July 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Time is now for Lions to show true colors

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has nearly thrown for consecutive 5,000-yard seasons, but also is 1-23 against teams with winning records. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Very soon, the Lions will be forced to tell us who or what they are, because the messages are still mixed. They’re not as bad as they showed last season, but they’re not exactly a playoff team, either.

GM Martin Mayhew bears the same mark, and the same scrutiny.

This regime deserved time after inheriting the 0-16 roster, but that was five years ago, and the Lions still have not defined who they are. It can’t just be Matthew Stafford flinging the ball to Calvin Johnson because that’s what it was last year, and the Lions went 4-12. That’s also pretty much what it was in 2011, when the Lions were a 10-6 playoff team.

The truth is, neither of those seasons defines them. This season will, and if you’re forcing me to pick, I think they’re closer to the playoff team than the last-place team. They improved in the offseason, adding safety Glover Quin, runner-receiver Reggie Bush and pass-rushing first-rounder Ezekiel Ansah. They’re still not nearly as set as the Packers or Bears in the NFC North, and probably are comparable to the Vikings.

But there’s a reason NFL numbers-crunchers are branding the Lions a likely bounce-back team. They were minus-16 in turnover differential last year, and that’s unlikely to happen again. When the ball hit the ground, the Lions fell on it only 32 percent of the time, one of the worst fumble-recovery rates in the league. They were 3-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer, worst in the league. Quirky stats like those suggest the Lions should be better.

Stafford must improve

They also should be better because Stafford should be (has to be) better. The Lions gave him a new contract, although both sides hedged slightly with only a three-year extension. Stafford, 25, ranks in the top 10 among quarterback salaries but his production reflects his inconsistent game, straddling the brink of, well, what?

With his strong right arm, he likes to wing it, and Schwartz likes to let him. But a little less winging and a little more sound football would make sense. Stafford has posted impressive numbers — nearly back-to-back 5,000-yard campaigns — and an NFL-record 727 passes last season. He also carries a few awful ones — 17-29 as a starter, including an astonishing 1-23 against teams that finished with winning records. While he didn’t earn that mark by himself, quarterbacks and coaches are the ones who tote the numbers.

Stafford had to spend the offseason listening to every retired quarterback from Donovan McNabb to Ron Jaworski to Rich Gannon rip his mechanics and his record. Actually, I doubt Stafford listened to much of it, but he should be motivated by it.

He has 54 interceptions and 80 touchdown passes in four seasons, and while the interception total is partly a function of the Lions’ early horridness, it has to improve now. Mayhew added Bush to provide big-play pop, although at 28, it’s unclear how much he has left.

The Lions showed more urgency, drafting for need and shuffling their offensive line, with at least three new starters. Revamping absolutely was necessary, but former first-round pick Riley Reiff still has to prove himself at left tackle.

Receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are back from injuries, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew sees a lot passes (and even catches some). But the Lions can’t keep relying on arms and hands to win games. It’s the primary reason they’re such a confounding and flighty team, with a one-dimensional offense.

Fulfilling promise

Stafford has the requisite intangibles in toughness, leadership and smarts. He has the key tangibles too, the powerful arm and decent size. But the signs of greatness come in blinding bursts, sort of like the team itself. One of these years, the Lions have to make the transition from flashing potential to fulfilling it.

“I promise you, nobody is going to work harder than me to get this team going in the right direction,” Stafford said after signing his extension earlier this month. “That’s winning games and going to the playoffs multiple years in a row.”

It’s the only way to prove the 10-6 season wasn’t the aberration. The Lions still have exactly one playoff victory in 55 years, and along with the recent 1-23 mark against winning teams, they haven’t matched up with the big boys for a long time.

I think they have a shot this year, with 9-7 a reasonable goal. Their defensive line is good, anchored by Ndamukong Suh. Their secondary is improved with Quin and cornerback Chris Houston, and maybe maybe maybe a healthy Louis Delmas. If Bush brings his old burst, Stafford and Johnson won’t be required to play catch on every drive.

Either the Lions are a talented team that horribly underachieved last season, or an overrated team that did what it does. When camp opens, jobs and reputations will be at stake, from Mayhew to Schwartz to players. Whatever Stafford and the Lions think they are, it has to be seen more often to be believed.


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