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Friday, December 20, 2013
Lions need Stafford to return to earlier form

By Michael Rothstein

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- You know it’s been a rough week for Matthew Stafford, a tough second half of the season, when the first question of coach Jim Schwartz’s news conference Tuesday begins with asking whether or not he would consider benching his starting quarterback.

That happened this week in Detroit. The Lions have lost four of five games and Stafford, the former No. 1 pick who signed a multi-year extension in the offseason that included $41.5 million in guaranteed money, has been a part of the issues, turning the ball over more than any other quarterback in the league in the past six games.

Before this goes any further, Schwartz is not going to pull Stafford and should not pull Stafford. Beside the fact that Stafford gives the Lions the best chance to win and that he is already the franchise leader in passing yards less than five full seasons into his career, Schwartz isn’t replacing him with Shaun Hill or Kellen Moore.

Matthew Stafford
With Matthew Stafford in a second-half slump, the Lions are on the verge of missing the playoffs.
Stafford is Schwartz’s guy. Stafford is the Lions’ guy for the foreseeable future. But that the question was even asked is all you need to know about how Stafford’s season has gone sour.

“I haven’t considered making a change,” Schwartz said. “Matt’s our quarterback and he’s going to remain our quarterback and he’s going to play well for us.”

Stafford, for his part, said Friday he heard none of this commotion about his play or his job. But whether he did or didn't, Detroit needs the good Matthew Stafford back, and that is part of the conundrum of Stafford’s season -- and, really, the Lions' season as well.

Both the franchise and the franchise quarterback appeared to take positive steps this season. The Lions started the season 5-3, much on the broad, now-healthy shoulders of their fifth-year quarterback.

He made smart decisions and led the Lions back from deficits in the second half three times in eight games. His completion percentage was at 62.4 through the first eight weeks, 11th in the league, and he had 16 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions.

Since the Lions’ bye week, Stafford has been off.

He has completed just 51.1 percent of his passes over the past six weeks, which, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is 32nd in the NFL and ahead of only Geno Smith and Terrelle Pryor. He has thrown 12 touchdown passes over the past six weeks, but also a league-high 11 interceptions. So it is of little coincidence the Lions have struggled while Stafford’s season started to crumble. The Lions are 2-4 in the second half and have lost all four of those games after holding leads in the fourth quarter.

And in those losses, Stafford has gone 73-for-151 with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. So what happened?

Some of it falls to Detroit's pass-catchers, who lead the league in drops. But that isn’t the only issue.

“Some of it is he’s trying to make plays,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “[Stafford] has been a great player for us and you’re going to have peaks and valleys in your season. Really, first half of the year, we did a nice job, I think, and did a good job keeping turnovers to a minimum, and we’ve had a couple games where some of it is bad luck and some of it we’ve got to look at where we went with that ball in that situation and learn from it.

“There’s nobody that learns better than him, and he’s working hard at a lot of those things.”

Linehan defended Stafford, calling him the most accountable player he ever has coached. Schwartz scoffed at the notion Stafford hasn’t been challenged, saying, “We hold all our players to a high standard, but we also don’t publicly shame ‘em.”

So how does Stafford learn? What is his process?

“Usually, whether it’s a good play or a bad play, I know immediately afterwards,” Stafford said. “Film, for a quarterback, is more confirmation and sometimes you don’t see everything. There’s no question about that.

“But film is kind of a confirmation as to what you were thinking and sometimes it’s different, and you’ve got to let plays go. That’s the way it is.”

Then, he tries to practice putting plays behind him during practice. He tries to make sure any incompletion doesn’t damage the next play in practice or the practice in general. It’s something he works on every day. This is how Stafford keeps himself accountable. How he tries to solve his problems.

He does feel he has made improvements this season, that his knowledge of the Detroit offense is better and that he understands more of what defenses are attempting to do.

But he understands he has struggled lately.

“There are definitely throws I wish I had back,” Stafford said. “Feel like I made some good plays, but the bottom line is winning and losing games. The [Ravens on Monday] make a field goal at the end of the game to win it.

“We have a chance to come back and don’t get it done with 30-something seconds left. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

It has been tough for a lot of Detroit’s players lately. The Lions haven’t been able to figure out a way to stop their skid. But the answer is simple: It starts with Stafford.

Schwartz said Stafford is “a big part of our ability to be successful.”

He’s actually more than that. As good as Detroit’s defense has been at points this season, as talented as Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are, the Lions are only going to go as far as Stafford can take them.

Right now, that has been from looking like a playoff team to a team on the brink of being out of the postseason entirely. Stafford -- and the Lions -- have two games and need some outside help to fix that.