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Supposed Stafford Infatuation Junkie

Disclaimer:  Since the Cleveland game, POD has been flooded with the ageless Stafford vs. Culpepper debate.  And since I've been dubbed head cheerleader for the Matt Stafford fanclub (which is probably fair enough), I thought I'd use my time to debunk the myth that I am blindly for everything Stafford.  There is rhyme to my reasoning and method to my madness for wanting him to start this season.

When I fully realized that Detroit would undoubtedly receive the first pick in the draft, Matt Stafford became an item of fixation.  Not him personally, but the prospect of taking a quarterback with the first overall pick.  He just happened to be the one that seemed most qualified for the job.  You see, I have this inherent belief that a football team can never truly be great without the leadership and execution, week-in and week-out, of a great quarterback.  Sure, it's quite possible for a team with a stout defense or solid running game to have a good season or even take home a championship.  But the reality is, those teams quickly fade away and become the one-hit wonders of the NFL.  Perennial winners and dynasties have one thing in common... a great quarterback.  I was excited about taking another stab at getting ours and trying to get past our decades long bout of mediocrity and inconsistency. 

Knowing that we had the opportunity to take Stafford, I quickly learned everything I could about him.  I found as much Georgia game footage online as I could and tried to assimilate some sort of position and comfort about the potential pick.  The more interviews I saw, the more I liked him.  The more I learned about his past and what he's accomplished at the high school and collegiate levels, the more it got me excited about his potential as a quality NFL quarterback.  Sure, there were things about his game that were troublesome.  I think you'll find that with every college quarterback when the microscope gets turned on.  But by the time the draft talk started heating up, I was already on board.

From that point on, backing Stafford has burgeoned into this strange realm of embattlement for me ... one I inherited (and quite frankly asked for) because of my strong stance on the pick and my passion for putting forth my own viewpoint.  When I began to push for the Lion's to take him, never did I realize that I was putting myself on the frontlines of what would become a major point of contentiousness amongst Lion fans.  First, it was the heated Stafford vs. Curry debate.  Then came the "sit him" or "not sit him" deliberation, which has subsequently blossomed into an all-out Culpepper vs. Stafford "who's the best quarterback" war.  I naïvely thought that most fans would be excited to get a chance to add a good quarterback to the roster.  That hasn't proven to be the case... and with good reason.  We've been burned too many times in the past and it was simply the want and desire for fans to see things done right this time.  Drafting a quarterback seemed less like building a foundation and more like a PR stunt.  So don't get me wrong, I completely understand the other side of the argument.  Building a foundation before getting a quarterback makes perfect sense to me too.  It's just comes down to being an opportunity cost thing for me.  You pay now or you can pay later.  You only have so many high draft picks and you can't get every foundational piece to rebuild an 0-16 franchise in a single year.  My feelings have been and will always be that if you do not have a good quarterback and have the opportunity to take one, don't pass that opportunity.  This of course, depends on the player value for the position and team needs and all those other variables mixed in.  I'm not trying to refuel the draft philosophy debate, just trying to clearly expose the inside of my mind for all of you.

Now we come to the present.  Stafford is clearly coming off a dismal performance and here's Drewslions, still on the bandwagon and still wanting him to start the regular season, right?  Yes, I am and yes, I do.  But let me explain why... and I'll take my time with this because I want to be completely transparent with my thoughts.  For too long, I think I've given the impression that I dislike Culpepper and have chosen a side in this battle.  That is simply not the case.  I'll be the first to admit that I'll take a shot here and there at Culpepper, but it is almost always in jest or an attempt (usually a feeble one) at tongue-in-cheek humor.  For me, it simply comes down to an ideal; how to treat the quarterback position so it puts this team in the best position to win both now and in the long-term.  So let me add another disclaimer here... this is my viewpoint and it is not necessarily correct, just what I personally feel would be best for this club.  I think it's been extremely well documented on this site (because of the wealth of football knowledge that the POD regulars have brought here) that if history tells us anything about highly drafted quarterbacks, it's that there is no one right way to cultivate a franchise quarterback.  So here are my thoughts on this...

Thought #1:  The Historical Myth of Quarterback Cultivation

We've all argued back and forth about quarterback who have played right away and succeeded and those who have failed.  We've discussed at length the proponents of sitting a young quarterback and both sides show examples of failure and success.  The only logical conclusion that can be drawn by looking at history as a control in the experimentation of deciphering what is the best way to cultivate a quarterback is that there is no logical conclusion.  I believe the reason is that there are simply too many complex variables involved.  Each quarterback is a unique individual with a specialized skill-set going to a different team and each of those teams are in their own special place in time with a different scheme, coaching staff, training staff and group of players in place.  How can you honestly compare any two highly drafted quarterbacks to each other?  In my mind, you can't.  There are just too many differences in each unique circumstance to draw any type of logical conclusion.  This is why I don't think Stafford should be pigeonholed into any historical category.  He is Matt Stafford, with only Matt Stafford's skill-set and he is in Detroit for the 2009 NFL season.  That situation is different from every other quarterback in NFL history... including Joey Harrington's.  This, of course, isn't a reason to start Stafford.  It's just the first reason why I think Stafford can't be ruled out as starter.

Thought #2:  Practice Makes Perfect

The other main element behind the classic "sit him or start him" debate is from what framework you feel a quarterback gains the most experience.  Is it from watching and film study or is it from actual game time experience?  Again, it's a point of view.  The problem is that this isn't a classic quarterback battle between two veterans.  It's experience versus potential with Culpepper and Stafford.  There is a completely different dynamic to this and one that is much harder to gauge.  There is no doubt that Culpepper has more experience and is going to show that on the field.  But there is also no doubt that Stafford is the Lion's future... this point is absolute and without argument.  Stafford is going to make mistakes, that's part of the growing and maturation process.  If you choose to play the rookie, you choose to allow him to learn by making mistakes.  That is why I was so frustrated at the outpouring of calls to sit Stafford because of one performance.  How can he be allowed to become a good quarterback if he is not given the opportunity to make mistakes?  I know we'd all like to believe he is Bobby Layne incarnate, but he is not.  We'd all love to see him just light it up on every play he is on the field.  But sadly, that's not going to happen no matter how good he will eventually be.  He has to learn by making mistakes and the only way for him to do that is by being on the field.

Ultimately, this comes down to a decision of possibly sacrificing more consistent play by Culpepper for the greater good of Stafford's experience.  To be honest, that might not be a very meaningful difference in the win-loss column.  The reasoning for that is that I think we are still a year or two away from "P-Word" contention and both quarterbacks will have their struggles behind center with this team.  With that, I choose experience for Stafford and allowing him to grow over a more stabile, conservative offense behind Culpepper.  Again, that's not right or wrong... just my opinion.

Thought #3:  When the Pressure is On

The other main element to this debate deals with pressure of various types.  There is pressure for a young quarterback to learn the playbook and to become a good teammate.  There is pressure to show a presence in the huddle and leadership qualities.  Those are mental pressures and fragile-minded players may have a tough time coping with those in their rookie year.  There is also a physical pressure... as in an NFL-caliber blitz.  It's one thing to have collegiate-level players coming at you and quite another to have Shawn Merriman or Troy Polamalu charging at you full speed, trying to tear your head off.   These mental and physical hurdles are no doubt a challenge for any rookie player and even more so when you play quarterback.  It takes a special player to be able to rise above those pressures as a rookie. 

But there is one other element to pressure that I think is quite often forgotten in this debate.  Most opposed to Stafford starting will contend that until the team around him is better, there is no good that can come of putting him in a less-than-optimal situation and allowing him to get his psyche bruised - therefore, ruining him by playing him before he is ready.  That theory in general appears sound and there are a lot of quarterbacks that appear to be a product of this type of handling.  But if I may, I'd like to interject an additional wrinkle to this theory.  Is there more pressure for a quarterback to play and learn when the team around him is not very good or when the team around him is a contender?  Let's look at this a little deeper.  If Detroit expectations are relatively low... which they are this year... will Stafford be allowed to make more mistakes and learn with fewer consequences compared to when expectations are high and the pieces around him are in place?  When everyone else is ready to contend for a "P-Word" spot and he is getting his first start, who is the pressure really on?  See, this is why I want to see him come in and grow with the team from the onset of the rebuilding process.  If he comes in this year and stinks up the joint, so what?  The rest of the team is still learning and stinking it up too.  However, the more pieces that get into place before he plays, the pressure is on him to perform immediately.  Granted, he will learn on the sidelines as well... just not as much as he will on the field... in my humble opinion anyway.

Thought #4:  If You Can't Handle the Heat...

My last thought here before I wrap up what has become a much longer article than I set out to write, deals with Stafford's mental make-up.  This, I believe, is the one key element to whether or not a quarterback can be successful in his rookie year or maybe even if he can be successful at all in the NFL.  It's a tough thing to judge, too.  Teams spend countless hours trying to find out whether a quarterback will rebound or collapse when the heat of a game gets cranked up.  You look at the two quarterbacks from last year, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco - the poster boys of the new "start ‘em as rookies" campaign.  Each was in a very different situation with a very different team.  Can't really compare the two situations and therefore, you can't really compare either to Stafford.  But I think the common element was mental toughness.  They had the ability to pick up the playbook easily.  They formed a quick, tight bond with teammates.  They showed early leadership abilities.  And most importantly, they showed flashes of ability on the field from the onset of camp.  Stafford has done the same.  The Lion's selected him because of his many spectacular physical gifts, but more importantly, for his mental toughness and cool, collected demeanor. 

Stafford is capable of starting this year.  Will he make mistakes?  You betcha.  Will some of them be really bad ones?  Absolutely.  Is Daunte Culpepper a better quarterback at this moment in time?  Ahem... most likely.  But does that mean that starting Daunte is clearly in the best interest for this team today, tomorrow and for the next ten years?  In my opinion, no.  Again, I am in the camp of trading a little now for the greater good of tomorrow in the hopes we can become a perennial NFC North powerhouse.  I think Stafford is more than capable of starting this year.  If I didn't, I would bow out of this debate, concede the starting spot to Culpepper and gleefully cheer him on as our quarterback (which I will anyway if he wins the job).  But I think that Stafford is capable of handling the job right now and because he is the future, let him learn and grow with the men he needs to bond with right now.  Let him have an active investment in turning this franchise around.  Let him make mistakes... huge ones.  Let him learn to rebound from those mistakes and get mentally tough.  Let him become the face of the franchise, because regardless of what everyone thinks, he's already been crowned.