With Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Lions Have Bright Future Ahead

With Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Lions Have Bright Future Ahead FOXBORO, Mass. — Thanksgiving isn’t all about turkey this year in New England.

The Patriots will be in Detroit for a nationally televised game with the Lions, who don’t get a whole lot of national attention. To give us a better idea of the goings on in Detroit, we reached out to Al Beaton from The Wayne Fontes Experience and Sean Yuille from The Pride of Detroit and they touched upon Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and the timetable for the Lions’ turnaround.

NESN: How high is the concern for Matthew Stafford’s long-term health, considering how well he has played when healthy?

Al Beaton: It’s high, very high. Trust me, the fan base is at DEFCON 1 when it comes to Stafford.

There’s no question, at least in my mind, Stafford is the most talented quarterback to come through Detroit in my lifetime, and it’s not even close. Stafford has an arm mere mortals dream of having. It’s a howitzer. And his leadership ability is off the charts, even more so when compared the last quarterback drafted in the first round by the Lions, Joey Blue Skies, a.k.a. Joey Harrington. Stafford will be the Lions’ first true franchise quarterback since Bobby Layne.

Mark Sanchez, taken in the same draft and often compared to Stafford, is undeniably talented and led the Jets to the playoffs as a rookie, and has a better track record. But I wouldn’t dream of trading Stafford for him, even though Stafford has only 13 starts under his belt due to injuries.

And there’s the rub.

That’s the only question we don’t know the answer to yet. Can Stafford play a full season? Franchise quarterbacks need to stay on the field, and injuries have been Stafford’s kryptonite. He must prove he can finish a season standing, instead of being helped off the field.

Stafford has suffered three shoulder injuries (all shoulder separations to varying degrees, two to his throwing shoulder) and one knee injury, all severe enough to force him to miss multiple games. But the doctors say there are no structural issues with Stafford. It’s just been bad — no, rotten — luck.

So that’s all we have to go with — doctors claiming it’s bad luck and nothing more. Not exactly comforting for a franchise that hasn’t had a Pro Bowl quarterback since 1971.

Honestly, the only thing the team can do. Being the Lions have put all their eggs in the Stafford basket, nervous as they may be about his future, they have no choice but to ride out the string of injuries. The Lions are clearly a much better team with Matthew Stafford under center, one that can, and will, win games.

They’ll just have wait another season for it to happen, They have no other choice.

Sean Yuille: After suffering yet another shoulder injury and his fourth major injury in less than two seasons, the concern is very high that Stafford is injury prone. When healthy, Stafford has showed why he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, but the problem is he can’t seem to stay healthy. Part of the problem is that he has had bad luck, resulting in fluke injuries, but I’d be lying if I said fans aren’t worried about his long-term health and whether or not he will be able to consistently be in the lineup for the Lions.

NESN: Jim Schwartz’s record obviously isn’t all that great, but he at least seems to have the team playing better under his system. Does he have a high approval rating in Detroit?

A.B.: At the start of the season, Jim Schwartz‘s approval rating with the Lions’ fan base, if not through the roof, was quite high. He’s personable, whip smart, and well thought of throughout the NFL. Any thoughts the Lions would even entertain of another head coach was folly. But after literally giving away the Jets game, losing to the then-winless Bills and getting blown out by the hapless Cowboys, the questions about Schwartz’s ability to get this franchise over the hump are becoming more and more pointed.

What really set everyone off in Detroit was the loss to the Jets. The Lions had the ball and a 10-point lead with five minutes left. With the combination of Schwartz butchering his clock management combined with some very odd play calling, the Lions gave the game away. After the gut-wrenching loss, the Lions proceeded to come out listless against the Bills, unable to execute against the Cowboys, fell to 2-8, and are now one of the short list of teams competing for the first overall draft pick in 2011.

Schwartz is in no danger in being fired. He walked into as crappy of a situation as any NFL coach has in history, and Matthew Stafford’s injury issues have thrown a monkey wrench into his plans. Schwartz deserves time to fix what was a decimated roster, and he is going to get it. If Matt Millen was given eight-plus years and a contract extension by owner William Clay Ford, it goes without question Schwartz’s job is safe. But it’s no longer a given. There must be visible improvement next season (if there is a 2011 season) on both the field, and more importantly, in the standings.

We’re not asking for the moon, or even the playoffs. Win a game or two on the road, and put together a modest winning streak, neither of which has happened since the first half of the 2007 season, and that’s what we’d like to see.

If we don’t, next year should be Schwartz’s last.

S.Y.: A few weeks ago, most fans were still supporting Schwartz in spite of the bad record. After blowing the game against the Jets and losing to the Bills and Cowboys, however, the support is starting to fade a bit. I would say the majority of fans still support him and think he deserves at least another year to get things turned around, but the patience is running thin for many Lions fans.

NESN: Safety Louis Delmas doesn’t get the national recognition he probably deserves. What can you say about him?

A.B.: As a rookie, Delmas made an impression as a playmaker and a big-time hitter. For long stretches, he was the best player on the defense. There was talk Delmas had multiple Pro Bowls in his future as he improved and the Lions improved around him.

It was expected Delmas would take the next step, make the leap to Pro Bowl status. It didn’t happen.

Delmas has been dealing with a groin injury he suffered during offseason workouts. There were rumors in camp surgery was on the table, and he decided to play through it. Delmas is not completely healed, and won’t be until after the season ends. It shows on the field, as Delmas is missing the explosiveness that was there as a hard-hitting rookie.

The second-year safety has also been hampered by having a rookie, Amari Spievey, playing next to him. So with the opposition having smart NFL coaches, offenses continually pick on Spievey’s side of the field for obvious reasons. Spievey had never played safety until the Lions moved him from cornerback halfway through training camp. He shows flashes, but he’s nowhere near the player Delmas can be.

I still believe Delmas is a Pro Bowl talent. Next year, I wholly expect him to break out. It’s just not going to happen this season, thanks to the nagging groin injury.

S.Y.: Delmas had an awesome rookie season, constantly flying all over the field and getting to the ball. He is a big hitter and has earned the nickname “Missile” for his speedy play and hard-hitting style. Injuries have slowed him down a bit this season (injuries have pretty much been the story of the Lions’ season), but when healthy, he shows signs of being one of the better safeties in the league. His style of play and his attitude are a very nice change to what has been a normally bad Lions secondary.

NESN: Conversely, Ndamukong Suh is running away with the Rookie of the Year award. When is the last time the Lions have had a defensive player they’ve been this excited about?

A.B.: It’s been close to four decades. The last Lions defender I can remember making such an impact was Al “Bubba” Baker in the late 1970s. Baker was a dominant pass-rushing end who would have held the NFL season record for sacks if they had actually tracked the stat back then. The Lions’ records say Baker had 23 sacks in his rookie season of 1978.

The Lions have had other defensive players who captured the imagination of the fans — Doug English, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman, Robert Porcher — but none had the immense talent of a young Bubba Baker or Ndamukong Suh.

I agree Suh is a lock for defensive rookie of the year. The kid is an impact player and an All-Pro in the making, if he isn’t one already.

S.Y.: I don’t think the Lions have had a defensive player with this much hype since Shaun Rogers was dominating opponents during the first half of the 2007 season. This is an easy comparison because both Rogers and Suh are defensive tackles, but in reality, Suh is even better. His attitude, stamina and skill set trump what Rogers did even when he was playing well, and the best part about it is that Suh is only a rookie. Already, he has left a mark on the NFL, and it looks like this will be a draft pick that pans out very well for the Lions.

NESN: How far away are the Lions from making a good push in the NFC North?

A.B.: General manager Martin Mayhew has upgraded the Lions’ roster via the draft, trades and free agency, but I’ll use the old cliché, “they’re so close, yet so far.” Even if the record doesn’t show it, the franchise has come a long way from the rock bottom that was 0-16 in 2008. But the Lions are still lacking talent at many positions, and depth where they do have talent.

But with one more solid draft, finding a true shutdown corner, depth in the secondary, building an offensive line that’s better than just adequate, and a season with a fully healthy Stafford and Jahvid Best, the Lions can be a .500 team.
 
Get to .500, and you can seriously start to contemplate a wild-card berth and competing for the division. The Lions are a good two years away from that point (if Stafford had been healthy, the timetable would have moved up a year), but it’s two years closer than they were during the entirety of the Matt Millen era.

S.Y.: If not for that awful call involving Calvin Johnson in the first week of the season and/or Matthew Stafford’s shoulder problems, this honestly could have been the year where the Lions made things interesting in the NFC North. They were very competitive and were a bounce or two away from winning some of those losses in the first half of the season, and had Stafford not gone down, it’s possible they could be over .500 right now and in the thick of things for the NFC North crown. Keeping that in mind, they are a healthy Stafford away from being competitive in the division race, and if they want to actually think about winning it, they also need to continue adding talent on defense and work on improving their awful running game.

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