For Lions fans, Matthew Stafford was worth the wait

Rich Schultz - Getty Images

For the first time in decades, Lions fans can finally feel good about who they see under center every Sunday.

Andre Ware. Scott Mitchell. Charlie Batch. Mike McMahon. Jon Kitna. Dan Orlovsky. Daunte Culpepper. These are just some of the names of quarterbacks who stood atop the Detroit Lions' depth chart in the 1990s and 2000s.

Despite their best attempts to find somebody who could take over the job on a permanent basis and become the franchise quarterback, the Lions essentially had a revolving door at the position. No matter who was plugged into the offense, the results rarely were good, especially once the Matt Millen era began. It was a seemingly never-ending string of bad teams led by mediocre quarterbacks that was capped off with the infamous 0-16 season in 2008.

As painful as it was for the Lions to go winless, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Lions ended up having the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, and they immediately set their sights on a quarterback from the University of Georgia. There were debates internally about going in another direction and drafting Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, but new general manager Martin Mayhew and new head coach Jim Schwartz wanted to start a new era of Lions football off by finding somebody who was actually worthy of carrying the title of franchise quarterback. Enter Matthew Stafford.

From the very beginning of the Stafford era in Detroit, it was clear why he was the No. 1 overall pick. His big arm was a perfect addition to an offense that already featured Calvin Johnson, and his fearless play on the field quickly endeared him to Lions fans. Especially in his rookie season, that fearlessness resulted in quite a few bad throws and interceptions, but that fearlessness became the stuff that legends are made of during a last-minute comeback against the Cleveland Browns in 2009. Stafford led the Lions 88 yards down the field in the final minute and threw the game-winning touchdown as time expired -- with only one good arm. On the second-to-last play of the game, his left shoulder was popped out, as captured by NFL Films, which had him mic'd up for the game. Despite this, Stafford stayed in to throw the touchdown pass that gave the Lions one of their two victories in 2009.

It's no secret that injuries have been a common issue for Stafford during his young career. Knee problems and shoulder injuries forced him to miss 19 games in his first two seasons, leading to criticism that he was injury prone. Prior to the 2011 season, Stafford vowed to play in every game that year in order to prove his critics wrong, and he didn't disappoint. He made it through all 16 games in the regular season despite breaking a finger on his throwing hand, and he ultimately ended up playing in 17 games since he led the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999. In the process, he put up some of the biggest numbers in NFL history for a quarterback, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.

While Stafford has gotten off to a considerably slower start in 2012, the Lions are confident that they have finally found their franchise quarterback, and it's really fitting that it's Stafford. He grew up on the same street and attended the same high school as one-time Lions quarterback Bobby Layne, who was traded in 1958 and allegedly cursed the team by saying they wouldn't win for the next 50 years. While the veracity of the Layne curse has been questioned, the Lions certainly didn't win a whole lot in the next 50 years. They managed only one playoff win in that span, and for the final decade of those 50 years, the Lions fielded some of the worst teams in NFL history. This all culminated with the 0-16 season, and the post-curse era opened with the Lions drafting the latest great quarterback to come out of Highland Park High School in Dallas.

It certainly remains to be seen if Stafford will turn out to be the next Bobby Layne in terms of on-field production, and it remains to be seen if the Lions will ever break through and have some success in the postseason. However, based strictly on what Stafford did in 2011 and his potential going forward, it's a safe bet that the revolving door at quarterback is no more. It took the Lions decades and decades to finally close it, but Stafford has proven so far that the wait was worth it.

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