Matthew Stafford must show more

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The impassioned defenses of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford make perfect sense. Lions coach Jim Schwartz isn't losing his confidence in his star signal-caller. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson also thinks it's wrong to place so much blame on Stafford for the team's latest slump. They want to believe their fifth-year leader remains the answer to Detroit's long-term future. They have no interest in exploring a possibility that is becoming harder to ignore -- that Stafford might never be the man to take this team where it wants to go.

At this point in Stafford's career, it's fair to question his ceiling. The Lions -- a team that sat atop the NFC North a few weeks ago -- have dropped four of their past five games, including a baffling 18-16 home loss to Baltimore on Monday night. In that stretch, Stafford has thrown 10 interceptions, lost two fumbles and produced only one performance when he completed more than 57 percent of his attempts. In other words, he is playing the worst football of his career at the worst possible time.

That has been somewhat overshadowed by questions about the future of Schwartz, who arrived in Detroit just a few months before Stafford became the first pick in the 2009 draft. It's actually a silly discussion to entertain at this point. Schwartz surely knows his job is in jeopardy if the Lions don't reach the playoffs. He has had five seasons and barely survived at the end of last season.

The real question is whether Stafford can take that next step in his development. That should be especially galling to Detroit fans, given the five-year, $76.5 million extension he signed this summer. He's always had plenty of gunslinger in his game, and few quarterbacks in the league can match his arm strength. His decision-making and his struggles at critical junctures are a different matter. Stafford might be moving toward an exasperating career that starkly resembles Tony Romo's in Dallas.

Consider the Baltimore game. Even though Stafford was plagued by some dropped passes, he also threw three interceptions, the biggest of which came on Detroit's final drive. The Lions had three timeouts, 38 seconds remaining and the ball on their own 20-yard line when that possession began. It ended one play later, when Stafford lofted a pass that was too high for wide receiver Nate Burleson to catch, a throw that ultimately landed in the hands of Ravens safety Matt Elam.

That pass in that situation defied explanation. The Lions had ample opportunity to move the ball into field goal range in a game they trailed by two points. Forget about what Peyton Manning or Tom Brady would have done in such circumstances. There are plenty of younger quarterbacks who could have delivered in that moment, including Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson.

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