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Parting with Stafford would be Lions' best move

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford is sacked in the second quarter Sunday.

The Lions saw the best-case scenario for quarterback Matthew Stafford in Sunday's game, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how he played in an embarrassing 42-17 loss to Arizona.

On the other side of the field, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer led his team to victory, and it's becoming abundantly clear that he's the best comparison to Stafford -- more so than a player with similar physical traits, such as Jeff George.

And for the Lions, the only way to make the comparison accurate is to enter 2016 with a new franchise quarterback. Stafford likely won't request a trade and threaten retirement, as Palmer did to the Bengals after the 2010 season, but a break-up is the best option for the Lions, as it was for Cincinnati.

To start another season with Stafford as the No. 1 quarterback would be an admission by the Ford family — along with any executives and coaches that remain beyond this season — that winning the elusive Super Bowl isn't the franchise's primary goal.

Obviously, the Lions' 0-5 start doesn't fall solely on Stafford, but he didn't play well in any of the games. Coach Jim Caldwell saying last week's loss to Seattle was "probably one of his better games" is an indictment of Stafford's play and of the coaching staff's expectations of him.

Stafford won't be on short leash, now or in future

Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi regularly talk about Stafford's completion percentage as if it's a statistic that actually matters — at 64.6 percent, he ranks 17th. Touchdowns are the only thing that should matter for Stafford, and against the Seahawks, he didn't score any and led the Lions to the red zone once. Sure, if Calvin Johnson doesn't fumble at the 1, he would've had one and the Lions might have won, but Stafford had other opportunities to make plays.

Ultimately, Stafford is the what-if quarterback of this generation. What if he had a consistent offensive line? What if one of the highly-drafted (Jahvid Best or Mikel Leshoure) or high-priced (Reggie Bush) running backs had sustained success? What if the Lions had given him a reliable No. 2 option for consecutive seasons before Golden Tate?

Much of those issues fall on general manager Martin Mayhew, who has built just two rosters capable of making the playoffs in his seven seasons — and now it's even clearer that last year's 11-5 finish was the product of several lucky breaks.

But, Stafford is the guy with the ball in his hands with a chance to lead the Lions to victory each week, and he simply hasn't played well enough on a 2015 team that is actually loaded with talented skill-position players. Instead, Stafford threw three passes right to Cardinals players Sunday before Caldwell decided to bench him.

Carson Palmer

Like Stafford in 2009, Palmer was the first overall pick in 2003. Both players had their most efficient seasons in their third year, which was also their first 16-start season. Stafford suffered injuries his first two years, starting a total of 13 games. Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna as a rookie, then started 13 games in his second year before suffering an injury.

Those seasons were the first time either player went to the postseason, though Palmer's Bengals won the AFC North at 11-5 while the Lions were a 10-6 wild-card team. Both teams were one and done.

The Bengals didn't make it back to the playoffs for another four years and lost as a 10-6 wild-card team in the first round in 2009. It took the Lions three years to get back, and as an 11-5 wild-card team, they lost in the first round, too.

Then, in 2010, Palmer threw 20 interceptions for a Bengals team that finished 4-12. With eight interceptions in the Lions' 0-5 start, Stafford is on pace for 26 picks.

In the seven seasons he actually played for Cincinnati, Palmer was a bit more efficient than Stafford has been in Detroit, but the numbers are strikingly similar so far.

Palmer's stats from 2004-10: 62.9 percent completions, 154 touchdowns, 100 interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt and an 86.9 passer rating in 97 games.

Stafford's stats from 2009-15: 59.9 percent completions, 137 touchdowns, 93 interceptions, 7.0 yards per attempt and an 83.1 passer rating in 82 games.

Palmer had star receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh for most of his career in Cincinnati while Stafford has had Johnson.

Caldwell on Ford family: 'They're not happy'

After the sad 4-12 finish in 2010, Palmer demanded a trade then threatened to retire after the Bengals denied his request. Cincinnati drafted Andy Dalton in the second round in 2011, and even though Palmer started the season effectively retired, the Bengals still had him under contract and traded him to the Oakland Raiders that October for a first-round pick in 2012 and what became a second-round pick in 2013.

It'd be hard to fathom Stafford, who's 27, pulling the move that Palmer did when he was 31 in 2010, but the Lions have to try to be proactive now. Trading Stafford would cost them $11 million in dead cap space in 2016 and another $5.5 million in 2017. If they trade him after June 1, the Lions can spread that money between the two years.

Tate said after the game he knew the media would attack Stafford, but what does he expect? Should we attack Tate for loafing around for much of Sunday's game? Should we attack Mayhew for having a punter as his most valuable late-round pick? Should we attack president Tom Lewand for letting Ndamukong Suh leave?

Obviously, everyone in the organization has played a role in this debacle, but Stafford has rarely looked heartbroken by losses like most players with a championship mentality. It's time for the Lions to look for a quarterback — either with a high pick or a trade — who has that mentality and see if he can lead the turnaround in 2016. And maybe when he lands elsewhere, Stafford can have a career turnaround similar to Palmer's in Arizona.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (5-0) won again with a 24-10 victory over the Rams. But Aaron Rodgers wasn't perfect, throwing two interceptions after going 587 pass attempts without one at Lambeau Field.

* The Bears (2-3) won for the second-straight week with an 18-17 comeback win over the Chiefs. Chicago scored the last 15 points, and even though Kansas City lost running back Jamaal Charles, the defense deserves credit for holding the Chiefs to 287 yards.

* The Vikings (2-2) were idle.

Around the NFL

* The Patriots (4-0), who beat the Cowboys 30-6 in Dallas Sunday, are really good.

* The Saints (1-4), who lost 39-17 in Philadelphia Sunday, are really bad.

* Josh McCown proved that any NFL quarterback is capable of having an excellent game as he led the Browns to a 33-30 overtime win with 457 passing yards and three total touchdowns.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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