Explaining the Lions' infatuation

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- I watched in amazement Saturday afternoon as Matthew Stafford became the first player in recent memory to get booed as he walked onto the NFL draft stage as the No. 1 overall pick. I blinked a few times when I saw the photo of two Detroit fans with bags over the head -- AFTER they learned Stafford was the Lions' pick.

Maybe I shouldn't have been as surprised. Lions fans haven't held back on their preference for Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. For weeks, I've been getting messages like this one from Adam of Iowa:

"I am a big Lions fan, and I have yet to understand, at any level, why the Lions would draft Stafford. And I'm also getting incredibly sick of listening to all of the experts talk about how Stafford is clearly the best choice for the Lions. These people are all clearly brain-dead. The last thing Detroit needs right now is an over-priced, backup QB who will have zero impact on the 2009 and possibly 2010 seasons. When there are much better players available, why would they consider rolling the dice with a young QB who has shown plenty of flaws throughout the draft process??? If Matt Millen were still in charge, he would be crucified for looking at taking another QB!!! I guess the apple doesn't fall that far from the tree...... Aren't you in Detroit right now? Can you sneak a peek into the draft room and see if Millen is still there??? Let me know."

I am in Detroit, Adam, but they won't let me anywhere near the draft room. One piece of evidence suggests that Millen is nowhere close to here: The Lions didn't draft a receiver.

Seriously, we've hashed through Stafford's perceived shortcomings quite thoroughly on this blog. And so the beauty of Saturday was that Lions officials finally got an opportunity to sell us on why they liked him. What makes Stafford so special?

Lions coach Jim Schwartz called Stafford's throwing motion "classic," which we've heard from many people. Schwartz noted Stafford's ability to step in as a freshman starter at an SEC school. General manager Martin Mayhew said Stafford convinced him by "the way he carried himself" and "how smart he was about the game."

But the most telling explanation I heard came when Schwartz related how Stafford performed during a spring film session. Here's how Schwartz put it:

"We said, 'Before we start watching this game and you start talking us through it, why don't you tell us a little about the game?' He started saying, 'Oh I remember this. The first play of the game we wanted to take a shot. We went 'Twins right demon' and threw an 18-yard pass over the right side.'

"And he started talking through the whole game extemporaneously. We didn't tell him we were going to watch that game. It reminded me of golfers who can tell you every shot they made in a game. We actually had high school film of him when he was here for his visit. He could tell me everything that was getting ready to happen in those games. That kind of recall, that kind of intelligence, was the thing that was most interesting."

You could make an argument that a successful NFL quarterback has three primary characteristics:

  1. The necessary physical tools, from a strong arm to at least nimble feet.

  2. A deep understanding of the game to facilitate sound decision-making.

  3. A personal makeup that makes both a natural leader and relatively impervious to adversity.

Most everyone agrees on No. 1 for Stafford. There have been questions about his 57.1 career completion percentage at Georgia, but Schwartz said a careful observer would discount his middling performance as a true freshman and note Stafford's annual improvement in that area over his three seasons (52.7-55.7-61.4). "We like the fact that we saw improvement from a year-to-year basis," Schwartz said.

Obviously, Schwartz is more than satisfied about No. 2. And as far as No. 3 goes, Schwartz related a story about walking to dinner with Stafford this spring near the Georgia campus.

"It was amazing," Schwartz said. "Every person that passed him on the street all did a double-take and looked and said, 'There goes Matt Stafford.' When grown men are following you around, following us into the restaurant.... He's used to that kind of scrutiny and that gave us a comfort level, too."

Nothing Stafford has experienced can compare to what he is about to step into. The Lions haven't had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Greg Landry in 1971. There have been countless attempts at finding another one, from Andre Ware to Rodney Peete to Joey Harrington. Even that abbreviated list is enough to understand why Lions fans are so skittish about the pick. But now you have at least a little bit of an idea why the Lions are not.