Lions hope they’re ready to win with QB Stafford

By LARRY LAGE AP Sports Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich.(AP)—Matthew Stafford’s(notes) easygoing demeanor allows him to become just one of the guys in the Detroit Lions locker room.

The quarterback’s arm and contract, though, make him the key to the Lions’ goal of regaining respectability.

Detroit selected Stafford with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this spring after becoming the league’s first 0-16 team and is desperately counting on him to end a decades-long search for a star quarterback.

The Lions have only one playoff victory since winning the NFL title in 1957 and not coincidentally, they’ve had the same number of Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the last half-century.

Stafford seems to have the tools to end the drought.

Matt Millen’s mess, however, will haunt the team this year and perhaps for a couple more seasons.

The former team president and general manager had well-documented first-round busts: Joey Harrington(notes), Charles Rogers(notes) and Mike Williams. But what also hurt the franchise was Millen’s failure to select other quality players between 2002-06, leaving the active roster with only one selection from that five-draft stretch: Ernie Sims(notes).

If Stafford doesn’t deliver, it would be the first time in his life he hadn’t come through on a football field.

The Lions are banking on his success after giving him a six-year deal worth as much as $78 million with $41.7 million in guarantees. That’s more than the $35 million Eli Manning(notes) was guaranteed as part of his contract extension this summer with the New York Giants.

Stafford says he bought a car and a condo in the suburbs, but hasn’t lavished himself or anyone else with a lot of gifts.

“I haven’t gotten a check from them unless it’s training camp money,” Stafford said in an interview with The Associated Press. “My money comes next year as a roster bonus.”

By next year, Stafford will likely be the clear-cut quarterback in Detroit.

This preseason, he shared snaps with former Pro Bowler Daunte Culpepper(notes) until the 10-year veteran cut his foot last week. Culpepper needed stitches to close the wound and that might’ve moved Stafford closer to leading the Lions in Week 1 at New Orleans.

Three-time MVP Peyton Manning(notes) says Stafford would be best served by being on the field, as he was after Indianapolis drafted him first overall in 1998. Philadelphia Eagles star Donavan McNabb, however, said rookie quarterbacks aren’t ready to play right away.

“Coming out of college, you are seeing a lot of different defensive fronts and a lot of different schemes and coverages than you see here in the NFL,” said McNabb, whose first start wasn’t until the middle of his first year after being the No. 2 pick a decade ago. “It’s really complex on this level if you’re not prepared for it. If you haven’t seen or been able to prepare for it and get your feet up under you, you’ll get confused quickly.”

Former NFL head coaches Steve Mariucci and Mike Martz said they’d let Stafford get some seasoning on the sideline behind Culpepper.

For every Matt Ryan(notes) and Joe Flacco(notes), who led their teams to the playoffs last year as rookies, quarterbacks such as Tim Couch(notes) and David Carr(notes) have shown there are no guarantees.

“I think there’s value in both ways of developing a QB,” Stafford said. “But being a competitor, I want to be out there. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize this team’s success, though, and I’m sure the coaches will make the best decision for the team.

“I’ll just prepare to be ready for Week 1, Week 2 or Year 2.”

Stafford definitely has the arm strength to make plays in the league, and new coach Jim Schwartz has joked you don’t need to be Vince Lombardi to see that.

A strong arm isn’t everything, however, because a quarterback has to lead on and off the field to rally teammates to pull together toward a common goal.

The Lions are confident he also has the right stuff in that regard.

They did their homework on Stafford by talking to his coaches at Georgia and Highland Park High School in Texas and came away impressed with his arm, intelligence and savvy.

But Schwartz said coaches, scouts and executives couldn’t really predict how he would interact with teammates in the cafeteria, locker room and the like.

“Until they’re actually in that situation, you really didn’t know,” Schwartz said.

The Lions have been pleased with how well Stafford respects and enjoys his teammates, and vice versa.

Fellow Lions rookie Aaron Brown said Stafford is a “people person,” he has quickly come to like off the field.

“The first time I met him, he stuck his leg out and tripped me,” the running back recalled. “It caught me off-guard because I didn’t know him at all. Then I walked away and said to myself, ‘Man, he is cool, crazy and just like everybody else.’ He’s not stuck up. He’s just a good dude.”

As proud as his parents and older sister are of his athletic achievements, hearing such comments makes them happier.

“He’s always been like that and I’m glad he hasn’t changed,” said Page Stafford, who attended Georgia for three years with her brother. “He’s always been so incredibly humble and calm.

“I’d ask him before games, ‘Are you nervous?’ And he’d say, ‘No, should I be?’ Matthew has an inner peace and confidence I’ve never seen.”

Stafford’s skill set is also uncommon.

He can throw a 40-yard pass on a string as powerfully as perhaps anyone on the planet. He can also make a flop shot from a bad lie in the rough, sink a 3-pointer with a hand in his face or make a cross-diamond throw off a grounder in the hole.

Stafford could dribble a ball when he was 2, and once pulled off a feat on a soccer field he had only seen on TV.

“When my son was 7, he did a bicycle kick like he was Pele and put the ball in the corner of the net,” John Stafford recalled. “When he was in the seventh grade, he could drop back and throw a 50-yard pass to a receiver in stride.”

Stafford loves to play sports, but he also enjoys simply hanging out with teammates and doing things such as playing a card game in the locker room.

“That’s how I’ve always tried to be,” Stafford said with an aw-shucks tone. “Obviously, as a quarterback you’re a leader on and off the field. But at the same time, you can’t act all high and mighty because you’re just a piece of the puzzle.”

AP Sports Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this report.


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Updated Saturday, Sep 5, 2009