This is the story of two Detroit Lions players on Sunday, one smaller, one huge, one you can’t stop talking about, the other you probably didn’t know existed.
The first Lion is the smaller guy who is currently the biggest buzz on the roster. After Sunday, he has gone six straight NFL games with at least eight catches and a touchdown, which puts him alone in the record books. No other receiver has ever done it. Usually when a Lion makes the NFL record books, it’s for something less notable, like kicking the ball backwards.
But the buzzy new Detroit star is a compact 22 year-old named Amon-Ra Julian Heru J. St. Brown, which sounds like about six guys in one. And there are times, as in Sunday’s 36-27 win over the Washington Commanders, when he plays like it.
“What makes him so special?” someone asked Dan Campbell after St. Brown, barely 6 feet tall, led the Lions in receptions — (nine catches, 116 yards, two TDs) and in rushing, with 68 yards on the ground.
“He’s as steady as they come,” Campbell began, as if reading a grocery list. “You can always depend on what he’s gonna bring. … He’s reliable. He’s a good athlete.
“He’s explosive. He’s strong. (He does) so many things that everybody sees, but then there’s things that you don’t always see. …
“He blocks downfield. He’s the O-linemen’s best friend. …
“He’s a pit bull that plays receiver …”
I think there was more, but my tape recorder ran out.
What can St. Brown do for you?
On Sunday, St. Brown used all those gifts, and combined them with one more — good timing. He opened the Lions offense with a reception. He took a pass over the middle for 49 yards that led to the Lions’ first points. He snagged a high pass from Jared Goff in the end zone for the Lions’ first touchdown.
And when Washington was clawing back into the game, scoring 15 unanswered points to draw within 22-15, it was St. Brown who took a first-down handoff on a beautiful jet sweep and rocketed down the sideline for 58 yards.
“No one even knew I had the ball,” he said afterwards. “I don’t even think the safety that was looking at me knew I had the ball. And all I hear from the defense is “Oh s—!”
He smiled. “I knew at that point, it was gonna be a big play.”
So he’s got good ears as well.
St. Brown would catch another beautiful pass from Goff (who had one of his strongest games as a Lion) and yank it over the goal line for the Lions final touchdown, which effectively put the game out of reach.
All told, he was worth 184 yards of offense on just 14 plays where he held the ball. That’s high efficiency, especially for a fourth-round draft pick. When Goff was asked what skills St. Brown brings, he started gushing like his coach.
“He a very friendly target. For a quarterback, friendly (means) always comes back to the ball, always catches the ball away from his body, is always where he needs to be. …
“He understands coverages, understands what I’m looking at, what I’m looking for. …
“Always asking questions, comes downhill … little things that typically you can’t teach —”
And my tape recorder ran out again.
Skipper navigates the choppy seas of NFL life
St. Brown — who they call “Saint” for short — is on everybody’s hot list right now. And he should be. He’s a terrific story.
But on Sunday, he wasn’t the best story.
That honor went to a guy named Dan Skipper, a 27-year-old offensive lineman recently elevated to the roster. True, as names go, “Amon-Ra Julian Heru J. St. Brown” is to “Dan Skipper” what coq au vin is to peanut butter. And Skipper, no surprise, is an offensive lineman, the most thankless position in football.
But the man is huge, with a sizable beard and bald dome (he’s listed at 6-9, 330 pounds, and looks like you could fit two Amon-Ra St. Browns in him.). Nonetheless, he has spent the last six years just trying to get his first NFL start.
The road wasn’t easy. He went undrafted out of college. Nobody wanted him. He signed as a free agent with the Cowboys back in 2017, but was waived. It was the first of so many pink slips, he’s lost track.
Dallas. New England. Denver. Houston. Detroit. Detroit again. Let’s just say Dan Skipper has been cut more times than a boring professor’s philosophy class.
“I’ve had like 20 NFL contracts,” he said Sunday. “They’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
He has even been released multiple times by the Lions, which is enough to crush any normal man’s self-esteem.
But Skipper kept plugging away. Coming back. Signing another deal. And last week, when Jonah Jackson was ruled out with an injury, Campbell pulled Skipper aside and told him he was going to start him at left guard, a position Skipper, a natural tackle, hadn’t really played since his freshman year at Arkansas.
But there he was Sunday, with his wife and twin boys in the stands, finally getting an NFL start.
‘It kind of makes everything all worth it’
And not just a start. A finish. A winning finish. Skipper’s work was part of a terrific performance by a makeshift offensive line that produced 191 yards rushing, another 234 yards passing, and four touchdowns. Campbell singled Skipper out in his postgame remarks as one of the notable players of the game.
But it was a few minutes later that Skipper made his biggest impression of all. He showed up in the press room and, after a moment’s confusion — what am I doing here? — he made his way to the podium.
Suffice it to say he had never been to that podium before. Or anywhere close. The beat writers say Skipper is normally a friendly grouch, not wanting to talk because, as a backup, his play does not warrant talking.
But then someone asked him what it meant to finally start a game after all those cuts, pink slips and rejections.
“It’s my sixth year in the league,” he began. “I’ve never made a team. …
“It’s tough. … You’re just never quite good enough. You’re not quite ‘enough.’ … You show up every day and you think you’re doing the right things, and for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out. …
“So (this year) it’s like ‘Here we go again,’ sixth year, I think things look good … ”
Instead, he got cut again. Then re-signed to the practice squad.
“It sucks. … Whether you been fired once or 100 times, it still sucks.”
He called getting his first start Sunday “unbelievable.” He said it’s been “such a long road … six teams … been cut all over.”
But just having his wife and kids in the stands Sunday, watching him play, brought it all full circle.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said, choking up. “It kind of makes everything all worth it.”
Some of the reporters in the room choked up, too. And I can tell you that doesn’t happen very often.
Neither does a win like Sunday. Not in Detroit. It was solid. Inspiring. And in the end, it delivered a reminder, that in well-played football, to paraphrase the beloved James Herriot books, all players, great and small, can make a difference.