This is the first part of a multi-part series covering the Difference Makers in Detroit for the 2010 NFL season
Amid his 20 interceptions and a paltry rating of 61.0, you'll have to forgive Matthew Stafford's first year statistical results.
After all, in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, everyone knows that the rookie season for an NFL quarterback is a bit of a free pass. Especially when the team they're expected to revive was clinically dead for an entire year.
Yet Stafford's birth into the league, marred by destitute conditions, including, but certainly not limited to, abuse, a poor supporting cast, and more failure than success, yielded something that others in his position -- in this city -- failed to deliver: Hope.
In 10 games last year, Stafford tossed 13 touchdowns, threw for 2,267 yards (a few shy of Jets' glory boy and fellow rook Mark Sanchez, who played in five more games), and demonstrated the military-issued right arm that fans had heard so much about. But more impressive than anything Stafford accomplished on paper or even on the field was what he managed to do psychologically for the most jaded fan base in professional sports.
In the team's week 11 tilt against Cleveland, an injured Stafford marched onto the field to the ire of the training staff, fueled by adrenaline alone, and rocketed his fifth touchdown pass on the game's final play, giving the team its second win of the season. In the process, he immortalized himself in Lions football lore, and handed fans and team analysts alike the promise of more to come.
During, and especially after that game, after NFL Films video of Stafford went viral on YouTube, collecting national recognition for a franchise that had seemingly tried to avoid it out of fear of embarrassment, Stafford had arrived. And the omnipresent pessimism that had plagued both the team and young quarterback's predecessors was slowed to a halt.
In one game, and in one particular moment, he put the city of Detroit and the rest of the National Football League on notice.
Stafford tossed for a rookie record 422 yards in the team's week 11, 38-37 win over Cleveland
Although there isn't a bronze cast of Stafford outside of Ford Field just yet, the anticipation and expectations of a Lions team haven't been higher in years. And because he is the catalyst behind it, Stafford also shoulders the bulk of the responsibility from this point forward.
With his freshman year under his belt, Stafford doesn't have the luxury of excuses. He has recovered from a troubled knee that cut short his rookie campaign and is operating at full strength. The second year for any starting quarterback is pivotal to their success, and the looming NFL lockout -- a potential curtain to a third year -- makes it that much more crucial.
Stafford's knowledge of the team's offensive system is on par with the requirements of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, and he has continued to develop chemistry with his supporting case, most notably receiver Calvin Johnson. Beyond just being generally more comfortable, the former No. 1 overall pick has embraced the role as a team captain and field general. He has been the most impressive Lion in the team's off-season training activities, maintaining his strong arm, with noticeable improvements in accuracy while demonstrating a command of the playbook.
To help supplement the face of the franchise, the Lions made key acquisitions to the offense. The signing of veteran speedster Nate Burleson, who is familiar with the team's offensive methodology after spending time under Linehan in Minnesota, will force secondaries to play Johnson honestly. Burleson's best attribute, getting open, is where last year's No. 2 Bryant Johnson struggled.
The team also picked up former Denver tight end Tony Scheffler, a sure-handed receiver, to pair with last year's rookie Brandon Pettigrew, who continues to recover from a knee injury. Along with first-round pick running back Jahvid Best, and solid veteran guard acquisition Rob Sims, Stafford isn't short of a wide variety of tools at his disposal.
But he has to use them.
Although last year's two wins were a marginal improvement over the interminable dross of 2008, anything short of seven wins in 2010 by this Detroit team -- by Stafford -- should be considered a failure.
Matthew Stafford has established himself as not only the team's most pivotal difference maker this season, but a player to watch throughout the entire league. 'Hope' can set the stage for success just once. It's up to Stafford to deliver, and the only currency that matters any longer is wins.