December 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm

John Niyo

Lions, Schwartz need Stafford now more than ever

Double Coverage: Week 16 with Foster and Sharp
Double Coverage: Week 16 with Foster and Sharp: Did somebody say choke? The sportswriters discuss the Lions' loss to the Ravens.

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

And I don’t mean that in the usual Ford family-inspired ways.

What I mean is Jim Schwartz’s coaching fate always was tied to Matthew Stafford’s 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, that’s even more apparent, with Schwartz’s job in jeopardy if his quarterback can’t rally the Lions these final two weeks of the regular season.

He can, of course. We’ve all seen enough from Stafford already in his young career to know that. And if you’ve watched the NFC North this season, you’ll realize anything’s possible.

That’s 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.

“He’s our quarterback, and he’s gonna play well for us,” Schwartz said. “We’re one game down with two to play. A lot of things can happen over these next two weeks.”

But there’s 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 Stafford’s 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.

That’s 11 interceptions and two fumbles against 12 touchdown passes. That’s the kind of ball security that’s bad for job security. And that’s why Schwartz was stuck answering questions about his own status, well aware his team’s 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 that’s other than what this game’s 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. That’s fine. But I don’t 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 Stafford’s shoulders, though it’s impossible to ignore it. Even if the Lions aren’t the most talented team in their division, they’ve 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 haven’t 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 he’s 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 Tucker’s go-ahead 61-yard field goal in the final minute.

Afterward, Stafford pinned the loss on his team’s “self-inflicted” wounds while acknowledging, “I didn’t 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 he’s a phenomenal talent, and he’s 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. … There’s never that true accountability: ‘You didn’t do your job, so there’s 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 I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out, ‘How does this happen?’ It has to go on the head coach.”

Excusable behavior

Schwartz, as you’d 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 don’t publicly shame ’em — we’ve never done that with any player. So he’s no different than any other player when it comes to that.”

I’m certain some of Stafford’s teammates — past and present — would disagree about that. And even Tuesday the coach went overboard in explaining away some of Stafford’s recent struggles.

By Schwartz’s 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 Stafford’s confidence is shaken right now.

“He feels a tremendous responsibility to help this team win and we’ve been in a tough stretch,” Schwartz said. “But knowing Matt, knowing where he’s been, things he’s done, it doesn’t affect his confidence. Matt’s 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 it’s worth. But if he doesn’t, I expect it’ll be his coach that’s held accountable.

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