NFL teams that have a great quarterback can build a flawed roster and still be a Super Bowl contender. Teams with bad quarterbacks simply cut bait and move on (note: this concept hasn't reached Jacksonville yet).
The worst place to be in the NFL quarterback race is stuck in the middle.
No team gives up on a quarterback who is just good enough, at least without a strong backup plan in place. Look back at recent history, it has never happened, at least with a quarterback under 30. The fear of the unknown at quarterback cripples NFL teams. That's how something like "Jets give Mark Sanchez $19.5 million in guaranteed money in a contract extension" happens.
So where does Matthew Stafford stand?
The Lions just gave a lot of money to Stafford – a reported $53 million extension over three years with $43 million guaranteed. His total compensation over the next five years is $76.5 million. There were reasons to extend Stafford now rather than let him get closer to his contract expiring after the 2014 season, most notably being able to reduce a couple of huge salary cap numbers the next two years. Also, if Stafford does take the next step, he might command much more (Anwar Richardson of MLive.com pointed out recently why Stafford should wait, considering the Lions had no leverage). Business-wise, it's not a terrible decision. But, for better or worse, Detroit is committed to Stafford.
Stafford has been very good at times, but the full resume isn't impressive.
Last year Stafford threw one touchdown per 36.4 attempts, worse than guys like Mark Sanchez (34.8), Ryan Fitzpatrick (21.0) and Blaine Gabbert (30.9). His plus-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio was 23rd among the NFL's top 25 in passing yards. Only rookies Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill were worse.
Stafford, whose NFL all-time high in attempts last season inflated his raw numbers, was average at best in 2012. And that was with one of the five greatest receivers ever to throw to.
Stafford has been in the NFL four seasons, had one good-to-great season, and regressed in 2012. The Lions are betting big that he can be elite, even though for the most part he hasn't been yet.
"(I)s he worth top-five money?" Donovan McNabb said on NFL Network. "I would have to say no and I say that because it’s about wins and losses. What has he really done for the Detroit Lions? Nothing."
Baltimore's Joe Flacco turned a fairly average regular season and a hot playoff run into a $120 million extension. The Ravens are invested in Flacco the same way Detroit is invested in Stafford. Is Flacco the quarterback who was nearly perfect the last few games of the regular season and playoffs, or the middle-of-the-pack quarterback he has been the rest of the time, generally producing about 3,600 yards, about 20 touchdowns with 10-12 interceptions? Is the latter worth $120 million? Probably not, but it's not like the Ravens could let him go after a Super Bowl. Josh Freeman and Jay Cutler, each headed into contract years, are going to cause really difficult decisions for the Buccaneers and Bears after the season if they continue playing at an average level.
Again, the worst place for a franchise to be is stuck in the middle at quarterback. Not good enough that your quarterback can carry you well beyond your roster's limitations, not bad enough to start over. Just stuck.
Stafford hasn't taken his team to the Super Bowl, or had a division title or playoff win. He has been hurt, disappointing or average in three of his four seasons. He has a lot of talent, but as Doug Farrar pointed out here, he needs a lot of work, particularly on his rough mechanics.
There's a ton of time for Stafford to become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He is just 25 and his raw skills are among the best in the game. The Lions are paying him to be great. If he's not, it's a really bad position for a franchise to be in.
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