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Are the Lions up to the challenge of fixing Matthew Stafford?

The Lions are going all-in on Matthew Stafford. What will it take for him to fulfill his enormous expectations?

Hannah Foslien

SB Nation is taking a look at the NFL's most notable underachievers, the players who failed to live up to big expectations in 2013, and exploring whether or not they can turn things around in 2014.

Star-divide

The Detroit Lions were driving the NFC North with seven games to go in the 2013 season. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers lost starting quarterbacks at the same time the Lions assumed the top spot in the division courtesy of a 21-19 win over the Bears to improve to 6-3.

To that point, Matthew Stafford was in the midst of a fine season. He had 19 touchdown passes to seven interceptions and, with the help of Calvin Johnson, looked something like a plausible No. 1 overall pick. Then the rest of the season happened, and as Stafford began racking up interceptions the Lions' playoff hopes dimmed to black. The Lions won just one game over the rest of the season, and Stafford threw just 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

Why did Stafford decline? Well, that's sort of a mystery. He had perhaps the best wide receiver in the game at his disposal, a good offensive line in front of him, and a solid running back duo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell to take some pressure off. On the surface, his struggles were entirely his own and apropos of nothing.

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Photo credit: Leon Halip

How he got here

Stafford has never been bad per say. He certainly doesn't deserve entrance into the annals of first-round flame outs. It'd be hard to argue that he has lived up to expectations, however. His first two seasons were rendered null due to injuries and his last two have been healthy but underwhelming.

Detroit is doing everything it can to give Stafford support

That leaves a 2011 season when Stafford was exactly what he should be. He threw for 5,000-plus yards and a career-high 7.60 yards per attempt. He threw 41 touchdowns, 12 more than he had last season, and 16 interceptions. That season was also the only time in his career he has completed better than 60 percent of his passes. Stafford's 97.2 quarterback rating ranked fifth in the NFL.

He has posted ratings of 79.8 and 84.2 since. And that wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't developed a bit of Tony Romo's inopportune timing. Last season, he committed late, backbreaking turnovers in losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants. Over the course of the 1-5 stretch after the 6-3 start, Stafford committed 14 turnovers -- 12 interceptions and two fumbles lost.

The culprit? Trained eyes came to the same consensus: Stafford's mechanics went to shit. Kurt Warner and Jon Gruden were among those who piped up. Lions blog Pride of Detroit delved in-depth into the subject:

On this third-and-long play in the fourth quarter, you can see Stafford has a pretty clean pocket. Yet, look at his stance. His feet are facing toward the middle of the field, but his arm is swinging toward the sideline.

Let's get a sense of what this footwork does in terms of the release of the football. Stand up. Pick out a target to aim at (you don't have to actually throw anything). Now, as you bring the ball back to throw it, take a big step to the left of your target with your front foot (if you are a lefty, take a step to the right of your target). As you begin to move your arm forward, notice what is happening to your throwing shoulder. It's dipping. This lowering of the shoulder causes you to overcompensate. So what happens then?

Staff_open_stance_1

You overthrow your target.

The stakes

The Lions still have big issues to deal with in the back seven of the defense, but if they could guarantee improvement at any one position it would be quarterback. The team has spent years putting together the right pieces around Stafford, from Calvin Johnson to Reggie Bush to this year's selection of tight end Eric Ebron at No. 10 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Detroit wants an elite offense. Whether that's coming at the detriment of the defense is a fair question. For now, the team associates scoring points with playoff berths, and so it's doing everything it can to give Stafford support.

Just look at the newly-hired coaching staff. Head coach Jim Caldwell has spent several years as a quarterbacks coach, including seven in Indianapolis tutoring Peyton Manning. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is coming off a five-year stint as the Drew Brees' position coach in New Orleans. In addition to those two men, the Lions hired former Tennessee Volunteers backup quarterback Jim Bob Cooter as Stafford's position coach.

With so much invested in Stafford, his weapons and his maturation, the Lions' ambitions are naked. They believe they can make a playoff run, and that Stafford is the key. If he fails, it will mean another long, dark period for Lions fans.

Can he succeed in 2014?

The good news for those fans is that Stafford has performed well before -- that 2011 is on the books, it happened. And though he has had accuracy problems, no on can question his arm, which remains one of the strongest in the NFL.

Jim Schwartz and his staff should absorb some of the blame for Stafford's problems. Throughout his struggles, they were quick to bury their heads in the sand. Though he is a defensive-minded coach, Schwartz insisted he was happy with Stafford's mechanics, something suggesting, perhaps, that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing were not up to the challenge of diagnosing or fixing Stafford's faults.

Here's what we know about Stafford: He's a young 26 years old, and has as much physical potential as anyone in the league. He has already proven himself in the NFL, and to suggest, without a doubt, that we have seen his best days would be foolhardy.