Stafford will need moxie to survive tough early stretch

What Detroit coach Jim Schwartz‘s decision to start rookie Matthew Stafford tells me more than anything is not what Stafford showed on the field in preseason, but what he proved to coaches behind closed doors and to teammates both on and off the field.

The coaches know that Stafford wasn’t facing the most intricate of defenses or hostile crowds in the preseason, so his on-field performances could be fool’s gold if that’s the only criteria they used. Where Stafford established faith — and I have heard this since teams started scouting him before the draft — is his desire to immerse himself in the film room and the playbook and show coaches that he does everything possible not to be a repeat-mistake offender.

That’s what made Atlanta put 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan on the field from Week 1, although Ryan wasn’t contending with a Daunte Culpepper or the type of unforgiving early schedule that the Lions have. By being so dedicated to his craft and not making the same mistakes over and over, Ryan forced his teammates to up their games in every aspect.

That in itself prompted players to follow Ryan. Once they saw how much of a command he had of the playbook, the huddle, and himself, there was no apprehension in trusting him — especially since he had a bailout plan with tailback Michael Turner.

Stafford doesn’t have the luxury of a dominant running game or the type of defense that Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco had last season. He does, however, have a very smart coaching staff that wouldn’t throw him out there without feeling he gives them the best chance to win. Though every snap Stafford takes will be one towards his development, this isn’t a put him out there and let him take his lumps move.

The early season schedule is too unforgiving for that. Stafford was named the starter because he’s the guy the coaches feel can get the job done. At Colts training camp this season, Peyton Manning told me it would be a waste to sit Stafford, the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez (already named the starter) or even Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman (who will be a backup).

Start them and let them see what it’s really like. In other words, you can turn a wheel and push a pedal in a simulator, but you have no idea what it’s like to really drive a car until you start rolling a ton of steel and plastic with cars honking, lights blinking and drivers cursing at you.

Stafford’s rookie season won’t come without pitfalls. While he may have shown he’s driven, smart, talented and poised, he is about to be thrown into a fearsome well of pressure that will be far more daunting than what Ryan had to deal with.

Detroit opens the season at New Orleans, which could be one of the NFC’s toughest teams. The game is also at the Superdome, which can be one of the loudest venues in the NFL, if the Saints get things going early — and that is likely. Drew Brees and the Saints can hang 35 on just about anybody without trying too hard and if they start moving the ball like they’re playing Madden ’09, Stafford might be forced to throw frequently in order for Detroit to stay in the game.

Ryan opened his NFL career at home against Detroit and had Turner doing most of the heavy lifting. Ryan’s first pass went for a touchdown, as we all know, but he only had to throw 12 more times that game. Stafford might have to chuck the ball that much in the third quarter alone.

The Lions then face Minnesota, Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh, which boast some of the most creative defenses and pass rushers in the NFL. That is a challenging baptism to the NFL.

Ryan got the Falcons to a 2-2 start last season and then began to show himself in a Week 5 victory at Green Bay, before staging a last-second, come-from-behind victory the following week over Chicago that proved to be his breakthrough moment. If Stafford can do anything to replicate that start — there is no way he can avoid comparisons to Ryan and Flacco — the Lions should feel very comfortable with where things are headed.

Even if things don’t go well, Stafford should be better for it. You never know if a quarterback will end up getting shell-shocked, especially since the good ones rarely have gotten pummeled or made a ton of mistakes in high school and college. That is where the moxie Stafford has shown coaches thus far comes into play. If he survives everything that comes with the down times, he’ll be fine.

If he becomes David Carr or Joey Harrington, then the Lions will continue to be a few years away from being a few years away.

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