January 5, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Kid gloves over Matthew Stafford must come off

After finishing his first season with the Lions, expectations will be higher for coach Jim Schwartz. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Allen Park

Starting now, it changes for Matthew Stafford. Starting now, it changes for Jim Schwartz.

The rookie apprenticeships are over. The grading-on-a-curve should end, even for the 2-14 Lions.

I know this organization couldn't spell urgency if you spotted it the u-r-g-e-n-c, reflected in William Clay Ford's 40-plus years of dreadfully passive ownership. Ford doesn't speak publicly much and clearly doesn't demand much, which is lamentable and unchangeable. In that vacuum, ineptitude festers, unless someone is strong enough to overcome it.

In his first season, Stafford looked capable of becoming strong enough, but boy, the kid needs tons of help. The Lions' only other real weapon is receiver Calvin Johnson, who desperately needs the ball, which means he desperately needs Stafford, another reason the standards have to rise.

Schwartz offered most of the expected platitudes Monday, and said them sternly in the final team meeting, suggesting many more changes are ahead, according to players. But he also expressed a strong aversion to what he calls "immediate gratification," saying the Lions can't just sign a bunch of free agents because long-term winners are built through the draft.

I get that. I actually agree with it.

Quite a mess

Schwartz knew what he was getting into here, with an 0-16 roster ridiculously barren of talent. He and first-year GM Martin Mayhew bought more time by drafting a quarterback No. 1, but that shouldn't mean they get three or four free years.

Asking for marked improvement next season -- say, six victories -- should not be asking too much. And it will only happen if Stafford gets better, which will only happen if the Lions address areas of, ahem, "immediate attention."

That means a major overhaul of the worst defense in the NFL. That means rebuilding the running game, back in disrepair because of Kevin Smith's knee injury.

"We need to do a better job of supporting our quarterback," Schwartz said. "Matt made mistakes, but most of his mistakes came from either trying to catch up and throwing interceptions, or being in situations where it was third-and-15 and trying too aggressively to make a first down.

"He made some throws I haven't seen made in the NFL on a consistent basis. He tried to do too much at times, and was forced to do too much at times. But I wasn't disappointed in his decision-making, in his accuracy, in his leadership, in his toughness. He was exactly what we thought we'd get. If we put more pieces around him, we'll be significantly better."

Obviously, Schwartz's belief in Stafford grew, even as the 21-year-old threw 20 interceptions in 10 starts. The coach graded on the rookie curve and that's fine, for now. Stafford did show a big arm and legitimate guts, and also some impatience and inaccuracy.

And after it was all over, he showed some weariness. Speaking for the first time since minor knee surgery and a shoulder separation ended his season prematurely, Stafford sounded Monday like a guy who survived a gauntlet of hard knocks and enlightenment, and figures to be better for it.

"I had some ups and downs, made some good plays and some bad ones, won and loss, did it all," he said. "We had a lot of losses and negatives that we can learn from. It's almost a better learning tool than maybe some wins."

Success must come

If mistakes and losses are learning tools, the Lions will be brilliant one of these years. Just don't count on it anytime soon.

Stafford characterized his first season as "good," but it was clear he didn't mean it in the traditional sense, after completing 53 percent of his passes and winning only twice. He meant it in the sense that he knows what he's facing now, the value (theoretically) of starting from day one.

Stafford had no luxury of protection like fellow high pick Mark Sanchez with the stout, playoff-bound Jets. He has to progress faster, and he admitted his turnovers are the main issue.

After the Lions' 0-16 nonsense, anything positive by Stafford was going to be celebrated, and even scant improvement under Schwartz was going to be noticed. But evaluations change now, and if ownership historically doesn't demand results, the fans increasingly will. Nine of the Lions' past 14 home games have been blacked out, which means the attraction of the NFL's No. 1 pick didn't counteract the drain from all the losing.

Schwartz preaches accountability, and showed it often by benching players. The weeding-out process is necessary, but it isn't the only measure of a coach. Schwartz stepped into a gigantic mess and got some things he wanted, specifically a quarterback. Now I'm interested to see how he finds other things just as important, like a defense and a few more victories.

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

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