By: Jamie Samuelsen
There’s a little term in radio that we like to call “evergreens”. An evergreen, much like the tree it’s named after, is a radio topic that always, always, always generates phone calls and fetches opinions. Over the years, you’ve probably heard radio hosts like me discuss whether or not Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame or if Sergei Fedorov was underappreciated by Red Wings fans. Last summer, the Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout debate took the radio station over for weeks at a time as every single person chimed in with their take on WAR and the Triple Crown and the true meaning of an MVP. (My favorite part of an evergreen debate is when someone chimes in with an opinion that’s been mentioned 34,956 already and yet they preface it by saying, “You know, here’s something that nobody has mentioned so far…”)
So this just serves as fair warning that I’ve identified the ‘evergreen’ topic that will dominate the airwaves between now and Labor Day. You won’t hear it every day. You may not hear it every week. But you’ll hear it. And you’ll hear it from me. And you’ll hear variations of it. And you’ll most definitely hear someone say, “you know, here’s something that nobody has mentioned yet…”
And it all centers on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
I’m not sure that an athlete has ever had a better statistical season while still being openly questioned and blamed the way Stafford has. Sure, even the best athletes slump. But normally when they slump, they’re not leading their league in a major statistical category (in this case Stafford led the league in passing yards for much of the season until the Saints’ Drew Brees passed him). Stafford’s completion percentage dropped (from 63.5% in 2011 to 59.8% this year). And as we all know, his touchdowns took an alarming drop (41 last season. 20 this year.) It makes it seem even worse that he did this with a Hall of Fame receiver in Calvin Johnson putting up one of the greatest seasons any receiver has ever had. I admit that it’s a cliché, but if you had told me before the season that Stafford would put up nearly 5000 yards and Calvin would set an NFL record for receiving yards in a season, my logical question would be to ask what seed the Lions hold in the NFC playoffs. But instead, they finished with an eight-game losing streak and a boatload of questions.
And one of the biggest questions centers on Stafford. That question specifically is – can he do it? For the record, I still believe that he can. You don’t put up 10,000 yards in two years without a ton of talent. Stafford remains the best quarterback that the Lions have had since Bobby Layne. If you held a draft of all the 32 starters in the NFL and based it on age as well as talent, I still contend that Stafford would go in the top six or seven picks. The Lions have a good one. They just have to make him better.
And Stafford has to make himself better as well. His accuracy must improve. Whether that comes from throwing the ball throw a tire like one of those Cialis commercials or working tirelessly in the offseason with his receivers to get his timing down, he has to do something. I’m dying to read one of those QB profiles that documents how hard Stafford worked and how many hours of film he watched to improve. Right now he seems (stress – SEEMS) like one of those uber-talented quarterbacks who relies on his arm strength and his ability to get the job done. Perhaps he’s never been pushed to get better before, but he needs to now. I’d also love to see the Lions identify a coach who can be Stafford’s personal guru the way that Steve Mariucci was for Brett Favre early in his Packers career. I don’t know who that person is, but I assume it’s not offensive coordinator Scott Linehan based on the way the offense moved this year. I have no issue with Stafford throwing side-armed if that gets the job done. I do have an issue with him throwing side-armed or off his back foot if it leads to interceptions or balls getting batted down at the line of scrimmage which was a huge problem in the loss to the Bears last Sunday.
Some fans don’t share my patience. Some fans think Stafford’s stats were totally empty this season and that he can’t succeed in this league the way Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brees and Aaron Rodgers have. Time will tell of course. But the key is that the Lions have zero plans to look elsewhere (nor should they). And when you list off the problems areas on this team, the quarterback position isn’t in the same ballpark as linebacker, secondary, offensive line and yes, even wide receiver. I’m certainly not here to make excuses for Stafford, but in that final game against the Bears, he completed touchdown passes to Will Heller, Kris Durham and Brian Robiskie. I challenge most quarterbacks in the league to turn those three guys into 18 points.
So the debate will rage on this winter, spring and summer. I’m sure you all have opinions on Stafford, which is the true strength of an evergreen topic. And I’m certainly not here to tell you to be glad for what you have. As a fan, it’s always your right to want more. But I’d ask you this simple question – if not Stafford, then who? Yes, he needs to improve. And yes, the Lions have poured a lot into both him and the offense in terms of players and dollars. But if you think this team was tough to watch with Stafford back there at quarterback, try to imagine what they’d be without him.