Lions trust Stafford to continue upward trend

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Phoenix — When the Lions hired Jim Caldwell, he said he believed quarterbacks typically hit their stride around Year 6.

After a year working with Matthew Stafford, he believes the Lions quarterback can take another step forward in Year 7.

Stafford's first year under Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter produced mixed results. The 11-5 record was solid, and he reduced his interceptions from 19 to 12.

Stafford's completion percentage improved slightly, too, from 58.5 percent to 60.3 percent. But compared to other quarterbacks, his efficiency was subpar, ranking 25th in completion percentage and 21st in passer rating at 85.7.

"I think he's just got to keep improving," Caldwell said Wednesday during NFL annual meetings. "I was walking down a hall yesterday, and someone said something about, 'Well, hey, don't you really need your quarterback to really take off?' And I looked at him and said, 'No, we don't need him to really take off. He's been doing well.'

"He's improving steadily. Things in this league don't happen that way. No one makes a meteoric jump. It's gradual. It's too competitive. There are too many good players and it's a tough league, and I do think he's making really good progress."

The hope is Stafford will feel more comfortable in the second year of Lombardi's scheme.

Last season, the Lions offense ranked 19th, and with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley gone from the middle of the defense, the team likely will rely on Stafford's unit more this season.

Even though the offense was inefficient, Stafford helped engineer a few winning drives.

"I'm most concerned about wins," Caldwell said. "That's what I'm most concerned about, and stats don't mean a whole lot to me, overall. I would rather have a team that wins and gets into the playoffs than a team that throws for 9,000 yards. It just makes sense, so our focus is on trying to get better and how we get better is not necessarily to become more prolific.

"We have to become more efficient. We have to turn the ball over less, we have to make certain that our percentage of completions is up. We have to make certain we don't drop as many balls … and make certain that we run the ball effectively."

On Tuesday, team president Tom Lewand said he believes the team has the right core in place to have sustainable success. But as many people around the league point out, including Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, the only way to ensure success is to have a strong franchise quarterback.

In Stafford, Caldwell believes the Lions have that guy.

"Typically the key ingredient is work ethic, intelligence, toughness, and he has all of those things in abundance," Caldwell said. "And I think you'll just continue to see him grow and develop in the system. Perfecting a system in one year is difficult to do. Operating a system well enough to get us 11 wins in the first year is nothing to be I think diminished or slighted, but I do think that those are the things that'll help him keep moving along."

And in one year coaching Stafford, Caldwell saw the gamut of what he's capable of doing.

"He can buy time, he can make big plays for you, he does not flinch in tough times," Caldwell said. "When those games are tight at the end, this guy is as calm, as direct, as focused as you could be. I've been impressed with that aspect of it. He does not shrink or shy away from big moments, and I think that's a huge important quality for a guy. All of those things wrapped up together, I think that he's going to continue to get better and the future's bright."

Caldwell also said he saw some of Stafford's maturity when he excelled in the Pro Bowl. In addition to that experience, the coach joked one other offseason exercise could contribute to his improvement next year.

"I think marriage is going to help him," he said.