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Stafford and the short-term in Detroit

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Do me a favor. Take charge of the Detroit Lions for a moment and answer the following question. What’s more important: Developing your franchise quarterback -- or pulling your franchise out of a historic and potentially viral tailspin?

The Lions would like to believe they can achieve both ends through the same means. But in the short-term, at least, it’s fair to question whether quarterback Matthew Stafford gives the Lions their best chance to win.

Normally you wouldn’t concern yourself with such immediate goals at the start of a new rebuilding year. But Detroit’s 19-game losing streak, and the malaise that goes along with it, threatens to consume yet another core of Lions players and coaches before they gain any traction in their new jobs.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person Sunday waiting for the inevitable collapse after the Lions took a 10-0 lead over Minnesota. The breakdown came on the first series of the third quarter, when the Vikings sacked Stafford twice in the span of three plays to force a punt. Minnesota tied the game at 10 on the ensuing drive and never looked back in a 27-13 victory.

The Lions have faltered similarity throughout the streak, and really, for a good portion of this decade. It’s like an institutional virus that has transcended coaches, general managers and players. New head coach Jim Schwartz can recognize it, and here’s how he addressed it Monday:

“We need to have that instinct to go ahead and finish it and not wait for something bad to happen. … As far as the expectations of the team going out and expecting to win, going through those things, that’s still something that we’re still not where we need to be and we’re still a work in progress there.”

The team just needs some success, Schwartz said, to gain confidence and clear the final hurdle. But to me, every stumble on that path makes the journey longer and more difficult to traverse. What the Lions needed Sunday in the third quarter was for their quarterback to take charge, navigate the Vikings’ surge and calmly resume the game.

Instead, the Lions seemed compelled to protect Stafford. They ran on their next five offensive plays, even as tailback Kevin Smith lost a fumble. And once they started throwing again, Stafford did what you would expect a rookie quarterback to do: He forced the ball into coverage and got intercepted. The turnover led to the Vikings’ final touchdown, extending a 10-point lead to 17 midway through the fourth quarter.

“I was just trying to make something happen,” Stafford said. “They were doing a good job of trying to see how patient I am. It was just me being stupid, trying to force something that wasn’t there.”

That’s pretty much the package when you start a rookie quarterback, especially when his team has faced double-digit deficits in each of his first two starts. Stafford has thrown five interceptions thus far and will throw more before the season ends. (Although perhaps not on his current 40-interception pace.)

It’s fair to ask whether backup Daunte Culpepper, an 11-year veteran who has averaged one interception for every 30 passes in his career, would have fared any better in that situation. Culpepper is far from perfect, but more often than not, you trust a veteran more than a rookie when the pressure mounts. Culpepper’s error-free, if safe, preseason performance gives you reason to believe he would have been well-equipped.

Is Culpepper the Lions’ long-term answer? No. Would it help Stafford to be benched? I don’t think so. He hasn’t appeared overwhelmed to me. He’s just looked like a typical rookie quarterback on a losing team.

The real issue is how much the Lions should value the short-term. If a veteran quarterback can help flush the losing virus before its infects this team, it might be worth the delay in Stafford’s development. Otherwise, you have a whole new group of players -- remember, the Lions turned over more than half of their 53-man roster this offseason -- that begins to accept that this is just the way it goes in Detroit.

Monday, Schwartz bristled at questions about Stafford’s short-term future. He said it is “too much of a hypothetical” to wonder if Culpepper would have fared better Sunday.

“[Stafford] needs experience,” Schwartz said. “With experience he’ll become better and better. We need him to stay on track that way. … I have a lot of confidence in Matt’s ability, not only as a player, but his ability to lead this team and his ability to help us win. I think he’s going to be our quarterback. He is our quarterback, and we’re all going to be very happy with him as a quarterback.”

In real language, that tells me Schwartz is willing to live with Stafford’s rookie mistakes as long as he believes they are contributing to his positive development. That’s a standard approach for young quarterbacks. But the paradox of that stance is that the Lions assembled a veteran team this offseason, presumably with an eye toward at least some short-term success.

The Lions, in fact, have the NFL’s sixth-oldest roster. That’s one of the reasons I thought Culpepper had a decent chance to win the starting job this summer. Otherwise, why would you sign a 36-year-old nose tackle? Or trade for a 31-year-old linebacker? Or acquire a 32-year-old slot receiver?

It seemed the Lions had parallel plans, and I actually liked the idea: Establish a new culture on the shoulders of veterans like Grady Jackson, Julian Peterson and Dennis Northcutt in the short term, while developing youngsters like Stafford for the long-term. Let the new veterans pull from success elsewhere to establish a new approach, and eventually mix in the young players once they are on board.

Instead, the Lions have paired Stafford with a veteran team. And you’ve seen the results.

Schwartz said the Lions are “not used to” playing with a lead yet. “It’s a matter of being in that situation and responding in the right way,” he said. To me, the quarterback is the only player who can take charge of a game and direct it through those waters. Otherwise, Peterson or linebacker Larry Foote or receiver Calvin Johnson or cornerback Phillip Buchanon or one of the Lions’ other experienced veterans would have stepped up already.

The Lions seem willing to accept short-term pain with Stafford. But their team is structured to compete in the short-term. Can that combination hold off a viral infection? Not to go all Star Trek on you, but so far resistance has been futile.