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Detroit can break out if Stafford plays Lions' share

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- There are a lot of teams looking for quarterbacks in this year's draft, but the Detroit Lions aren't one of them. They believe in Matt Stafford, and it's easy to see why. He's accurate, confident, smart and talented.

What he isn't is durable, and that should concern the Lions. Only it doesn't, with the club convinced the shoulder injuries that sidelined Stafford last season won't bother him this time around -- and, for the sake of the franchise, here's hoping they're right.

Because if they are, the Detroit Lions are ready for launch.

Matt Stafford (left) has struggled to do what Sam Bradford (right) did as a rookie: finish a season. (US Presswire)  
Matt Stafford (left) has struggled to do what Sam Bradford (right) did as a rookie: finish a season. (US Presswire)  
I'm serious. The Lions not only are improved, they're so much better that I'm not sure they -- and not Chicago -- don't pose the greater threat to Green Bay in the NFC North. I know, I know, it's been years since Detroit was anything but the NFL's piñata. But now the Lions look -- dare I say it? -- dangerous, and think about the last time that adjective was used in conjunction with the club.

But it's deserved. Detroit won its last four games last year -- including defeats of the Packers and Tampa Bay -- and, finally, finally, finally, began to behave like a team that knew what it was doing. Furthermore, it won without Stafford, which upped the degree of difficulty.

Now, add a healthy Stafford to the picture and you have the Lions making a bona-fide run at respectability, their first stab at a winning season since 2000. Granted, their defense must improve, their offensive line could use help and they must find a durable back who can make an impact. But who are we kidding here? It all starts with Stafford, and if his right shoulder is OK the Lions should be, too.

"The main part in Matt Stafford's progress is just being on the field," coach Jim Schwartz said. "We're not talking about him needing to learn our offense. We're not talking about him needing to become a more accurate thrower or learn the defense or become a hard worker or to mature. We're talking about injuries, and he doesn't have anything that we expect to be issues in the future.

"He's obviously a diligent worker. We can't supervise his workout at this point [because of the NFL lockout], but we can have conversations with the people who are. We don't anticipate issues with him going forward."

That's great. Only the record shows that maybe they should anticipate them. Stafford was hurt twice as a rookie, and he was hurt twice last season. In two pro seasons he has 13 starts, which means he suits up for 41 percent of the Lions' games, and, sorry, that won't cut it. When you compare that to the first quarterback taken in the 2008 draft -- Matt Ryan -- or the first one chosen last year -- Sam Bradford -- you see why. Ryan missed two starts in three seasons, and Bradford didn't miss one last year.

And Stafford? Already, he's been forced to sit down 19 games.

Once, it was a knee injury. Then it was three shoulder injuries that put him there. In his rookie season, it was his left shoulder that was a problem. Last year it was his right -- with Stafford injuring it twice. The Lions say it's not a big deal, but I say it is. Because if Matt Stafford can't stay out of the trainer's room, if he can't stay off the injury report or the bench ... the Lions are cooked. "If you look at quarterbacks who have had AC separations," Schwartz said, "there's been quite a long list of those guys. The common thing with all of them is that, with enough time, they're fine. The AC is a lot different than the labrum, rotator cuff and those kinds of things. There have been plenty of quarterbacks who have come back [from it], and there are few quarterbacks who have had it year-to-year. I wouldn't put that on him just because he had that issue."

I wouldn't, either. But it's not just that issue. It's that he hasn't completed a season. One year it's the left shoulder; the next it's the right. What next?

All I know is that when Matt Stafford plays the Lions are a different club, and I also know that in games where he was hurt he left with the Lions ahead. Nevertheless, he bowed out again and again and again, and it's one thing when it's a veteran like Chad Pennington sitting down with a shoulder injury; it's another when it's the future of the franchise -- a 23-year-old with two years' experience -- who can't make it through a season.

That would make me cautious. Not the Lions.

"After two seasons," I asked Schwartz, "what do you know of the guy?"

"I know a lot about him," he answered. "What don't we know?"

"That he can complete a season." I said.

"OK, I don't," Schwartz said, "but we don't have doubts that he will be able to do that. I think we've seen everything we need to see from him. It was a huge step for him to go from rookie year to second year, and though he wasn't on the field enough last year it wasn't like he was a work in progress.

"The guy played about 120 snaps -- which is the equivalent of about two games -- and threw six touchdown passes and one interception. Go do the math on that one. He left all three games with the lead. What do you say about that?"

Schwartz didn't wait for an answer. He provided it himself.

"He needs to stay on the field more," he said. "And that's where we are. We don't have a concern that the injuries that happened to him last year will keep him off the field this year. So you say, 'Well, now is he going to roll an ankle or get a hamstring or sprain his finger?'

"Nobody has a crystal ball, but it doesn't change the fact that we need to keep him on the field. There's a reason we drafted him No. 1, and that was to play."

Precisely.

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