April 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski: Commentary

New Lion Stafford comes with too high a price, too great a risk

Quaterback Matthew Stafford, the Detroit Lions No. 1 overall pick at the NFL Draft, speaks to the media at Radio City Music Hall in New York Saturday. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

Allen Park -- Matthew Stafford says all the right things. He loves a challenge. He's excited to be a Lion. He can't wait to get started.

Poor guy. He has no idea.

The Lions paid heavily -- ridiculously heavily -- for their latest Quarterback Who Will Make Everyone Forget Jon-Joey-Charlie-Scott-Rodney-Andre-etc. They got desperate and threw an NFL-record $41.7 million in guaranteed money at a decent prospect who wasn't wildly touted by many. GM Martin Mayhew bought a face for the franchise and a nice strong arm, and he also purchased this: Time.

It will take time for a new quarterback to develop on a bad team, time for the verdict to be rendered. I just hope the Lions use their time better than they used their money, better than they used the No. 1 overall pick. I'll say it once more -- I think drafting Stafford was a mistake, a gigantic gamble not worth taking. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong position for the NFL's first 0-16 team.

Mayhew followed that with an astonishing choice at No. 20 -- Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Honestly, I don't get it. So much for stocking the trenches and rebuilding from the inside out, huh? So the team with one of the worst defenses in the history of the league used its two first-round picks Saturday on offensive players.

And neither is an offensive lineman.

Did the Lions really have the luxury of taking a tight end, even one as complete as Pettigrew, in the first round? At least the first pick of the second round, Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas, plays defense, allegedly.

Mayhew and new coach Jim Schwartz had said they'd draft for talent, not need, because the roster is so barren. That means they considered Pettigrew more talented than any offensive linemen or defensive lineman or linebacker available. I guess we'll see.

"We stayed true to what we talked about," Mayhew said. "We were looking for value and we think we found it."

If Stafford wonders what he's getting into, it should be dawning on him now. He heard the boos when his selection was announced, but I'm willing to be fair here. The guy deserves a chance, and the only way he'll have a chance is if Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan show patience and let him sit and learn most of his rookie season.

The next time we see Stafford in a prominent role, it should be early in 2010, or late in 2009. Any sooner, playing behind that mushy offensive line, and Stafford will be wrecked just as Joey Harrington was wrecked. And with the mixed opinions about Stafford's accuracy and decision-making, he's not polished enough to overcome it.

Daunte Culpepper has shown signs of reclaiming his skills and conditioning, which could give Stafford time to grow. If Culpepper stumbles and the pressure mounts to play Stafford, this could be a disaster.

No one should expect Stafford to have an impact his first season. By the time he's ready to play (theoretically), the Lions will be improved (theoretically).

"I'm a competitive guy and I'm going to try and get ready as quick as I possibly can," Stafford said. "If that's game one, then that's game one. If it's game eight, or not even in the first year, it's up to the coaches."

OK, Schwartz, it's up to you. Your plan?

"It's the same that goes into the decision on any player," Schwartz said. "Is he the best player and is he ready? We're at a really good position right now with a rejuvenated Daunte Culpepper. We don't have to force our hand. We don't have to make a decision that's not based on merit."

I hope that's not what they did Saturday -- make a decision not based on merit. The Lions desperately needed a quarterback (and a whole lot more) and they probably felt they couldn't pass on this one, no matter the cost.

The cost was amazingly high. I'll say this about Mayhew and Schwartz: They aren't afraid to stick with who they wanted, no matter what the public craves, no matter how questionable it appears. That means they're confident and smart, or just arrogant and inexperienced. Heck, maybe Mayhew has some mystery football strategy that doesn't involve tackling players on the other team.

There was immense pressure on Mayhew, Schwartz and Stafford before the draft, and it just shot through the Ford Field roof. But there is some hope. Stafford is a bright guy and a one-time highly touted prep prospect who jumped in immediately at Georgia and started three years in the rugged SEC. He seems to know a little about handling pressure.

Honestly, I hope he's the one who finally makes us stop mocking the Lions' quarterback history. It would be a phenomenal story, the prodigy from Bobby Layne's Texas high school crushing the fabled Curse of Bobby Layne, the franchise's last great quarterback.

Sorry, but it seems like a reach to me. Until the Lions fix their offensive line and their defense, it's all just puffery.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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