says Stafford not to blame in split

Detroit News

Nolan Bianchi
| The Detroit News

After signing a free-agent deal in 2010, former Detroit Lions receiver Nate Burleson walked through the locker room in Allen Park for the first time.

A new teammate approached him.

“Nate? I thought it was a rumor you signed here,” he said.

Burleson was perplexed but relayed the info that the five-year, $25 million deal he signed over the summer was, in fact, legit.

The teammate responded: “I just feel like this is the place that players come to bury their careers. It’s like you’re putting your career in a casket. … It’s hell being on this team.”

Naturally, when the national media got ahold of Matthew Stafford’s trade request last week, Burleson was one of the first to vouch for the fact that the former first-overall overall pick was a victim of circumstance during his 12-year career in Detroit, rather than part of the problem.

“He did everything he could. Matt Stafford wasn’t a guy that wanted out,” Burleson told The Detroit News on Tuesday.

“He never complained about being in Detroit, he never complained about coaching changes, he never complained about injuries. … He’s the consummate pro. This dude showed up every day and gave you everything he’s got.”

Now, the longtime Lions quarterback has a fresh start with the Los Angeles Rams. With it comes a fresh set of expectations that are much higher than anything he faced in Detroit.

The difference is that he finally has help. Burleson acknowledged the great playmakers who’ve come through during Stafford’s career — Calvin Johnson, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, to name a few — but stressed that playmakers cannot make up for a lack of scheme and organizational competence.

“If you’re a quarterback that can sit in the pocket, grip it and rip it with the best of them, which Matt Stafford is, you want to be in a system that will allow you to do that,” Burleson said.

“With Sean McVay being able to put the pieces around him in place to make Matt’s job easier, that’s going to be something he hasn’t dealt with in a long time.”

Stafford holds a bevy of Detroit’s franchise passing records, and a number of NFL records. Just this past season, he became the fastest player to 40,000 passing yards in NFL history, a milestone that he also cracked at 30,000, 25,000 and a handful of times before that, too. 

He’s never longed for individual accolades, though, and according to Burleson, he’s finally in a place where that his mindset matches the team’s. The Los Angeles Rams brought him in to win a Super Bowl, plain and simple.

“He was the QB that would rather see other people shine than receive it himself,” Burleson said.

“After a loss, he didn’t crack a smile, didn’t laugh, didn’t seem like he couldn’t care less, when to be honest with you, there’s at least 20-percent of the team that couldn’t care less, because they’re more concerned with the individual statistics, accolades, if they’re going to a Pro Bowl. … Matt Stafford didn’t care about any of those things. And that’s what I love, because I knew his heart was in the right place.”

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, there is some work to be done to ensure that a franchise quarterback never leaves under these circumstances again. 

It’s easy to imagine that many on the Lions roster feel similar to the unnamed player who poked fun at Burleson for signing in Detroit willingly nearly a full decade ago. Now, it’s the job of head coach Dan Campbell to prove that his heart is in the right place, too.

“It’s important to have somebody that can reset the narrative that the players in the locker room feel,” Burleson said. 

“That’s the most important thing. You don’t have to spend so much time convincing the masses what you’re going to be. It has to start with the guys who put on the jerseys.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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