Matthew Stafford eludes the crossroads

I'm sure some of you have been waiting to see how I reconcile Tuesday afternoon's post on NFC North quarterbacks, which suggested that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was entering a crossroads season, with the near-simultaneous news that Stafford and the Lions had agreed to a three-year contract extension.

So here goes: What happened Tuesday was not an all-encompassing, discussion-ending contract agreement to settle all debates about Stafford, his play and his future. Instead, it was a measured assessment from the Lions of his potential and room for development combined with an acknowledgement from Stafford that he hasn't gotten there yet. The Lions closed their immediate exit strategy but didn't commit themselves for more than was reasonably necessary.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Ed Werder, the Lions added a total of $53 million to the $23.5 million Stafford had remaining on his current contract. Most ($41.5 million) of that new money is guaranteed, and Stafford is now tied to the Lions through 2017 on a five-year deal that is worth $76.5 million.

Stafford got a tidy raise, elevating his annual average from $13 million in his rookie contract to $15.3 million in his new deal. But he got nowhere close to the $20-plus million average the NFL is now bestowing on the kind of elite quarterbacks the Lions hope Stafford can one day be. The Lions will get some immediate salary-cap savings and more long-range cap certainty, the details of which will emerge in the coming days. But leaving a quarterback eligible for free agency at age 30, as Stafford now is, suggests less than complete conviction about his projected career arc.

Which, by the way, is a completely defensible and reasonable approach. As we discussed a few hours ago, Stafford has put up some impressive raw numbers in two years as a full-time starter but hasn't accomplished what all elite franchise quarterbacks do: Elevate the team around him. Stafford is 17-28 overall as the Lions' starter but 1-22 against teams that finished the season with winning records.

You might think that $76.5 million over five years is a lot to pay for a quarterback who has had the kinds of ups and downs that Stafford has. In reality, it is the going rate for a second-tier NFL quarterback when you accept that the top tier earns about 25 percent more.

The Lions made it through the offseason with Stafford's $20.82 million cap number. They could have done the same next season with his slightly lower figure and then made a determination about Stafford's future. And Stafford could have easily sat on his $23.5 million over the next two seasons and gone for an elite-level deal after the 2014 season.

In the end, however, neither side felt certain enough to follow those paths. They met in the middle, ignored the crossroads and decided to let this thing play out a bit longer. And so it goes.