DETROIT - Jarrett Stidham stepped to a podium in the guts of Ford Field on Thursday night and looked like a guy loving life on his 23rd birthday. Not in a it's-only-11-where-are-we-headed-next sort of way. But in a calm, poised, gratified, slightly exhausted sort of way.
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"I had a great time," he said breathlessly. "This was my first NFL experience getting to play. It was a lot of fun. Lot of fun. Lot of things to improve on . . . Great experience."
It wasn't hard to see why Stidham might be just a tad elated. (As elated as he could be at least with his boss, Bill Belichick, just a short walk away.) He'd just gone 14-for-24 for 179 yards and a touchdown in a 31-3 preseason victory over the Lions. Those numbers would've been even better if his teammates were able to secure some of the pinpoint passes he put on their frames that were dropped.
It was among the most impressive rookie debuts a Patriots quarterback has had, maybe right there with Jimmy Garoppolo's 13-for-14, 157-yard, one-touchdown outing against the Redskins that announced his arrival in 2014.
There were a couple of additional factors that made Stidham's night even more eyebrow-raising: 1) He hasn't seen many 11-on-11 reps in practice where he's been asked to throw the football, and a handful of the dropbacks he's been allotted resulted in extended plays that went well beyond a reasonably realistic amount of time. 2) He was operating an offense that couldn't be more different than the one he ran in college - he was huddling, he was operating from under center - and yet things ran smoothly Thursday night.
Patriots undrafted rookie receiver Ryan Davis was Stidham's teammate at Auburn. After the game they talked about how surreal it was that they were able to connect for a pass in the NFL - a 22-yarder in the fourth quarter - and Davis relayed just how proud he was of his friend for exhibiting the authority that he did.
"Just to see him in the huddle and take command," Davis said, "with us on a different team, in a different setting, with different teammates, to see us come together and still come to work, it's just amazing."
Stidham's on-the-field moments were there for all to see. There was the deep throw driven down the middle of the field to Jakobi Meyers in the second quarter that went for 26 yards and showed off his arm strength. There was the 17-yard throw to Braxton Berrios that was on-target despite Stidham taking a shot from 320-pound Lions defensive tackle John Atkins. There were the two on-the-money lobs Stidham made deep down the field to Maurice Harris that were dropped in the bucket and promptly dropped. (One might've been called defensive pass interference had it been challenged by Belichick. "I have to get used to those rules," he said after.)
Even Stidham's throwaway in the third quarter when an unblocked rusher came barreling through the line was impressive. He saw it, was quick enough to elude it, and he bailed on the play with his team up 20-0, sailing the football out of bounds.
"Jarrett, he's good," Harris said. "He did really well tonight. I think we still have a few things to work on as a team, and we're gonna continue to work and do better as a team. But yeah, I thought Jarrett did really well tonight for it being his first time. "
It was Stidham's first time having to handle live pressure since college. Through camp he's been protected, as all quarterbacks are, by the red non-contact jersey he's donned since Day 1. And though not every snap was pretty - it felt as though he bailed from the pocket a little early on a couple of occasions - he was able to pick up 16 yards with his legs, recording two third-down conversions, and he avoided catastrophic hits.
Not bad for someone who was widely criticized coming out of college for getting antsy under pressure.
"It's always good," Stidham said. "In practice, quarterbacks can't get touched, but it's always great to get back into live football. You can't really simulate that in practice. It's great to get out there with real bullets flying and play some real football."
It makes sense that he spoke as though he enjoyed the peril that comes with the job, because he played like someone having a blast. Like someone in control. On one of his long throws to Harris that fell incomplete, he held the deep safety in the middle of the field with his eyes and then cut it loose.
Stidham tailed off a bit toward the end of the game. He missed an open Berrios in the end zone to start the fourth quarter and then two plays later threw one low to Ryan Izzo that didn't have much of a chance. Even his 22-yarder to Davis probably could've gone for 30 had he led his favorite college target.
But the confidence Stidham displayed for the vast majority of his outing rubbed off on his teammates.
"Just knowing what he's doing, and just playing confident," Davis said of Stidham, "that's what makes everyone else around you play confident and believe. Coaches trust him, and they want him to command the huddle when he's in there, and I think that's what he's doing. He's doing a great job."
Effective as he was, one night of work won't necessarily get the Patriots coaching staff and players to believe that Stidham could hold his own if called upon - the way, for instance, they did with Garoppolo during Tom Brady's suspension in 2016. But after Thursday night in Detroit, they can be confident that there's certainly something there to work with.
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