Former Lions receiver Nate Burleson was on hand Saturday at Michigan International Speedway to talk about his partnership with Sprint Cup driver Cole Whitt — and a little on his TV career and former team as well.
Burleson, who played four years with the Lions, the final season in 2013, is owner of Lionblood Clothing. He has partnered up with the 23-year-old driver to offer Whitt-branded merchandise in the company's collection of shirts, hoodies and accessories.
Burleson, 33, said he had never experienced what tailgating was like at an NFL game, but certainly got a taste of it Friday night in the rain while playing cornhole with MIS president Roger Curtis, who was dressed as Elvis, and some of the fans in the infield.
"I hit a game-winning toss in the rain," Burleson said of playing cornhole. "I've never won a Super Bowl and I said it yesterday, after a couple of beers, that was my Super Bowl. It was amazing. It was a fun. We took down the champ, the King (Curtis). He came down with the crown and I told him 'watch the throne.' That was the first thing I said to him and I took the throne.
"For 11 years I heard about tailgating before my games and I never was able to experience it. Last night, was the first time I got the hint of what kind of pre-gaming to the races, what it means and the excitement and the people being so authentic. It kind of defines Michigan and why I I love Michigan. Everybody just had a smile on their face and it was pouring down raining."
Burleson said he is no longer chasing the dream of winning a Super Bowl. Now retired, he has signed a two-year contract with the NFL Network to do studio work and will work two Lions exhibition games with Fox as an analyst this summer.
"I fly down to (Los Angeles) a couple of days a week, traded my cleats in for a suit so I'm still close to the game," Burleson said of joining the NFL Network. "Sure, I miss it (not playing), but after 11 years of having your body beat up it was time. I got a couple of bites last year (to still play), a couple of teams called, but I just thought to myself, what am I chasing at this point because the only thing I'm chasing is a Super Bowl ring because it's not the money, it's not the fame, it's not the praise, it would be for a championship.
"This way, I'm taking the opportunity to do a job I can work at for 20 years. Now. I'm a rookie all over again on the TV side. I like being in the studio because you can ad-lib, have more freedom and that's what I'm good at, on-the-fly conversation."
Burleson talked about the Lions and quarterback Matt Stafford, who he grabbed a career-high 73 passes from in 2011 when the Lions earned a playoff spot, losing to the New Orleans Saints, 45-28, in a wild-card game.
The Lions scored a franchise-record 474 points that season and Stafford completed 63.5 percent of his passes, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. He hasn't come close to duplicating that season, with his best season since coming in 2013 (4,650 yards, 29 TDs, 19 INTs).
The Lions finished 11-5 last year, losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, then losing Ndamukong Suh in free agency to the Miami Dolphins.
Still, Burleson is high on the Lions and feels they can take the next step and win in the playoffs.
"I think they have a good team," Burleson said. "They have to keep Calvin (Johnson) healthy. I think Golden Tate was the one of the biggest free-agent pick-ups over the last couple of years. Matt Stafford is at the point of his career where he's already really good, now he wants to separate himself from good to become an elite quarterback, and if that defense can play like it did last year, they'll have a shot.
"They are not just a team that's just trying to make the playoffs, they're a team that needs to make a run at the Super Bowl and that's how good they are. They're a lot better now than when I played with them."
So, what does the 27-year-old Stafford have to do to become an elite quarterback?
"I would say, No. 1 efficiency, No. 2 stay healthy," Burleson said. "He needs to continue to show his IQ is raised. As a quarterback sometimes you plateau out, you see it all the time. Some of these quarterbacks, they just don't get smarter. But, Matt, one thing I can say about him is that he's gotten smarter every year so that cannon of an arm isn't just a cannon, now you add that intelligence to it so it's all about making great decisions with the ball, cutting down on turnovers. If he can do that, he's just as good as any quarterback.
"And, all that comes with his relationship with the receivers. When you have a guy like Golden Tate, you don't have to lean on Calvin so much and then you have tight end play and running back play and that puts him in position where he doesn't have to force anything with that arm because that's what he had to do at times (last year)."
But, what about losing Suh?
"I love Suh, he's a tremendous player and he caused chaos for so many offensive lines, but I don't want people to sleep on the fact that Haloti Ngata is an absolute monster, a force. They are not the same player, but as a football player that did this for 11 years, it's not a drop-off, let me just say that. It's not a drop-off. They will be OK."