With only two weeks remaining before the Detroit Lions open their season on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants at Ford Field, this team looks as talented as ever but still gives fans the case of the “willies.”
For understandable reasons. Last season the Lions shot out to a 6-3 record and had the NFC North firmly in their paws, only to drop the ball (way too often literally) and fail to make the playoffs.
If the Lions are going to fulfill their talent and gain a playoff berth, they will need their stacked offense to hum, and if that is to happen, the quarterback will need to lead them. But while Matthew Stafford has put up gaudy Maddon-like numbers in his career, he’s yet to establish himself as a winning QB. Let’s look at his qualifications:
— Strong arm … CHECK
— Leadership and competitive fire… CHECK
— Mental toughness … CHECK
— Support of his team and coaches … CHECK
— Accuracy … CHECK
— Poise under pressure … NOPE
Oops, something went wrong there on the way to Canton. Stafford has all the tools — some of which are off the charts — but he has been easily rattled when the defense puts pressure on him. Too often that’s resulted in errant passes, a sack, or poor decisions that lead to a turnover or loss of downs.
The Lions’ offense is too good to have many three-and-outs. Calvin Johnson is still the best weapon in football. Detroit went out and signed Golden Tate, an exciting playmaking wide receiver who I predict will be wildly popular with Lions fans. This gives the Lions their best pass-catching tandem since Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton. Add in Reggie Bush for a dash of speed out of the backfield, and Joique Bell for a dose of slam-bam running out of the backfield, and the Lions have offensive weapons that will make defenses wet themselves. Three options at tight end: Brandon Pettigrew (getting another chance to show he can hang on to the pigskin); Joe Fauria (who apparently only catches touchdowns); and rookie Eric Ebron, are adequate. There should be a lot of 30+ point games for that offense.
But Stafford will need to guide this team with a steady hand, and in his sixth NFL season the Florida native needs to heat it up, but in a smart way. Stafford has averaged 4,885 yards the last three seasons, but his touchdown to turnover ratio has gotten worse since his breakout year in 2011. In fact, for the last two seasons, Stafford has accumulated more turnovers (54) than touchdowns (49). That trend needs to be reversed big time in order for the Lions to win the 10 games they’ll likely need to make the playoffs.
Luckily, Stafford has a new set of coaches who are designed to help him success. At the very top, gone is The Old Jim (Schwartz), replaced by The New Jim (Caldwell). Caldwell made his bones as a quarterback guru, and so did new Lions’ offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, as well as Jim Bob Cooter, the team’s new acting quarterbacks coach. That trio is charged with getting Stafford back to his 2011 level of efficiency, when he tossed 41 TDs and only 16 INTs and fumbled just five times. They don’t even need that gaudy a TD figure, but an improved TD/INT ratio would be wonderful.
For his part, the Detroit QB needs to step up his game, his preparation, and his decision-making. At this point in his career, Stafford has to decide whether he wants to be an answer to a trivia question (Which four QBs have thrown for 5,000 yards in a season) or become a hero in Detroit by playing in and winning a playoff game.
Lions’ fans are realistic, they don’t expect miracles and they aren’t under any illusions. A playoff win in 2014 would be a great start, and whatever happens after that would be gravy. They’re used to throwing gravy at the TV screen on Thanksgiving Day, now it’s time for the Lions to live up to their potential and give these long-suffering fans something to celebrate. Matthew Stafford, like it or not, is the key to that happening.