After finishing 4-12, the Detroit Lions deserve all the criticism currently being bestowed upon them. Head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew are everyone's favorite scapegoats but Matthew Stafford, the Lions' most important player, deserves the target on his back even more.
His performance this season has to make the Lions reconsider if he can truly lead them to the their ultimate goal—the Super Bowl.
That statement might seem absurd when you consider that he almost recorded his second 5,000-yard passing season in a row. He missed by only 33 yards.
However in today's NFL, what does that really mean?
Three quarterbacks did it last year, Drew Brees just did it for the third time and four other quarterbacks were less than 400 yards away from reaching the milestone this season.
In other words, while it's still a great feat, 5,000 yards isn't what it used to be. That takes the luster off Stafford's passing numbers.
After all, the NFL has evolved into a pass-happy league. Quarterbacks are slinging the ball around more than ever, and simply racking up monster yardage isn't good enough anymore. Everyone is doing it.
When a rookie (Andrew Luck) can walk onto a 2-14 team and throw for over 4,000 yards, it's pretty clear that NFL offenses have taken passing the football to a new level.
The league also put defenses at a disadvantage with its safety-first rule changes. Quarterbacks are in a position to succeed in the passing game like never before.
That's why success must be measured in different ways. Touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating are statistics much more indicative of success.
Not surprisingly Stafford's numbers in these categories were poor. He ranks in the bottom half of the league in every one. His touchdown total was cut in half from the year before and his QBR was nearly 20 points lower.
It's clear he didn't hold up his end of the bargain, and because of that, the Lions fell apart.
So if Stafford isn't producing even though he's in a perfect situation to do so, why should the Lions commit to him as their franchise quarterback?
That's actually pretty easy. The Lions should commit to him because he's only 24 years old, and despite his regression in 2012, he still has all the tools to be a Pro Bowl-type quarterback in the NFL.
For the first time in, well, forever, the Lions have an elite quarterback behind center. For decades they tried to win with mediocre ones—like Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell, Jon Kitna and Dan Orlovsky—and for decades they were NFL doormats.
Stafford changed that. With him, the Lions are relevant. Even when he's not at his best, he gives them a chance to win and opposing teams have to game plan for him.
Rest assured that no one was game planning for Orlovsky.
Despite their history of ineptitude, even the Lions aren't dumb enough to give up on Stafford. The wheels fell off this season and Stafford deserves to take his lumps, but consider the alternative.
Does anyone think Shaun Hill or (gasp) Kellen Moore would've done better?
Consider this year Stafford's sophomore slump. It was only his second full season at the helm and he had never faced the kind of pressure that was put on him.
It's one thing to lead a team with no expectations, but after his success in 2011, the bar was set high. Since Week 1, the pressure was there for him to repeat and there's no doubt it impacted his performance.
That's not to say the Chicago Bear's Major Wright was accurate when he said Stafford folds under pressure (NFL.com). Quite the opposite. Stafford has demonstrated time and again that he's at his best with the game on the line.
There is a difference between folding and trying too hard though.
When success didn't come and the losses piled up, Stafford put the team on his back and tried to do it all. It's what every team would ask of its star quarterback. Unfortunately, he pressed too hard and his accuracy suffered for it. He also became loose with his mechanics.
It's great that he can throw the ball from 50 different arm angles, but that doesn't mean he needs to do it every game. A basic throwing motion will do the job 99 percent of the time.
The truth is if a handful of plays went the other way for Detroit, we would be having a very different conversation about Stafford. It was clearly a down year for him, but he had his team in a position to win in all but two of its losses.
He can't control how many balls his receivers drop, what kind of plays the coordinator calls, special teams' blunders or defensive lapses. However if he's going to bask in the glow of his team's success, he must face the harsh reality of its failure as well.
That comes with the territory for an NFL quarterback, and the Lions won't be in a hurry to find themselves a new one anytime soon.
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