It might be hard to remember, but at this time last year fans of the Detroit Lions openly questioned whether Matthew Stafford was a franchise quarterback. Who could blame them? He'd only played in 13 games his first two years.
In those two years he didn't exactly set the world on fire, either. He showed flashes of greatness, but he was terribly inconsistent. He totaled 19 touchdowns and 21 interceptions to go along with a 55 percent completion percentage.
Needless to say, fans were not expecting greatness last offseason; they were simply hoping he could make it through an entire regular season.
No one could have predicted what actually happened. Stafford not only started every game, he played through a hand injury and led the Lions to the playoffs—a place they hadn't been in more than a decade.
Better yet, he became the undeniable leader in the huddle and had himself the best season of any Lions quarterback in history.
He certainly turned heads in Motown, but everyone across the NFL landscape took notice as well. Then again, passing for more than 5,000 yards will do that. Stafford's now universally recognized as a legitimate franchise quarterback and a young NFL superstar.
His performance was truly great, but with it comes great expectations for 2012. Should fans expect another 5,000-yard gem? After a season like he had it's easy to get carried away—but I wouldn't recommend it.
Lions fans are all too familiar with getting their hopes crushed by pie-in-the-sky predictions (remember Joey?) so I'll try and stay grounded.
Here are five realistic predictions for Stafford's 2012 season.
In 2011 Stafford demonstrated durability that few thought he had and he proved that his shoulder is strong. He can't be considered injury prone any longer so there's no reason to think he won't start every game.
With that said, this is the NFL and injuries can happen at any time and to anyone. I'm not talking about the season-ending type, either. Strains and sprains are two of the most common injures in the NFL and they often carry a one- to three-week recovery time.
My point is that Stafford proved his doubters wrong, but he's not immune from football. No player is. He could easily miss one or two games.
It could happen, but I don't think it will. Stafford has two protective factors in place that will help him stay in the game.
1. His offensive line might have its limits, but one thing can't be denied: It excels at pass protection. He was only sacked 36 times despite 663 pass attempts. That protection is among the best in the NFL and with the addition of Riley Reiff it should only get better.
2. Stafford has matured. He knows his presence is more important than one play or one drive. He doesn't scramble haphazardly and try to pick up yards anymore. He either goes through his progressions and throws the ball out of bounds or picks up what he can and slides well ahead of contact.
For those reasons Stafford will stay in the game.
On numbers alone, he should've been included in that MVP group. Unfortunately, veteran quarterbacks who've had many great seasons get preference.
As we all know, Rodgers won the award in a landslide, and interestingly enough he was the only quarterback out of those four not to throw for 5,000 yards. Lesson: Fifteen wins trumps yardage.
Stafford will be in the discussion for the MVP award next year, though, and here's why. When voting begins he will have another year playing at an elite level under his belt and the Lions will make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
He will have proven consistency and voters won't be able to overlook him again.
Also consider that Drew Brees, a perennial MVP candidate, might suffer from "Bounty Gate" and his own contract situation. If his performance is subpar because of either, it will open the door for someone else.
Stafford is in the best position to take advantage of that opening. He has essentially the same offensive weapons as last year and overall the Lions have improved in key areas. There's no reason to think Stafford won't have a repeat performance.
If he can help the Lions win two or three more games he's a shoe-in for MVP consideration.
Simply put, Matthew Stafford was egregiously overlooked for the Pro Bowl last season.
Consider this: According to ESPN's rankings of the top 10 quarterbacks of 2011 only Stafford, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan did not make the Pro Bowl. Of those three Stafford had by far the most productive season.
Also consider that he had the third highest passing yards and touchdowns of any quarterback in the league. Yet eight others were taken ahead of him.
In the NFC that included Cam Newton, who threw for nearly 1,000 fewer yards and had 20 fewer passing touchdowns than Stafford.
Oversights happen every year so I'm not ready to jump on the "no one gives the Lions any respect" bandwagon just yet.
With that said, when Stafford follows up last season with another sensational showing, he can't be overlooked for a second time.
Expect to watch Stafford play in Hawaii next January—if anyone actually watches that sad excuse for a football game anymore.
Some fans might look at this prediction with contempt. They might interpret it as saying the Lions won't be better than last year. On the contrary, they will be better.
In fact, they'll win two or three more games and Stafford will be one of the biggest factors in that improvement. However, that doesn't automatically exclude them from the Wild Card. One simply has to look within the NFC to see how tight the playoff race will be.
Specific to the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers aren't going anywhere. While Detroit will improve, it won't unseat the Cheeseheads for the division crown just yet.
This means the Wild Card will be Detroit's only road to the playoffs and it'll be a harder road than last year. The Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings will be better, which means the Lions will be hard-pressed to improve upon their 3-3 divisional record last year, regardless of what Stafford does.
Getting a win against Green Bay will be key.
One must consider the rest of the NFC as well. Carolina, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Washington vastly improved and will push for their respected division titles. With only two Wild Card spots to fill, the competition will be intense.
Intense but winnable for Detroit. The Lions have improved their special teams and shored up their secondary. They've also tinkered with defensive line schemes which should result in more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
These changes, coupled with Stafford's high-powered offense will carry them to the Wild Card game again. What they do once they're there will be the biggest indication of improvement.
This might be an unpopular prediction, too, but like I said, I'm a realist.
I don't subscribe to the school of thought that believes 5,000 yards passing in a single season isn't a big deal anymore. While three quarterbacks did reach that milestone last season, and only two had done it before them, it's still an amazing accomplishment.
Only time will tell whether the feat will become common place. For now the only conclusion to make is that 2011 was an outlier.
Stafford, Brady and Brees contributed to the greatest passing season in NFL history. For this reason no one can predict Stafford—or anyone else—will routinely throw for 5,000 yards.
He'll have a fine year, though. Between 4,400 and 4,800 yards passing and 35 touchdowns is realistic. This is not a "down year" and it's not an indictment of Stafford's ability, either. It's simply an indication the Lions have improved and become a more balanced team.
Last season they didn't have a run game and Stafford was relied upon to win with his arm. He threw the ball an average of 41 times per game, including six games with 45 or more attempts. This over-reliance on the pass will not be repeated.
Detroit will still be a pass-first offense still, but a heavy dose of Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best will be thrown in as well. Having a more balanced offense is the best way for the Lions to improve.
This strategy might bring Stafford's gaudy stats down to earth, but it will improve other numbers: wins.
I'm sure he cares more about those numbers anyway.