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Extra Points: Lions had to go all in with Stafford

10:17 AM, Jul 10, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Detroit Lions have been dating the prettiest girl at the bar for four years now.

On Tuesday, they put ring to finger and officially committed. Now it's time to see if the object of their affection has any real substance or is just a shiny bauble wrapped in a comely package.

With their history, it's almost inconceivable the Lions could give up on Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Detroit has literally spent decades trying to solve their quarterback woes, which date back to the days of Bobby Layne in the late 1950s.

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Layne was the last real elite signal caller to call the Motor City home and the Lions have made due with stopgaps ever since.

If you ask locals who the best Detroit quarterback has been since Layne, you might get votes for players like Greg Landry, Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell or Charlie Batch. Not exactly an awe-inspiring group.

In fact, the correct answer to the that query is probably Stafford, the University of Georgia product who joined Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to top 5,000 passing yards in a single season when he tossed for 5,038 in 2012. In the past two seasons, the Tampa native has thrown for a mind-blowing 10,005 yards.

That's why the Lions dove headfirst into the deep end of the pool Tuesday, inking Stafford to a three-year contract extension which will keep him in Michigan through 2017.

The Detroit Free Press reports that Stafford's gaudy deal now includes $43 million of guaranteed money when you count the final two years on his current contract, along with a potential upside of $76 million over the next five years. In return, the Lions were able to take some of the sting out of a $20.8 million scheduled cap hit for 2013.

"I wanted to do what was right for the club," Stafford told the team's official website.

Those numbers may seem out of line for a QB with a career record as a starter well under .500, but Stafford is unquestionably one of the most talented throwers in football.

The warts in his game, however, remain significant. After missing a total of 19 games in his first two professional seasons, Stafford has answered questions concerning his durability by toiling in all 32 contests over the past two campaigns. That said, serious concerns over shoddy mechanics, accuracy and decision making are still looming after 44 career starts.

Expecting the light to finally go off now is probably just wishful thinking on Detroit's part, and Stafford's default settings as a quarterback seem to include some very bad habits ingrained into his DNA as a player, particularly shaky footwork and the occasionally awful arm angles he throws with.

Most troubling of all is the fact Stafford is just 1-23 as a starter against teams that finished a season with a .500-or-better mark.

"It's a common theme in this league that teams that have a quarterback playing at a high level consistently will win games," Stafford said. "It's about wins in a lot of aspects."

Actually, it's all about wins in every aspect.

A year after leading the Lions to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth in 2012 - the franchise's first double-digit winning season since 1995 and first postseason berth since 1999 - Stafford regressed badly, throwing 21 fewer touchdowns in 2013 despite setting an NFL record with 727 passing attempts. He also finished with a completion percentage under 60 percent, a dismal number for a player of his pedigree in today's pass-happy NFL.

Apologists point to the Lions' dismal running game and weak offensive line when defending Stafford. Fair points to be sure but then you also have to point out that he gets to throw to Calvin Johnson, perhaps the most physically gifted NFL receiver since Randy Moss was in his prime.

Nearly all of Stafford's troubles as a player can be traced directly to fundamental breakdowns. More than a few observers have whispered that he simply isn't the type to do the extra homework to clean up things like his amateurish footwork, feeling his prodigious arm strength will make up for any deficiency.

Stafford would hardly be the first uber-talented athlete who got by on his physical gifts and ignored the little things that can turn a good player into a great one.

To his credit, however, Stafford has spent the entire offseason in Detroit in an effort to downplay that kind of talk and set an example for his teammates.

"He's evolved into a leader," Lions president Tom Lewand told the Free Press. "Now when rookies walk into the locker room, they see a quarterback who's been here four years and they see a different guy who occupies a different spot on the team, and a lot of that is because of his own efforts."

Optimists might spin that as a positive sign just as surely as a contrarian might point to the fact that nearly all elite quarterbacks are regarded as "leaders" far earlier in their careers and need no evolution. It's almost an intangible trait natural to the position, at least for the upper echelon quarterbacks.

Still, with Detroit's bleak history at the position, it was imperative for the Lions to stick with Stafford moving forward.

The only question now is whether Stafford will finish his career in the company of players like Layne or forever be labeled as the talented underachiever.

The Sports Network

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