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 ó 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, itís 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 offenseís hiccups. Thatís also where Stafford must evolve into something more than a strong-armed numbers-gobbler. The reliance on Johnson is understandable, but itís not enough.

Beyond Reggie Bush, the Lions didnít add dynamic pieces to the offense, which isnít 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, itís 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.

ďNobodyís happier than me to get to the regular season and play against a division opponent,Ē Stafford said. ďItís a different dynamic (in the preseason). We had all the parts to our offense for one, maybe two series. Ö Iím excited to have all the guys back in their spots. And obviously, it helps having 81 back.Ē

With Johnsonís bruised knee feeling better, Staffordís preseason numbers ó 27-for-55, one TD, one interception ó are nearly as irrelevant as the Lionsí 3-1 record. Theyíd be totally irrelevant if not for previous struggles.

Stafford used to pressure

Sundayís 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 Staffordís 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 letís be clear on this ó 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, itís nearing referendum time.

ďIíve had (pressure) since I was 15, so Iím kind of used to it,Ē Stafford said. ďAs quarterbacks, we get a ton of credit when we win and a ton of blame when we lose. Itís probably in between.Ē

Schwartzís confidence in Stafford hasnít wavered a bit, and it shouldnít. Heís still young and has some star qualities, but the fact is, Stafford is 1-23 against teams that finished with winning records. Thatís more of a franchise problem, but his accuracy issues havenít gone away, and neither has the dissection of his mechanics.

Former NFL quarterbacks regularly pick at Staffordís game, notably led by Ron Jaworski. Stafford is prone to throwing from all sorts of arm angles, and when it works, itís brilliant. When it doesnít, 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 arenít exactly imposing. Bush should make a difference and runner Joique Bell could be decent, but thatís yet to be proven. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew should be a prime target, if the darn ball would just stick to his hands.

ďIím not a big worrier, so I have no concern about how weíre gonna do,Ē Johnson said. ďWe got Reggie, and thatís gonna add a dimension we missed since we lost Jahvid (Best). We got too many weapons to be mediocre.Ē

Own worst critic

Thatís only true if Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan make the weapons work. After Johnson departed during the preseason, there wasnít much to see.

So, is it as simple as getting him back?

ďYeah, like itís as simple as having LeBron on the court,Ē Burleson said. ďItís just being realistic. Iím not afraid to say I take a lot of comfort in him being on the field.Ē

Stafford appreciates the comfort, too, but thereís 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 heís impossible to miss.

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

ďIím my own worst critic, except for some of those guys,Ē he said, laughing. ďI understand they have a job to do, and in the offseason thereís not a whole lot to talk about. But donít get me wrong, I take a close look at my game at all times.Ē

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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