Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford poised to take the next step

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Nothing has changed physically about Matthew Stafford in 2014.

“I’m not any faster, I don’t think,” the Lions quarterback said, tongue in cheek, Tuesday. “I don’t think I’m any more jacked.”

Instead, most of the changes for Stafford will be mental and fundamental this season as he tries to lead the Lions to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Winning will ultimately define Stafford’s legacy, and he knows that’s the case with quarterbacks. To play at a high level this season, Stafford appropriately said he has to score points and protect the ball, a key distinction after throwing 19 interceptions and losing four fumbles in 2013.

“You just want to go out there and make good throws, make good decisions, limit turnovers, make sure we’re in the right play every time if you can and lead this team,” he said.

The additions to help Stafford have been well-documented, from the three coaches with experience working with All-Pro quarterbacks to the weapons such as receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron. But all that would be for naught this season if Stafford doesn’t take the next step forward in his development, and so far this offseason, he’s provided reasons to think he has.

“He left this spring, I think, with a real solid understanding of what we were doing from an offensive standpoint, and he came back this fall further ahead than he was when he left,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “So that tells me that he studied, that he’s obviously dedicated himself to getting better and he’s moving at a pretty rapid pace in terms of just doing a lot of the nuances that come along with operating this particular offense.”

Stafford has said this offseason the Lions offense has no excuses not to be better in 2014, and according to Caldwell, the quarterback hasn’t made any excuses about anything. After five years in the same scheme, Stafford hasn’t complained at all about the new offense designed by offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, which is complex, by all accounts.

Still, mastering the playbook is Stafford’s biggest challenge, he said, because he has new drops, new reads and now has more pre-snap control.

But besides a few errant throws in training camp, Stafford hasn’t looked like someone adjusting to a new scheme. He threw just one interception in training camp, and although it was a wobbly pass, cornerback Bill Bentley only caught it after it bounced off tight end Brandon Pettigrew’s hands.

“He embraced this thing right from the onset,” Caldwell said. “He was trying to find ways all within the rules of trying to learn as much as he could about the offense in a very short period of time.”

Stafford came in early this spring, and he and the other quarterbacks reported early to training camp, too. The extra time spent at team headquarters certainly hasn’t hurt Stafford’s progress.

“He seems more settled,” safety Glover Quin said. “He seems like he’s making better decisions. He’s trusting his checkdowns. I haven’t seen him turn the ball over. All of that’s good signs.”

That Stafford has shown improvement despite having to learn this new offense is a testament to his work ethic.

“He’s maturing,” Quin said. “He’s getting older, and he’s growing in the game.”

Now 26 and entering his sixth NFL season, Stafford doesn’t have much more growing up to do. His coaches and teammates have praised his leadership this year, and in two exhibition games he looked as sharp as he has on the practice field.

In his four series during the first two exhibition games, Stafford finished 11-of-14 for 106 yards and two touchdowns, and two of those incompletions were drops by running back Reggie Bush.

On Friday when the Lions host the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stafford and most of the offensive starters will play into the second half, so he’ll have another to chance to show his growth.

“It’s an interesting game, obviously, because you’re game-planning pretty close to what you’d game-plan for a regular-season game,” Stafford said. “And I think that’s good for some of the veterans here that are learning a new offense just to see what all we would put in and things like that.”

Stafford said he learned that NFL quarterbacks face an inordinate amount of scrutiny the first day he arrived in Allen Park in 2009. Watching teams make deep playoff runs, he sees that most do so with excellent quarterback play, and for the Lions to have success this year, he’ll have to show more consistency than the past two years, no matter what changes around him.

“I think when you look at successful teams in the NFL, the majority of them are having a quarterback play at a high level,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve always tried to do and always tried to hold myself to that standard, and this season is no different.

“The one thing you can’t do is get ahead of yourself. I think you’ve just got to go out there and work hard every single day and try and be as good as you possibly can every single week for your team.”