Winter is teasing us now; toying with us. We get a little tickle of warmth, a flicker of sunshine. A morning where walking out of the house into the early light makes your coat feel like a straitjacket. An afternoon where the greenhouse effect in our car makes us seriously contemplate engaging the A/C. Then, just the next day, we're out in the driveway with the scraper again: defroster blasting, jacket buttoned up tight, hands in our sleeves, and wondering what happened to the spring that had seemed to arrive. This afternoon, snow falls gently falls outside my windows--and despite what the calendar says ought to be happening, it's accumulating on my previously greening lawn.
In the case of the Lions, there are plenty of parallels. We've gotten glimspes of hope; blue flickers and silver sparks. Most reasonable fans seem to agree: Lewand and Mayhew have displayed an undeniable level of competence. The holes in the roster have been clearly identified--and, for the most part, sensibly filled with inexpensive-yet-respectable veterans. There are quality draft prospects at the remaining need positions, and the Lions have almost enough picks in the first three rounds to "fill" all of those needs. The Lions's front office has, on paper, returned the franchise to, at least, competitiveness. With these coaches, these players, and the schemes we understand will be installed, the expectation has to be that this team will--if I may be so bold--win multiple games.
Still, it isn't spring quite yet. The nights are still bitterly cold and dark, freezing and killing anything green that might have been duped into optimism. Whenever the wind picks up, jackets are zippered, hoods are put up, hats are drawn tight, and hands are shoved into pockets to ward off the biting chill. The winds are blowing around me as I listen for news, for information. It's getting harder and harder to not admit what's rapidly becoming obvious:
They're going to draft Matt Stafford.
It absolutely kills me to say it, but it's getting harder and harder to pretend like that isn't the salient move. The notion of following in Bill Parcells' footsteps, playing agent off each other and signing the most signable guy, got deflated this week with Dave Birkett's observation that most of the candidates are represented by one of two agencies. If Jason Smith and Matt Stafford are represented by Dogra and Condon--the two biggest agents at one of the biggest agencies--it's not like the Lions are going to be able to negotiate in secret, and leverage their positions against each other: the agents will surely keep each other appraised of how negotations are going. Another undeniable fact is that this IS "the year" to take a quarterback; expectations couldn't be lower. Simply winning a game would be a literally infinite improvment over last season. Having practically nothing but an elite young reciever is exactly the situation Peyton Manning walked into, and the Colts went 3-13 his rookie season.
In fact, let's stop for a minute right there. A lot of people, myself included, have derided Matt Stafford as being "no Peyton Manning". People speak of Peyton as if he was an absolutely bulletproof prospect coming out of college. However, this is revisionist history. From Peter King's 1998 evaluation of him:
"He has done an excellent job of getting the most out of his abilities, but he is not quite as natural a player as Leaf. One question that some NFL scouts have is the question “will he get any better?”. At times he gives the appearance of being a self-made player, and sometimes those types of players don’t always go on to great NFL careers. In Manning’s case, he may be a solid and productive NFL QB, but he may not have Hall of Fame type skills, but it certainly won’t be for lack of effort. He has probably been the most scouted player in the draft in recent years, and because that NFL teams tend to look too much at potential flaws, instead of accepting him for what he is, a great college QB that is on his way to an outstanding NFL career." [emphasis mine]
(Mr. King gets props for correctly predicting the Lions' first-rounder at #20, CB Terry Fair). The whole "self-made player" thing doesn't really apply to Stafford, of course, but doesn't that last sentence ring true? Of course, Stafford is not a completely finished prospect; he's a college underclassman, not a seasoned pro. Peyton didn't come out of the gates a Hall of Famer--in fact, in his first season, he went 3-13. I remember crowing at the time that the Lions' second-rounder, Charlie Batch, boasted passer rating over 90 in his rookie season, as if the Lions had pulled one over on the rest of the NFL. Anyway, that 1998 season saw a confused and frustrated Peyton Manning lose more often in one season than he had in most of his life. Ex-Lion, current (at the time) Patriot "Big Play" Willie Clay had this to say after beating Manning that season:
"He didn’t look like anything special," Clay said of Manning. "He didn’t do too much to impress. He threw some balls that were ill-advised. He looked like a rookie to me."
Don't forget that fact: no matter who the Lions draft, he'll be a rookie. An extremely talented one, yes, but a rookie. It will take time to learn the system. It will take time for the coaches to be comfortable with him. It will be time for his teammates to get comfortable with him. It will take time for him to be comfortable, too. Aaron Curry has repeatedly voiced his desire to be the leader of the defense, on the field and off, but that's a position that must be earned--if he just comes in and pops off, he might even undermine his teammate's confidence in him. None of these guys, no matter how great they look on tape, no matter how spectacular the measurables, are guarantees.
I'm not going to pretend that all surrounding Matt Stafford is rainbows and butterflies. I still have grave concerns about his accuracy, decision-making, and football instincts. I have doubts that he will be an effective leader. But mostly, I worry about chaining the franchise to a rookie quarterback, like they did with Joey Ballgame. But I look at what Linehan was able to accomplish with Duante Culpepper, and it got me thinking: isn't Matt Stafford a similar QB? Million-dollar arm, questionable head? Can make every throw, but sometimes makes throws to the wrong guy? Surrounded with talent but never won anything big? Aren't these all the criticisms I've been excoriating Culpepper for all these years? And yet Linehan built an offense around the big galoot that turned him into a 4700-yard, 39-TD, 110.0-passer-rating quarterback. The one thing I can definitively say about Mayhew and Stafford is this: he will not draft Stafford if Schwartz is not on board, and Schwartz will not be on board if Linehan is not on board, and Linehan won't be on board if he doesn't feel he can mold Stafford into that kind of player. Even if I blame Culpepper for the 'juggernaut' 90s Vikings never getting over the hump, staring up from the bottom of the 0-16 cesspool makes "not getting over the hump" seem like Paradise.
All I can do is make peace with it . . . and tend the fire. Every day the blue flame spreads a little more, grows a little stronger. Take a branch, folks, and pass it on.