September 4, 2013 at 10:43 am

Bob Wojnowski

It's QB Matthew Stafford's mission to elevate Lions

The upcoming season is also a pivotal one for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Allen Park — The dissection continues, in every way. Matthew Stafford has been picked apart more often than he has picked apart defenses lately, which is kind of the point.

We thought we knew exactly what he was, a fearless football-slinger on his way to being one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. And then last season happened. And then this preseason happened, with meager production from the first-team offense.

And now here he stands, unfazed but not unblemished, seemingly at a crossroad. No one should overreact to a preseason, ever. This is about more than that, and as the Lions prepare to play for real against the Vikings Sunday, it’s fair to wonder when Stafford will take the next step.

Calvin Johnson will be back after sitting out three preseason games, and that could instantly cure any offense’s hiccups. That’s also where Stafford must evolve into something more than a strong-armed numbers-gobbler. The reliance on Johnson is understandable, but it’s not enough.

Beyond Reggie Bush, the Lions didn’t add dynamic pieces to the offense, which isn’t ideal, especially with three new starters on the line. But if Stafford truly is a franchise centerpiece capable of repeated playoff runs, he needs to make others more productive. This season is crucial for Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew, but as far as perceptions go, it’s almost as crucial for Stafford.

He gets it, and he generally handles it with genial ease. As the Lions returned to practice Tuesday, he was in good humor for a quarterback under increased scrutiny.

“Nobody’s happier than me to get to the regular season and play against a division opponent,” Stafford said. “It’s a different dynamic (in the preseason). We had all the parts to our offense for one, maybe two series. … I’m excited to have all the guys back in their spots. And obviously, it helps having 81 back.”

With Johnson’s bruised knee feeling better, Stafford’s preseason numbers — 27-for-55, one TD, one interception — are nearly as irrelevant as the Lions’ 3-1 record. They’d be totally irrelevant if not for previous struggles.

Stafford used to pressure

Sunday’s opener is absolutely huge for the Lions, who were 0-6 against division rivals last season. The Vikings made the playoffs with Christian Ponder at quarterback, and some guy named Adrian Peterson. Meanwhile, the Lions dropped from 10-6 to 4-12, and Stafford’s touchdown total plummeted from 41 to 20. He nearly topped 5,000 passing yards for the second straight season and helped Johnson set the receiving record, so let’s be clear on this — Stafford is not the main reason the Lions collapsed.

But the quarterback usually is the main reason a team rises, and as Stafford, 25, enters his fifth season, it’s nearing referendum time.

“I’ve had (pressure) since I was 15, so I’m kind of used to it,” Stafford said. “As quarterbacks, we get a ton of credit when we win and a ton of blame when we lose. It’s probably in between.”

Schwartz’s confidence in Stafford hasn’t wavered a bit, and it shouldn’t. He’s still young and has some star qualities, but the fact is, Stafford is 1-23 against teams that finished with winning records. That’s more of a franchise problem, but his accuracy issues haven’t gone away, and neither has the dissection of his mechanics.

Former NFL quarterbacks regularly pick at Stafford’s game, notably led by Ron Jaworski. Stafford is prone to throwing from all sorts of arm angles, and when it works, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t, it can look brutal. His completion percentage of 59.8 last season was poor and his quarterback rating of 79.8 was the lowest since his rookie season. He also threw 17 interceptions, although he played with a depleted receiving group and a line that needed fixing.

How much has really changed? Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are returning from injuries, and backups Patrick Edwards, Kris Durham and Micheal Spurlock aren’t exactly imposing. Bush should make a difference and runner Joique Bell could be decent, but that’s yet to be proven. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew should be a prime target, if the darn ball would just stick to his hands.

“I’m not a big worrier, so I have no concern about how we’re gonna do,” Johnson said. “We got Reggie, and that’s gonna add a dimension we missed since we lost Jahvid (Best). We got too many weapons to be mediocre.”

Own worst critic

That’s only true if Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan make the weapons work. After Johnson departed during the preseason, there wasn’t much to see.

So, is it as simple as getting him back?

“Yeah, like it’s as simple as having LeBron on the court,” Burleson said. “It’s just being realistic. I’m not afraid to say I take a lot of comfort in him being on the field.”

Stafford appreciates the comfort, too, but there’s a downside to it. The Lions face more unique defensive alignments than any team in the league because of their imbalance. The loss of Best to concussions made it even worse. Johnson drew so much attention, it sometimes was hard to find him, even if he’s impossible to miss.

Easy for us to say, right? Asked about all the critiques, Stafford chuckled.

“I’m my own worst critic, except for some of those guys,” he said, laughing. “I understand they have a job to do, and in the offseason there’s not a whole lot to talk about. But don’t get me wrong, I take a close look at my game at all times.”

Closer inspection is warranted, and Stafford is used to it. With increasing urgency, the Lions need him to grow from it.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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