Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is faced with more than just building a team. He has been dealt the job of changing a culture.
It is a culture of losing that has been hovering around Detroit Lions football since the glory days of the 1950s.
With one playoff victory since 1957—you can't make stuff like that up—it has culminated toward a historic finish.
Everybody knows by now the Lions became the lone franchise to go winless since the schedule format changed to 16 regular-season games. Former general manager Matt Millen may go down as the worst front office executive in the history of professional sports.
But with a new general manager, team president and head coach, the Lions have begun to address the problems by undergoing a complete roster overhaul. This overhaul is responsible for the purge of more than 20 players that were on the roster last year, and they have been replaced with new faces.
General manager Martin Mayhew and Schwartz have added pieces, sure, but the success of the franchise will come down to the handling of one player: quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
On the eve of training camp, which opens Friday, the big question remains on whether to sit Stafford and let him adjust to the rigors of the NFL while backing up veteran Daunte Culpepper, or to throw him—and his $41.7 million—into the fire, making him the starting quarterback for Week One against the Saints.
At first, it was clear the plan was to start Culpepper and let Stafford absorb as much as he could during his first season while holding a clipboard.
My, how things have changed.
Stafford has diligently shown throughout offseason workouts that he is grasping the playbook, handling the huddle, and yes, he still possesses that rocket arm that catapulted him to the top of nearly every team's draft board.
Even negative publicity has worked in Stafford's favor. Remember those pictures of him that made way around the Internet prior to his senior year? Stafford was photographed carrying an empty keg over his head, drunkenly snuggling with a male friend, and partying with running back Knowshon Moreno.
Well, those who were around the team during the Joey Harrington era have openly expressed satisfaction in the pictures. It proves he can be just one of the guys.
Schwartz said Stafford will play when he is the best quarterback on the roster, and he's capable of handling the job. But can he be expected to out-perform Culpepper so early in his career?
The answer is no. But by starting Stafford anyway, it may be the best way to effectively change the culture.
Whenever Stafford takes control of this team, that could truly be seen as the end of a disastrous era. But until then, the Lions are in a holding pattern.
Schwartz has pressed all the right buttons thus far into his tenure, but in reality, he will only go as far as Stafford takes him.
It is highly unlikely he will win without steady play out of the quarterback position, and clearly by how much the team has invested in him, Stafford is the only viable option. Maybe not right away, but eventually, this is Stafford's job.
It is clear Schwartz realizes the significance of his rookie quarterback. It is not clear how he intends to handle him.
Last year, Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Joe Flacco of Baltimore started from the first game and led their teams to the playoffs. But in reality, most rookie quarterbacks struggle mightily.
If Stafford starts, he will struggle. This is not a case where he has a good team surrounding him that will help ease him along. Stafford is the face of a total rebuilding process.
Struggles aside, the right thing to do would probably be to let their new quarterback ease his way into the starter role on his own terms.
But with such a large investment in Stafford and such a high level of importance put on changing the culture, starting him from the get-go might be the most viable way to erase as much of the past 50 years as possible.
As published in 7/29 edition of Central Michigan Life.
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