January 1, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions must demand more of Matthew Stafford if they want an elite QB

Matthew Stafford’s passer rating wasn’t great this season, but that’s partly due to the fact, as the Football Outsiders’ stat gurus noted, no quarterback faced a tougher slate of pass defenses than he did in 2012. (Nine of his games came against top-10 units.) (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Allen Park Nobody's questioning Matthew Stafford's talent. Nobody's questioning his durability anymore, either. Nobody's really even questioning his potential at this point, not after the Lions' 24-year-old quarterback passed for nearly 5,000 yards again this season.

But among the questions that have to be asked in the wake of the Lions' disappointing 4-12 finish is the one few in the organization seem all that willing to entertain, at least publicly: How does their franchise quarterback take the next step?

It seems like a simple enough query, not to mention an important one, which is why on Monday I posed it to Jim Schwartz, the man who staked his future on the No. 1 overall pick back in 2009 shortly after taking the head coaching job in Detroit.

What I got was a long-winded explanation — five minutes, at least — of how everything else around Stafford went wrong this season, which, while mostly true, wasn't exactly news.

Everyone knows the Lions' receiving corps was decimated by injuries (and insubordination) this fall, leaving Stafford with Calvin Johnson — targeted a whopping 200-plus times this season — and a bunch of guys who were, as Schwartz tactfully put it Sunday, "not household names."

Demanding more

Everyone knows this team's old, familiar offensive line has obvious limitations, and it's Stafford's quick trigger that largely explains another drop in sack totals, from 36 to 29, despite Stafford setting an NFL record with 727 pass attempts.

Everyone knows the promise Schwartz and Martin Mayhew made to build a team that can run the ball and stop the run hasn't come close to being realized. (The Redskins' Alfred Morris, a rookie sixth-round pick, rushed for more yards this season than the entire Lions team.)

Not everybody knows this, either: Stafford's passer rating wasn't great this season, but that's partly due to the fact, as the Football Outsiders' stat gurus noted, no quarterback faced a tougher slate of pass defenses than he did in 2012. (Nine of his games came against top-10 units.)

But "everybody can get better," Schwartz finally acknowledged, right before he joined in the Black Monday ritual and cut loose some of his offensive assistants. (Not coincidentally, the guys in charge of the receivers, running backs and offensive line.)

And everybody, including Stafford, has to get better if the Lions are going to get back on track next season. So where does the improvement need to come from Stafford?

"Win games," Schwartz said. "He's thrown for 5,000 yards the past couple years. One was a playoff year, this year was four wins. It's not about stats."

No, it's not. And that's why it's time the Lions stop making excuses for Stafford and start challenging him a bit more. He's a good quarterback with the potential to be great, and while I understood the need to build his confidence early in his NFL career — particularly as he fought through a series of major injuries — the Lions are failing him if they don't give him his due and then demand even more in return.

Stafford's contract runs through 2014, but he's in line for an extension, perhaps as early as this spring, what with his salary-cap hit hovering around $20 million each of the next two years. Whenever it comes, it's going to put him alongside the NFL's elite quarterbacks in terms of salary, raising the expectations even higher.

"I know him as a competitor," receiver Nate Burleson said Monday. "And even though he put up monster numbers this year and he's still one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, I don't think he wants to be in that category anymore. He wants to take it to the elite level, and he has the capability."

'Very, very scrutinized'

There's no doubt Stafford embraces the challenge, as he has from the start here in Detroit, taking the reins as rookie and then taking on more of a leadership role once he got past the injuries.

Asked for a little self-analysis following Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Bears, he said, "You learn from everything, the good and the bad. Obviously, four wins isn't good enough. I can definitely look at my play, and I will. And I'll work on it."

It appears he'll continue to work on it with Scott Linehan, who is expected back as offensive coordinator despite his unit's dropoff in production this season.

Linehan's a former quarterback himself, and he's had plenty of success in the NFL. But the signal-callers he has tutored aren't exactly what you'd call elite: Daunte Culpepper, Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte. Todd Downing, the Lions' quarterbacks coach the last three years, has been with Linehan almost every step of the way, from Minnesota to St. Louis to Detroit.

And when I asked Schwartz if there was any thought of adding a fresh set of eyes to work with his quarterback, the head coach pretty well dismissed the idea. He reiterated again that "continuity's important" — certainly, it is — and reminded us that Stafford's already "a very, very scrutinized player."

"All quarterbacks are," Schwartz said. "It comes with the territory."

It already has this season, with everyone taking aim at Stafford's improvisational act in the pocket. In recent weeks, ESPN's Ron Jaworski, a former Pro Bowl quarterback, has called him "an incredible physical talent who drives me crazy," while Hall of Famer Steve Young compared him to Ferrari that "leaks oil." And I have to agree: The notion that Stafford's lower-body mechanics and footwork don't need any help, don't need any fine-tuning, is laughable.

Still, Schwartz on Monday scoffed at that suggestion — "I think his mechanics are very good," he said — and praised his "creative" ability to "get rid of the ball quickly," even if it means he doesn't "deliver the ball in classic form."

True to form, right? Honestly, if there's a problem here, that might be it.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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