December 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm

John Niyo

Lions, Schwartz need Stafford now more than ever

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Allen Park If you take the long view which is always a painful exercise for Lions fans youll see nothing really has changed.

And I dont mean that in the usual Ford family-inspired ways.

What I mean is Jim Schwartzs coaching fate always was tied to Matthew Staffords golden right arm, ever since he inadvertently labeled Stafford the next Bobby Layne a few months before the team selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.

Nearly five years and $82 million later, thats even more apparent, with Schwartzs job in jeopardy if his quarterback cant rally the Lions these final two weeks of the regular season.

He can, of course. Weve all seen enough from Stafford already in his young career to know that. And if youve watched the NFC North this season, youll realize anythings possible.

Thats the positive spin Schwartz kept trying to put on the ball Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Lions playoff hopes took a major hit with an 18-16 loss to the Ravens at Ford Field.

Hes our quarterback, and hes gonna play well for us, Schwartz said. Were one game down with two to play. A lot of things can happen over these next two weeks.

But theres little doubt the one thing that has to happen, above all else, is for Stafford to shake out of this maddening second-half funk.

Ever since Staffords thrilling, last-minute drive stunned Dallas in late October, the quarterback has struggled to find a consistent form. In the last six games, he has completed 51.1 percent of his passes 52.6 percent if you throw out the game played in that snow globe in Philadelphia while committing 13 turnovers.

Thats 11 interceptions and two fumbles against 12 touchdown passes. Thats the kind of ball security thats bad for job security. And thats why Schwartz was stuck answering questions about his own status, well aware his teams nationally-televised meltdown the night before lit a fire under the debate, here in Detroit and around the league.

The Great Protector

Schwartz, who has two years left on his contract beyond this season after signing an extension following the Lions 2011 playoff breakthrough, cut things off rather quickly. He declined to speak about any recent conversations he may have had with ownership and refused to speculate about his future.

I think that just feeds into something thats other than what this games about, said Schwartz, whose team must win its final two games and hope for either Chicago or Green Bay ideally both to stumble before their Week 17 meeting at Soldier Field. I understand you guys have a job to do, and this is stuff that you guys want to talk about. Thats fine. But I dont think it does any good for me or for our team to let that be the focus.

Nor does he have much interest in letting the weight of missed opportunities fall squarely on Staffords shoulders, though its impossible to ignore it. Even if the Lions arent the most talented team in their division, theyve certainly been the healthiest this fall. Particularly at the most important position, as the Bears played four games without Jay Cutler taking a snap while the Packers havent had Aaron Rodgers for six-plus games.

Yet, somehow the Lions are the ones reeling, having lost four of their last five and dropping from third to fourth to ninth in the NFC in a span of eight days.

Stafford, 25, ranks third among NFL quarterbacks with 4,211 passing yards and fourth with 28 touchdowns, but hes 20th in rating and has completed 32 percent of his fourth-quarter attempts the last five games. All three interceptions Monday came in the second half, the first two in short-yardage third-down situations and the last on the first play after Justin Tuckers go-ahead 61-yard field goal in the final minute.

Afterward, Stafford pinned the loss on his teams self-inflicted wounds while acknowledging, I didnt play my best game, by any means. But Schwartz was quick to spread that blame around, citing dropped passes and his own defense, among other culprits. And Tuesday afternoon, Trent Dilfer, the former NFL quarterback who worked the Ravens-Lions game as a TV analyst, was among those who took issue with that in an ESPN Radio interview.

I root for Matthew Stafford, Dilfer said. I think hes a phenomenal talent, and hes a great human being and a tough guy and a leader. I really believe the issue is, I think the head coach is an enabler. Theres never that true accountability: You didnt do your job, so theres gonna be consequences. Every postgame press conference is, Well, you know He makes excuses for the dumb-dumb mistakes that the Lions make.

All morning Ive been sitting here trying to figure out, How does this happen? It has to go on the head coach.

Excusable behavior

Schwartz, as youd expect, took issue with the suggestion he still treats Stafford with kid gloves, something many of us were criticizing him for a year ago.

I think we hold all our players to a high standard, Schwartz said. But we also dont publicly shame em weve never done that with any player. So hes no different than any other player when it comes to that.

Im certain some of Staffords teammates past and present would disagree about that. And even Tuesday the coach went overboard in explaining away some of Staffords recent struggles.

By Schwartzs count, Stafford only really rushed one throw against the Ravens that second-quarter screen pass intended for Joique Bell. He also insisted Stafford is an accurate passer and a very mechanically sound quarterback. And he scoffed at the idea Staffords confidence is shaken right now.

He feels a tremendous responsibility to help this team win and weve been in a tough stretch, Schwartz said. But knowing Matt, knowing where hes been, things hes done, it doesnt affect his confidence. Matts going to go out, he has the respect of his teammates, he has the respect of the coaching staff, and we expect him to go out and play well.

I do, too, for what its worth. But if he doesnt, I expect itll be his coach thats held accountable.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has 13 turnovers in his last six games. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News