Stafford starts – and the season starts again

First, let’s have a hand for Shaun Hill. The guy came off the bench and did fine. Nothing embarrassing. Didn’t lose games by himself. Be honest. Did you even know he was on the team until he trotted out during the opener against the Bears? Half the fans thought Daunte Culpepper was still second string. Hill showed talent, did what was asked, made some nice near-comebacks.

But a backup quarterback as starter almost always will be like a sub for your dream date: a decent time, but you won’t want to get married.

So today the Lions’ season begins – again – with their star, Matthew Stafford, under center, and the big numbers are 11, 11 and 11, as in how many NFL games he has played, how many he has missed and how many completions he has thrown this year.

Let’s be blunt. It is time to launch this rocket. Already, in a similar career stretch, Mark Sanchez is firmly entrenched as the Jets’ marquee quarterback and leader. And in less than half the time, rookie Sam Bradford is opening eyes – and winning – in St. Louis.

Stafford, with two career victories in two years, can’t be about potential and he can’t be about patience. He needs to be about performance.

And staying healthy.

A reputation he doesn’t want

For his part, I know Stafford is champing at the bit. I speak to him every week, and as the weeks have progressed, you could feel his frustration rising. He wanted to be out there. He does NOT want to be considered “fragile.” From the first week of his separated shoulder, he was saying “maybe” when asked whether he could play and “pretty good” when asked about his arm. This from a guy who sat out five games.

Stafford knows the bottom line on him: year and a half, two shoulders and a knee, 50% attendance. Brett Favre, nearly twice his age, hasn’t missed a game in that stretch.

Stafford needs to get deep into it now, neck-high in precision football, balls delivered before the receiver turns around, passes aimed at catch zones, up overhead, back-shoulder, hit in stride, quick release, all the no-look things that separate a good quarterback from a great one. It’s about timing. It’s about touch. And you can’t get it wearing a baseball cap on the sideline.

“It’s part of the game,” he told reporters about injuries this past week. “Hopefully it’s a part that will let me alone for a while and let me get out there and play some.”

Not some. All.

The Lions’ latest and best hope

The Lions never will rise until a quarterback leads them. In the past five miserable years they’ve still had some talent, Pro Bowl defensive players (Dre Bly, Shaun Rogers), a Pro Bowl receiver (Roy Williams), a Pro Bowl special teamer (Eddie Drummond), and none of it made a difference. They lost prominently and profusely.

That’s because football is not a democracy; one position counts more than the rest. And the lineage of Scott Mitchell, Charlie Batch, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky – well, it speaks for itself.

Stafford, 22, is the Lions’ best prospect and the most important player since Barry Sanders. But Sanders took his first handoff, swept 18 yards, and never looked back.

Stafford needs to ignite the same way. Today may not be his first season or his first game, but it might as well be. The Lions (1-5) are coming off a bye week, they have most guys healthy on offense, they’re at home, and waiting any longer – for anything – simply won’t fly with the fans.

So today is the first game of the rest of Matthew Stafford’s NFL life, and it needs to be good, and any offensive lineman who misses his block had better be ready to throw himself into the fire. Because Stafford doesn’t hurt himself – it’s done courtesy of some defensive beast. And we’ve had enough beasts haunting this franchise. Let the guy stand up. Let the guy become the talent he can become. And maybe the Lions will finally follow suit.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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