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Matthew Stafford and the future of the Detroit Lions

The Lions inked Matthew Stafford to a pricey contract extension this week, locking him up through 2017. The deal becomes the centerpiece for everything the franchise hopes to accomplish.


Remember when the Lions finally seemed to be over the hump? GM Martin Mayhew put the front office through a careful disinfection, removing the stench left behind by Matt Millen. The team hired a new head coach, Jim Schwartz, that had the makings to be another Jeff Fisher, his old boss.

Mayhew mastered something his predecessor could not: making good draft picks. He started by cashing in his team's reward chip for an 0-16 season to get Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. The hits kept on coming. In 2011, Stafford lived up to his promise and then some. The Lions won 10 games for the first time since 1995. That same year they made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

And then they took a step backward in 2012, winning just four games and making fans wonder whether or not this was just another version of a cursed franchise. It is not. And to remind you of that, Mayhew et al would like to divert your attention to the quarterback, who just signed a three-year extension with another $41.5 million in guaranteed money -- franchise quarterback money.

So what does the Stafford deal reveal about the Detroit Lions as they enter a season accurately and fairly described as a pivotal one for the franchise? Let's assess the implications.

1. Cap implications

The 2012 Lions roster was filled with holes, from the backfield to the offensive line to the linebackers and secondary on the other side of the ball. It's why the Lions looked like the Lions of old, winning just four games a year after winning 10.

Extending Stafford fixes an onerous contract that would have hamstrung Detroit's ability to build a better roster and make smart free agent deals -- though the jury's still out on that -- down the road.

Stafford carried a hefty cap burden prior to this extension. His cap hit this year exceeded $20 million and another $19 million-plus the year after. This extension frees up $7 million in cap space over the next two years.

This follows Calvin Johnson's eight-year mega extension he signed last year. That deal not only locks up a franchise cornerstone, it gives the team payroll flexibility before making a jump in 2015, just in time for the NFL's new television contracts to boost the overall spending ceiling. Next on Detroit's list is getting a reworked deal for Ndamukong Suh.

Together, the Stafford deal and Johnson's were done with an eye toward this year and next. Yes, I shuddered a little bit writing that timeless trope of every cap era NFL scribe, but who am I to rewrite the big book of sports cliches.

2. Someone still likes you, Scott Linehan

Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan unexpectedly found himself on the hot seat last season. His Week 11 sideline scrum with receivers coach Shawn Jefferson became the icon for a team unraveling. Detroit scored 23.2 points per game last season, a big drop from 29.6 the year before.

Worse, the franchise quarterback threw just 20 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. It was a notable jump backward from 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions the year the before. Was Stafford regressing after four seasons under the same offensive coordinator? Little wonder there were whispers that Linehan might take the fall for a disappointing season.

Fixing the offense has a lot to do with the previously mentioned roster building effort, finding Stafford a running game to lean on and a legitimate second receiver. That should make Linehan's job easier and give him more time to focus on the quarterback.

Linehan's primary task is getting Stafford on a career track that matches his contract. Offensive limitations aside, Stafford had his own struggles last year. His overall accuracy rating measured by Pro Football Focus dropped nearly five percent from 2011 to 2012. More recently, Stafford was criticized for his play under center by ESPN's Ron Jaworski. Mechanical issues -- he had a tendency for sidearm throws last year -- have left others wondering if his injury history is going to haunt him and the Lions.

For now, the Lions believe that Linehan is up to the task.

3. A calculated risk

Some have questions about Stafford's record so far. One stat that keeps popping up is an ugly 1-22 career mark against winning teams. The bigger picture usually gets left out of that conversation, like a defense that went from allowing 24 points per game to more than 27 points per game last year. Quarterbacks aren't exclusively responsible for their team's record, but they end up owning a big part of it, fair or not.

The biggest red flag is Stafford's injury history. Prior to his breakout season in 2011, a shoulder injury and other maladies limited him to just 13 starts in his first two seasons.

As with all things in the NFL, it goes back to the cap. Without Stafford, the Lions, as currently constructed, would put the team right back where it was. Millen/Marinelli levels of sadness that no car commercial or throat stomp could alleviate. A long-term injury to Stafford would leave the Mayhew with a hefty financial burden. Nevertheless, the breathing room afforded by Stafford's new deal gives Detroit the ability to build a more complete team.

Detroit is betting that the best is still to come for the 25-year-old Stafford. If he can put 2012 behind him, the Lions may end up with a real bargain on their hands through 2017.

4. Identity shift

Detroit's brass needs Stafford to play well in order to secure its own future. Even after a quiet offseason on the police blotter, last year's results have many wondering if Jim Schwartz is head coach material. Questionable drafting has made Mayhew's seat plenty warm.

A successful Stafford gives Schwartz a veneer a competency. It makes Mayhew's job easier. More importantly, it gives the Lions a new face and a viable future.

5. Finally on the right track?

After last year, the Lions needed a quiet offseason for Detroit. They had that, until this week. But Stafford's deal finally puts the spotlight on the Detroit for all the right reasons.

On the other hand, the team is banking on Riley Reiff and Corey Hillard protecting Stafford's flanks. It could be worse, but the depth chart gets awfully thin after that. The Lions improved the running game by adding free agent Reggie Bush, mixing speed with a stable of plodders. On the other hand, the receiver depth chart is still a question mark. Ryan Broyles looked good in spring practices, but he's mostly known for having torn both his right and left ACLs over a two-year span. He tore the right one less than a year ago.

Detroit took a big step in the right direction with the Stafford deal. However, the front office's other moves, or lack of, leave plenty of questions about the bigger picture and whether or not this bunch is more capable than the last one.

The Lions were a disappointing 0-6 in the NFC North last season. Detroit has the talent to compete inside the division, but its place in hierarchy is up for grabs. Minnesota replaced Detroit as the upstart favorite last year. Chicago has a more complete roster, even though the Bears can match the Lions in dysfunction. Challenging Green Bay this year may be too tall of an order.

Fans with bags over their heads waving "Fire Millen" banners defined the Lions for more than a decade. Whatever stature Barry Sanders bestowed upon the franchise burned up with each successive pass that Joey Harrington threw.

It's no coincidence that the first thing the post-Millen leadership did was draft Matthew Stafford. He gave Detroit its first viable franchise quarterback in, uh, well, a long time. Mayhew had obviously learned from his former boss' biggest mistake.

Re-committing to Stafford this week signals that Mayhew still has at least has an eye on the bigger picture. The Lions can't afford to sink back into the abyss.

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