Stafford shows Lions his time is now as a quarterback

Justin Rogers, The Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s taken eight seasons, but Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford finally has established himself as one of the NFL’s best at his position.

As he prepares to start his 100th game for the Lions, Stafford is performing at an elite level and showing no signs of slowing down. But the road to reach this point has been anything but smooth.

Stafford has long been a polarizing figure in Detroit. The divide existed before he was drafted by the organization, when fans clamored for Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, who was viewed as another option with the top pick in 2009.

When Stafford couldn’t stay on the field his first two seasons, missing 19 games because of injury, discontent swelled. One of his teammates went as far as to label him a “china doll” during a radio interview.

Then it all clicked.

In his third season, Stafford responded with one of the finest campaigns in NFL history, throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns, leading the Lions to their first playoff appearance in 12 years.

Optimism never was higher. The franchise savior finally had arrived, and he would lead the team to uncharted heights the next decade and beyond.

But the next two years were marred by a steep slide back to mediocrity. Stafford’s accuracy suffered as he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes both seasons. He also committed far more mistakes, throwing 36 interceptions during the stretch.

Most importantly, the team floundered, going 11-21, leading to an overhaul of the coaching staff.

Jim Caldwell was hired. He brought along Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter. All three were experts on the quarterback position. Collectively, they had worked with two of the best to play the position, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. And although it was never characterized this way, the trio were brought in to fix Stafford.

The process was slow. That first year, they reeled in the gunslinger. They emphasized reducing mistakes and it was a success. Stafford’s completion percentage went up and his interceptions went way down.

But regression struck again in 2015. Stafford tossed 11 interceptions the first eight games. With the Lions sitting 1-6, the team pulled the plug on Lombardi, promoting Cooter to take over the offense. Almost immediately a switch flipped for Stafford.

If you can excuse the first week under Cooter, where the Lions traveled to London and got shellacked by the Chiefs, Stafford has been incredible. The past 14 games, he’s completed 69.5 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Stafford has put in a lot of work, going from one of the league’s least accurate quarterbacks to one of the best.

“I’m my own worst critic, so if I wasn’t completing a high enough percentage of balls for our coach, I was going to go out there and try to complete more of them,” Stafford said. “It’s not enough to just complete the ball, try to make sure he’s in a great running posture when he catches it. Just keep drilling yourself, and working hard to be as accurate as you can.”

This is the real deal. It’s not the 23-year-old hot shot flinging it up deep to Calvin Johnson. Instead, it’s a mature, 28-year-old veteran who has a firm grasp on his own talents and weakness, the hard work required to succeed in the NFL and a deep understanding of how opposing defenses operate.

For years, supporters made excuses for Stafford not living up to expectations. It was easier to blame coaching, a subpar offensive line or a lack of weapons. While each argument had merit, Stafford also wasn’t consistently good enough.

That can’t be said any longer. Stafford is carrying the Lions right now, despite a struggling defense and a number of key injuries on offense. He’s led game-winning drives in the closing minute of each of the team’s three wins.

In all likelihood, Stafford hasn’t reached the halfway point of his career. And though it took him longer than many expected to graze against the ceiling of his talents, it has be reassuring to know, with confidence, the Lions have the biggest piece of the puzzle in place for what should be a long time. @justin_rogers