Stafford under scrutiny

Matthew Stafford has been in the league five years, the first two of which he was injured much of the time.

The hero-to-bum transition doesn’t take long for NFL quarterbacks.

Remember when Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions was being celebrated for that improbable last-minute comeback to shock the Dallas Cowboys? He had shown off his rocket right arm with a brilliant pass along the sideline to give the Lions a chance and then Stafford finished it off with a gutsy sneak for the winning touchdown when everybody in the stadium thought he was going to spike it.

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That was just over two months ago.

But now, after a shaky performance down the stretch as the Lions got knocked out of the playoff race, there are widespread concerns about Stafford and whether he has what it takes to carry this team to a division title and Super Bowl contention.

Some of it is understandable. How he comes back next season will say a lot about him and exactly what direction is career is headed.

But if you’re writing him off, you’re making a mistake.

He turns 26 next month. He’s been in the league five years, the first two of which he was injured much of the time.

He took a step back late this season, but that’s not uncommon. Athletes often have to fail before they succeed at the highest level. It’s what helps make them stronger and better in the end.

The question is how will Stafford respond? We’re going to find out a lot about him in 2014.

"He’s already been a great quarterback in 2011," Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said, referring to the club’s 10-win, playoff season. "He had 41 touchdowns and 5,000 yards passing.

"We’ve got to get him to that point and beyond. That hasn’t happened the last two seasons, but he certainly has the ability to be that guy."

Stafford is getting an awful lot of blame for the Lions losing six of their final seven games. He certainly deserves some of it. He threw 12 interceptions during a crucial six-game stretch after throwing just seven in the first nine games.

His interception that got returned for a touchdown with about five minutes remaining in regulation in Week 16 against the New York Giants turned that game around and mathematically eliminated the Lions from the playoffs.

But the rest of it was not all Stafford, not even close. There were some untimely fumbles by Reggie Bush, a lot of dropped passes, including a few key ones by the great Calvin Johnson, among many other factors that led to the downfall at the end.

"The quarterback, as you know, gets a lot of blame when things don’t go well and gets a lot of credit when things do go well," Mayhew said. "I think we can do a better job from a personnel standpoint by setting him up for success. Obviously, there are some things that can be done from a coaching standpoint as well, but it’s not all on him."

Regardless of the mistakes Stafford made during the losing skid, this is a very talented player who isn’t that far from putting it all together, just like the Lions aren’t that far off.

Many have been wondering lately whether former coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing pushed and challenged Stafford enough.

When Mayhew was asked about that issue, he answered, "I can’t really comment on that. All I can say about this staff is that I know they worked their butt off for us to win."

Stafford definitely will miss Linehan, but a different perspective might be the best thing for him, even if he doesn’t realize it right now.

"I loved playing for him," Stafford said. "He was an aggressive guy and an aggressive coordinator. It was a pretty good fit.

"His ability to – win, lose, draw, good play, bad play – move on to the next one. We won games with his ability to just forget a negative play and keep calling it like we’re clicking on all cylinders.

"We did a lot of really good things here. Five years, set a bunch of franchise records and played some of the best offensive football this franchise has ever seen. I owe a lot to those guys for sticking with me through two years of injuries and coming out of it on the other side of it playing some really good football."

He has played some really good football, even excellent at times.

But now he needs to take it to a championship level.

Hiring a head coach with a strong background working with quarterbacks – such as Ken Whisenhunt, who helped develop Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and has revitalized Philip Rivers in San Diego – might be the wisest move the Lions could make at this point.

For Stafford, it’s all about making better decisions and not turning the ball over. He knows it. Everybody knows it.

Some of the most amazing plays he makes are those often-criticized, off-balanced, sidearm throws, but they also at times lead to his biggest mistakes.

Somewhere in-between is the answer. He just needs to understand the difference and execute it under pressure, and that’s going to take a little longer than most Lions’ fans wanted to wait.

EXTRA POINTS

— The Lions have been unable this week to interview Whisenhunt, San Diego’s offensive coordinator, because the Chargers are playing Sunday at Cincinnati in the playoffs.

 Whisenhunt, who was the coach of the Arizona Cardinals when they made a surprising run to the Super Bowl five years ago, is believed to be a likely strong candidate to replace Schwartz.

— Former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell, now the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, reportedly will interview with Detroit.

Caldwell replaced Tony Dungy in Indianapolis in 2009 and led the Colts to the Super Bowl, but he was fired two years later after Peyton Manning got injured and they finished 2-14.