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.
That's one of Stafford's major problems at the moment. There are enough talented quarterbacks in the league today that his regression becomes more disconcerting with each passing week. Luck, the first pick in the 2011 draft, took over the worst team in the league and has twice led the Colts to winning seasons. Wilson has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate after falling to the third round of that same draft. Meanwhile, Stafford, 25, is starting to look very much like another strong-armed quarterback who can't do the little things that consistently lead to victories.
Stafford has escaped such criticism thus far. Shoulder injuries in his first two seasons -- which limited him to a combined 13 games -- forced people to wait and see what he could do when healthy. Stafford also produced a Pro Bowl-worthy season in 2011, when he passed for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns and led the Lions to their first postseason appearance since 1999. The past two seasons have wilted much of the optimism that blossomed that year, though. Stafford's passer rating dropped nearly 18 points last season (from 97.2 in 2011 to 79.8 in 2012), and now his game is imploding during what should be another run for a playoff spot.
At one point this season, the Lions had everything working in their favor. Their two rivals in the NFC North, Green Bay and Chicago, lost their starting quarterbacks to injuries when Detroit was sitting atop the division with a 6-3 record. Now, it's hard to think highly of the one game Detroit did win. The Lions enjoyed a 40-10 thumping of the Packers on Thanksgiving, when Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was standing on the sideline and his offense could muster only 126 yards in that contest.
It's hard to see this season ending well for Detroit. Stafford's play has been so inept lately that he'll probably be a liability in at least one more game on the Lions' schedule. At 7-7, the Lions don't control their own destiny in the playoff race any longer. And, for those who expect the season finale at Minnesota to be an easy win, think again. The Vikings nearly beat Baltimore two weeks ago and blew out Philadelphia this past Sunday.
Instead of worrying about whether the Lions can somehow make the playoffs, it's better to focus on where they're heading in the future. It's been well documented that they haven't had a Pro Bowl quarterback in four decades, and that legacy has surely made it easier for Stafford to excite fans with his skills. But now he finds himself in a place many of his Lions predecessors know too well. He's past the point where people can fantasize about his potential. The only thing that matters is whether there really is more to his game than what he has already shown.