Matthew Stafford worthy of extension

Remember 2008? The losing. The embarrassment. The shame.

That was the Detroit Lions. They were the worst team in the National Football League. Ever. A joke. They embodied futility. They didn't win a game. It was painful and wretched and sad to see men broken. That season cost plenty of good people their jobs.

And it led Matthew Stafford to his.

After the Lions this week extended Stafford's rookie contract to 2017 and gave the 25-year-old $41.5 million in guaranteed money, former longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb said Stafford didn't deserve the money.

"Is he worth top-five money? I would have to say 'No,'" McNabb said on NFL Network. "And I say that because it's about wins and losses. And what has he really done for the Detroit Lions? Nothing."

Stafford has done nothing except lead the Lions out of the morass of 2008. Nothing except make one of the oldest franchises in the league relevant -- not to mention interesting -- again. Nothing except lead Detroit to the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 1999.

Stafford has done nothing except throw for more than 10,000 total yards the past two seasons -- more than any other quarterback except Tom Brady and Drew Brees -- while the Lions have continued to rebuild from 2008. Stafford has averaged more passing yards per game during his first four seasons than anyone except Kurt Warner with the St. Louis Rams (1998-2001), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

After starting all 16 games each of the past two seasons, Stafford has shed the reputation of being fragile. He has become one of the Lions' unquestioned leaders and hardest workers. And he has developed an innate connection with the Lions' most important asset, Calvin Johnson.

That is hardly nothing.

Has Stafford been launched into the Brady-Brees-Manning-Manning-Rodgers stratosphere yet? No. Has Stafford had the playoff success of Joe Flacco or the consistency of Matt Ryan, each of whom has played one season longer? No. Has he notched wins against the elite teams? No.

At least not yet.

McNabb is right that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses. Fair or not, they get too much credit for the wins and too much blame for the losses, and quarterbacks are the only players with a win-loss record attached to their names.

But when evaluating Stafford and his 1-22 record against teams that finished the season with a winning record, there must be context. This isn't an excuse, merely an explanation: Stafford took over a sorry team. The Lions in 2009 were the ultimate rebuilding job. They were starting anew with a first-time head coach, a new coaching staff and a rookie quarterback.

Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

Part of Matthew Stafford's value comes from his connection with superstar receiver Calvin Johnson.

The Lions didn't have the talent or depth defensively that the Philadelphia Eagles did in 1999, when McNabb was a rookie starting quarterback. During the early part of McNabb's career, the defense was loaded with playmakers and carried the Eagles. It wasn't until 2004, when Terrell Owens joined the team and running back Brian Westbrook emerged as a dual threat, that Philadelphia became known as an offensive juggernaut.

Detroit has many more pieces in place now than it did in 2009, and securing its franchise quarterback, even with two years remaining on his rookie deal, had to be a priority. The Lions, to an extent, are banking on potential, which often is risky. They are counting on Stafford to continue making progress, to become more consistent, to limit his turnovers and to maximize his strong arm.

There is no reason to think Stafford can't. He has shown impressive flashes. He can thread the ball into the narrowest window. He has the arm to find Johnson deep past a defender. There are times when Stafford has looked unstoppable.

With him, it is about extending those streaks and about continuing to grow and becoming the leader the franchise needs him to be at this stage of his career.

The day Stafford re-signed, Lions president Tom Lewand said Stafford has what longtime Michigan coach Bo Schembechler called "moxie."

"It's that something else that's hard to define," Lewand said, "and Matthew has that."

There is always risk involved when forking over significant guaranteed dollars, but Detroit did the right thing. After years of a revolving quarterback carousel that included the likes of Jon Kitna, Joey Harrington, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper and a 35-year-old Jeff Garcia, the Lions have stability at the most important position. There is no quarterback controversy, no quarterback question. For the fifth year in a row, Stafford enters training camp as the unquestioned starter.

To the Lions, that was worth giving Stafford more guaranteed money than any quarterback except Brady, Brees, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Flacco and Sam Bradford.

Asked to compare his extension to that of Brees or Rodgers, Stafford said: "Hopefully, a Super Bowl ring. That's what those guys have: league MVP, Super Bowl rings, years of experience doing it, all of that. You know, I think that's what is a great opportunity for me the next four or five years -- to get to that level and hopefully stay with this organization for a long time."

Given its ignominious history, given the fact that the franchise has won only one playoff game in the Super Bowl era and hadn't had a winning season since 2000 before Stafford arrived, Detroit happily gave Stafford an extension. There's no reason to think Stafford won't be the player he was in 2011, when he threw for 41 touchdowns and 5,038 yards, or that he won't be more consistent with a legitimate running game.

To the Lions, Stafford's potential and previous contributions are worth something. They've been to the bottom. They've seen the view looking up. They know better than anybody what nothing looks like, and Stafford has contributed much more than that.

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