Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford got knocked to the ground several times in a poor debut for the Lions in which he threw three interceptions. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
Growing pains, throwing pains. That's not what you want to hear when a new season dawns, and it sure wasn't what Matthew Stafford wanted to hear.
But no surprise, there it was on graphic display in the Louisiana Superdome, a fresh batch of ugly evidence the Lions' future won't easily be extricated from their immediate, inglorious past. Sad to say, the nasty stuff isn't close to over.
For long stretches, the Lions looked staggeringly familiar Sunday, shredded by the Saints, 45-27. The only notable difference was the prized rookie quarterback, and while Stafford should be a difference-maker eventually, not on this day, not even close.
There were several slaps of sobering reality for the Lions (the defense is still beyond inept) and one big, sweaty slap for Stafford, who sometimes threw high, sometimes threw low and occasionally threw on target. In his debut, he was 16-for-37 for 205 yards and three interceptions. No one should be shocked -- or panic -- but this was a disappointing debut, even by debut standards.
At least Stafford didn't seem shaken by the abuse. He was sacked once and hit fairly often, and for a guy with a strong arm, he strangely underthrew a lot. If there were signs of Stafford getting rattled -- uncontrollable screaming, falling to the turf in despair, tearing up his lucrative contract -- I sure didn't see it.
"No, I'm fine," he said. "I wish I could've played better, but you gotta learn from it. I've thrown three picks in a game before, so it happens."
Rookie feels the pain
It'll happen more if the Lions don't get their running game cranked up. The Saints are known for hyper-kinetic offense and lame defense, but Kevin Smith rushed for 20 yards. That was bad. So was this: On three drives that started inside the Saints' 15 because of kick returns and turnovers, the Lions scored onetouchdown.
Stafford kept firing, kept getting knocked down, kept getting up, kept firing again. I give him credit for that. But there's a reason a New Orleans defender last week called Stafford "fresh meat." In the NFL, rookie quarterbacks are tenderized, pounded until they're easily sliced.
And with the Lions, now riding a gaudy 18-game losing streak, Stafford will take a pounding. This certainly wasn't all on him, please. Not sure if you noticed, but Drew Brees threw six touchdown passes and only stopped because he politely was told to go home.
Jim Schwartz made massive changes as coach, but he had no shot in this one, a tough matchup against perhaps the league's top offense. This is partly why I, and others, wanted Daunte Culpepper to start the season. Anyone expecting Stafford to step in as Matt Ryan did for the Falcons last season, or even as Mark Sanchez did for the Jets on Sunday, was just delirious.
Sanchez was 18-for-31 for 272 yards as the visiting Jets rolled over the Texans, 24-7.
Lions ruffled, but not QB
The formula for indoctrinating a quarterback is to protect him, and I don't just mean with the offensive line. I mean with a running game and a defense, both non-existent for the Lions.
The Lions stayed close for a while, but that was mainly because of special teams. This was hardly a traditional shootout -- the Saints had 515 total yards and the Lions 231.
Stafford missed badly at times, and was especially mad at himself for underthrowing Calvin Johnson on a potential touchdown. Schwartz was puzzled by the erratic passes, but not overly troubled.
"He was getting hit, but not on all of them," Schwartz said. "It's on him to make accurate passes. But let's just not put blame on one person. There's a lot to go around."
To be fair, Stafford stared at a lot of third-and-longs. And I'm not stupid here. I recognize he's a rookie leading a team that was 0-16, and he wisely threw passes away to avoid sacks.
He also hooked up with Johnson for a 64-yarder in the third quarter, which should have been a touchdown but the officials ruled Johnson out at the 3. Stafford eventually bulled in from the 1, and sorry to say, it's fitting his first score sliced into an 18-point deficit.
"It was tough -- playing from behind is never easy," Stafford said. "But that's on us as an offense, and on me as the leader of the offense. Looking back, I thought I did a pretty decent job. I felt prepared and didn't feel nervous at all."
Stafford was composed as he talked, wearing his now-signature Detroit Tigers cap and untucked shirt. I have a feeling it will take a lot to ruffle this guy.
That's the good sign. The bad sign is, he'll have to weather a ton this season, more than he probably imagined. In that regard, for all their changes, the Lions haven't shown anything different yet.
A look at rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford's NFL debut: