Matthew Stafford is almost out of runway.
The 2009 No. 1 overall pick is 26 years old, entering his sixth season in the NFL. He's the Lions' all-time leader in passing completions, attempts and yards. He needs just 10 touchdowns to claim that crown from Bobby Layne, too, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The prodigy from Layne's own Highland Park, Texas isn't a kid anymore; he's a grown man on his second NFL contract. With millions of the Lions' dollars in his pocket, a roster full of offensive weapons and a new coaching staff handpicked to get him back on track, he's got everything he needs to reach his sky-high potential.
As the Lions open training camp, Stafford either pulls up the landing gear and soars or crashes and burns, leaving the team to find another solution.
Of course, plenty of other quarterbacks are playing under pressure.
Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton need to show they've taken their games to the next step—ready to not just make a playoff run, but outduel the NFL's best in January. Cam Newton needs to keep improving, but with a completely different receiver group. Nick Foles and Robert Griffin III need to prove they weren't just one-year wonders. EJ Manuel and Geno Smith have to demonstrate they can be productive NFL starters at all.
No other quarterback in the NFL, though, has the same combination of supporting cast, untapped potential, weight on his shoulders and window-closing urgency as Stafford. The Lions brass expect him to lead a 7-9 team to the Super Bowl this year; it only adds to the pressure that he's got the talent to do it.
Speed, Power, Explosive Weapons
When Stafford took over the Lions in 2009, his only weapon was a still-developing Calvin Johnson. Now Johnson's been named a first-team All Pro for three straight years.
After investing three second-day draft picks and two major free-agent contracts, the Lions hope they've finally found a reliable, physical field-stretcher who can make defenses pay for paying too much attention to Megatron: Golden Tate.
The Lions chose dynamic pass-catching tight end Eric Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick in this year's draft—a selection that earned rave reviews from Bleacher Report NFL Draft analysts Matt Miller and Chris Simms:
Together with 6'5" Brandon Pettigrew and 6'7" Joseph Fauria, the Lions have one of the most physically dominant pass-catching corps in the NFL.
Last season, the Lions' versatile tailback duo of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush combined for 2,700 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. Per NFL.com, they became the first teammates in NFL history to each rush and catch for 500 yards in the same year.
On the offensive line, breakout third-round rookie guard Larry Warford helped anchor Pro Football Focus' sixth-best pass-blocking unit of 2013 (subscription required); that line returns intact. 2014 third-round rookie center Travis Swanson provides talented depth for the interior and insurance for 14-year veteran center Dominic Raiola.
The Lions have built an incredible offensive machine, ready to dominate the air with size, speed and power.
Now it's all up to the man at the controls.
After leading the Lions to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth in just his third season, Stafford and the Lions have gone 11-21. Blame for the regression—and the decline in Stafford's mechanics and production—was mostly laid at the feet of head coach Jim Schwartz and his staff.
Former Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson spoke about Schwartz's failings on Twitter and a podcast, as quoted here by Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com, and specifically cited the way Lions coaches let Stafford skate for his mistakes:
I’ve never heard them challenge Stafford in a team meeting at all. Other people were challenged, things like that, but I never heard him being challenged. There was a lot of mistakes that he made. He’s a good quarterback and he can throw the ball really well and obviously having Calvin [Johnson] makes his job a lot easier. But you have to hold people accountable. I don’t know what was going on.
The Lions have brought in head coach Jim Caldwell, who has reached the Super Bowl with two different quarterbacks as both a head coach and offensive coordinator. When asked if Stafford's immunity from criticism is over, according to The Detroit News' John Niyo, Raiola said "yeah, you could say that."
"(Caldwell) has been around Peyton Manning, so I think Matthew knows what his expectations are," Raiola said, per Justin Rogers of MLive.com. "That's a good thing, that's accountability," Raiola continued. "[Stafford] is the franchise. He knows what he has to do, and he knows what he has to do better."
Raiola knows Caldwell's stepped in without a season to lose. "This is the best chance for any of the head coaches that's come in to win right now since I've been here," per Joe Lapointe of MLive.com. Caldwell is the fifth Lions head coach Raiola's played for. "This team's built to win."
That win-now mantra was echoed by linebacker Stephen Tulloch. "This is probably the most talent you've seen on the Detroit Lions for a long time, from top to bottom," Tulloch told Lapointe. "The pieces are in place to get after it."
Caldwell insists he'd be honest if he felt the Lions didn't have the talent to compete (for the Super Bowl).— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) July 27, 2014
"It's a great job," he told Lapointe. "It's a great situation. Great ownership. And we have a talented group. Now, it's our job to get these guys in position to win and win consistently. But I do think the nucleus is here to get that done."
Lions president Tom Lewand has set the bar for this season as high as it will go. When asked at a panel about his vision for the Super Bowl, per Ashley Dunkirk of CBS Detroit, Lewand didn't hesitate: "My vision for the Super Bowl is we expect to be playing in it,” Lewand said. "This year."
For the first time in Stafford's NFL career, he'll be executing an offense other than that of departing offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
The architect of the Lions offensive X's and O's will be new coordinator Joe Lombardi. He spent the last seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints, first as offensive assistant and then as quarterbacks coach. Lombardi says the Lions offense will have "a lot of similarities" to the Saints' explosive passing attack, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, with many personnel groups and formations to maximize the Lions' impressive physical advantages.
Lombardi's extensive work with Drew Brees, and Caldwell's and new quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter's experiences with Manning, mean Stafford will have to prepare and execute like two of the most notoriously detail-oriented quarterbacks in the NFL.
Can Stafford tighten up his approach, his footwork and his game enough to meet the lofty expectations of ownership, management, the coaching staff and his teammates?
Indicators throughout the spring weren't positive.
During OTAs, Lombardi was "getting a little angry" at the "sloppy" play of the offense, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. Meinke characterized Stafford's accuracy as "erratic" and noted that receivers frequently dropped passes that were on-target, calling "the whole thing" out of sync.
On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle duo Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley might both be playing their last season in Detroit; if their contract situations aren't settled, a full defensive rebuild might be coming in 2015.
Now, as the Lions open training camp, Stafford's out of time and out of excuses. He has everything he needs to succeed; the only barrier to success is between his ears.
Can he pull up on the controls? Can he finally pilot the Lions to the Super Bowl, winning in the playoffs for just the second time since Layne was traded away in 1958? Or will he again fail to make it out of the division, leaving the Lions to start over all over again?
The Lions will start to figure out the answer as training camp gets underway.