The Detroit Lions have a franchise quarterback talent in Matthew Stafford. He is backed up by Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton who have both shown they are capable of running the offense and winning games. The Lions are in the enviable position of having a clear and stable quarterback situation for the first time in decades... or maybe not.
Stafford Is the Man... When He Is There
There is no question that Matthew Stafford has the talent to be a franchise quarterback. But it is also difficult to say he has actually achieved such lofty status. Having the "franchise quarterback" mantle bestowed on you is about being productive and reliable. Stafford has certainly shown the capability to be productive, but reliability? Not so much.
Stafford was showing great progress in the 2010 season, but he played in only three games. That is not enough of a body of work to definitively say that Stafford has reached a level that deserves praise as a top ten quarterback in the NFL. Three games can easily be a fluke. We simply need to see more of Matthew Stafford before we can anoint him as "he that shall lead the Lions out of the wilderness." That is a significant problem.
Stafford has appeared in 13 games out of the 32 the Lions have played since he has been drafted. That is only 40% of the Lions games. It really isn't even that good. Stafford has also missed portions of the 13 games he did appear in. But the bottom line is that 40% availability is not nearly enough to consider a quarterback as reliable.
This is precisely where some of the largest frustrations lie for the Lions fans, coaches, and front office. Stafford looks like the "real deal" but he cannot be counted on to be there when the important games are played. In two seasons with the Lions, Stafford has played only one game in the month of December, when playoff spots are won.
Stafford shows great promise. But at this point, all we have is promise that has barely been realized. Until Stafford can stay on the field and lead the Lions to victories during the important games he cannot be called a franchise quarterback. Not yet.
Thank Goodness for Backups
The only positive development in all the injuries to Stafford is the backup quarterbacks get time to play and keep sharp. But no matter how we wish to spin this, neither Shaun Hill or Drew Stanton have the ability to change a game like Matthew Stafford can.
Shaun Hill is a veteran quarterback that has some talent. The problem is that his talent is not obvious. You can't expect anything fancy or exciting from Hill. He moves the chains and the offense in workmanlike fashion and gets the job done. Shaun Hill can win games for the Lions and we will all quietly appreciate him while we wait for Matthew Stafford to get better. All the while we will feel like we are getting the consolation prize.
Shaun Hill is under contract for 2011 to back up Matthew Stafford. Hill is extremely valuable because Matthew Stafford is hurt too often. This single fact inflates the importance of the role Hill plays with the Lions. For now, the Lions will keep Hill as an insurance policy, but that could change.
San Francisco traded Hill because he was looking better than Alex Smith as a starter and his presence was creating a quarterback controversy. The San Francisco management wanted to show their confidence in Alex Smith by removing this controversy.
You know that Hill had to be thinking he could be successful as a starting quarterback given the right situation. No, you won't see Shaun Hill throwing many 78 yard touchdown passes, with eight seconds left on the clock, to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. If Hill does that it probably means that somebody caught an eight yard pass and ran it 70 yards to the end zone. Hill needs a patient, ball control offense. He could thrive in a solid "west coast" offense given the chance and some weapons around him.
The Detroit Lions should be very thankful for the way that Shaun Hill has handled the situation in Detroit. You know he had to be thinking he is capable of being a starter. But Hill showed he has a great attitude and he is willing to take one for the team by saying all the right things and playing his role on the team extremely well. But Hill may very well be playing his final season with the Lions. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2011 season and the Lions are likely to lose him to a team that will give him a chance to start.
Are We Through With Drew?
Drew Stanton is a big question mark for 2010. If the new NFL collective bargaining agreement allows for unrestricted free agency after four years then Stanton will qualify. But if Stanton remains a restricted free agent, the Lions should be able to tender him an offer that is only marginally more money than he earned last season and retain his services.
The Lions may chose to negotiate with Stanton for a new contract. If the Lions can put Stanton under contract for at least three more seasons, he can become the #2 quarterback when Shaun Hill likely bolts the Lions for a starting quarterback opportunity as a free agent in 2012.
Drew Stanton had a rocky start for the Lions. He was not a favorite of Mike Martz and consequently he got the mushroom treatment. The year of Stanton's career was lost by being put on injured reserve needlessly. Stanton had a minor knee injury that he could have returned from in a few weeks. Because Martz wanted to get Stanton out of the way he was put on IR for the season. That cleared the way for Martz to bring in J.T. O'Sullivan.
Stanton returned in his second year only to be completely messed up from the tinkering that Martz tried to do to his passing technique. Stanton could have adapted to the changes but Martz never coached him through the process of making the change. So Stanton was left with his delivery all messed up.
To his credit, Stanton persisted and kept fighting. He has made great strides this season in becoming an NFL caliber quarterback because he finally received some good coaching and he worked hard. When Stanton enters the game you no longer have to hold your breath in expectation of the train wreck. Stanton should have more upside to realize that may not be fully explored for two or three more seasons.
The problem with Stanton is the same problem we have with Matthew Stafford. He gets hurt a lot. Sure, some of his early time on injured reserve was unnecessary. But it is still true that Stanton has not been any more reliable than Stafford. He always seems to get injured and has had this problem even in college.
The Lions have a difficult decision because they need to decide how Stanton fits in the future. There are a lot of quarterbacks that will work for a million dollars a year. If the Lions decide Stanton is reliable enough to eventually become the #2 quarterback then they should sign him. If they have lost confidence in him they should let him go, and start grooming a different quarterback to fill in for Shaun Hill when he bolts.
Washing Off The Mud
As Lions fans we probably react to the news that we have three capable quarterbacks in some sense of awe. The Lions have not had a quarterback group this capable since the days of Greg Landry and Bill Munson. We are not used to competence at the quarterback position. So we may overlook things like staying off injured reserve more than we should.
It is time for the Lions to get a little more clarity at the quarterback position. The 2011 season will be very important to Matthew Stafford. If he is hurt for a long stretch in 2011, especially if he gets a shoulder injury, the fans will start to write-off Stafford as a busted draft pick because he cannot stay healthy. It really doesn't matter how much talent you have if you are holding a clipboard on the sideline.
We have one more year of having the luxury of at least one good backup to Stafford. The Lions need to clarify the quarterback succession going into the future. A decision needs to be made on Drew Stanton or a replacement for him.
It seems like things are never really simple for the Detroit Lions. Even when they are doing well at a position there are often problems just under the surface. The quarterback situation for the Lions is a perfect example because even with three capable quarterbacks it is still not all that clear. But this coming season will settle a lot of the murkiness, or so we hope.