The Miseducation of Matthew Stafford
The quarterback and his coach, Jim Schwartz, have been the two primary targets of blame for Detroit's struggles. Schwartz's future with the Lions may be nonexistent, but it's not too late for Stafford—but only if he learns some key lessons
Maybe it’s too late for this season. Maybe Matthew Stafford and the Lions did too much self-inflected damage with their 18-16 home loss to the Ravens last Monday night.
Once in the driver’s seat for the NFC North title at 6-3, the Lions now need the near impossible after losing four of their past five. They have to win out, and have both Green Bay and Chicago lose once down the stretch. Considering the Bears and Packers meet in the season finale, the Lions need the winner of that game to lose this weekend. Got it?
So, yes, it may be too late for the Lions. Just like always for the team that’s never made a Super Bowl, and only appeared in one conference championship game in the Super Bowl era (a 41-10 loss to Washington in the 1991 season).
And it may be too late for coach Jim Schwartz, who probably needs a playoff berth to be back next season.
But even though it seems like everyone wants to write Schwartz’s career obituary—too much careless gunslinger, not enough smart play when the team needs it—it’s not too late for Matthew Stafford.
There’s no question he hasn’t been good of late. In the six games since the Lions’ bye week, Stafford has completed just 51 percent of his passes, lost two fumbles and thrown 11 interceptions against 12 touchdowns. There’s no denying that Stafford has much to learn, about his footwork, arm angle and the concept of risk and reward. But he has more time.
Not a whole lot more, but some. Just look at the recent Super Bowl winners at quarterback. Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers were 27 when they broke through. Drew Brees was 30. Eli and Peyton Manning were 26 and 30, respectively. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady won for the first time at 23 and 24, but they had defenses that the team was built around.
We have seen the potential of Stafford. In 2011, he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 5,036 yards and threw 41 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. In clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 1999, Stafford was exquisite against the Chargers: 29 of 36 for 373 yards and three touchdowns.
Is greatness in Stafford? Impossible to say at this point. But now comes the proving time. “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up,” Vince Lombardi famously once said.
Stafford has certainly fallen down this season. But the great thing about football is there’s always another game on Sunday to change the narrative, until there isn’t. The Lions have two games to play against the porous Giants and Vikings. Rolling over those two teams won’t prove anything, and in fact it would probably only inflame the chorus that Stafford can get it done except when the games really matter.
Next season will be vitally important to Stafford. There’s a reasonable chance the Lions will have a new coach—Schwartz is the only coach Stafford has known. Maybe somebody else can make Stafford believe that just because he put up great numbers in ’11, it doesn’t mean he has all the answers. Stafford still has time to heed those lessons, but it’s going to run out eventually.