Matthew Stafford's 2016 could lead to extension -- or a career crossroads

The Lions have been a mediocre franchise with quarterback Matthew Stafford despite his impressive statistics. AP Photo/Tom Gannam

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The crossroads are coming for Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions, even though the quarterback said he doesn’t think about it and discussions about his future are still months away.

There are still things to be decided and a 2016 season to play, starting Sunday against Indianapolis. How that pans out could make the conversation between Stafford’s representatives and the Lions' front office after the season easier or more difficult.

Stafford’s contract is up after the 2017 season. Teams rarely let a franchise quarterback reach the final year of his deal without a contract extension. If the Lions choose to extend Stafford, there’s a chance he could end up being the richest player in the NFL for at least a short period of time.

There are three real options here for the Lions: keep Stafford as their quarterback for the rest of his career at a high price; let him play out the final year of his contract, realizing he may choose to test free agency after that season no matter what; or decide to move on from him and choose a quarterback high in next year’s draft. All three options come with a risk.

Stafford likely will be a major topic for the Lions after the season, much like Ndamukong Suh was in the 2015 offseason (he left for Miami) and Calvin Johnson was this offseason (he retired).

Stafford has put up all the numbers he’s been asked to. He’s thrown for 5,000 yards in a season. He holds almost every significant franchise passing record and was the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 25,000 career yards.

But the Lions have been a mediocre franchise with Stafford. He’s made only two playoff appearances. The Lions have had three different offensive coordinators with Stafford -- the first two were fired -- and his record as a starter is 42-51.

When head coach Jim Caldwell was asked how Stafford's success would be measured this year, he moved away from statistics, which Stafford has plenty of.

“No. 1 is based on winning, plain and simple,” Caldwell said. “That’s for all of us. That’s the No. 1 goal. So throw all the statistics aside -- if you’re winning ballgames, that kind of takes care of itself.”

If the Lions win, Caldwell likely remains as Detroit’s head coach, possibly with an extension himself. It also means the Lions are headed in the right direction, which probably would lead them to keep Stafford and sign him to a lucrative deal.

How does Caldwell measure Stafford's success beyond winning?

“Every year is a little bit different,” Caldwell said. “Depends on what kind of attack we’re using, what tempo, what kind of goals we set for him. Am I going to tell you every single goal we have set for him? I am not.

“But he looks to improve on everything he’s done the year before. So if you take a look at where we were the year before, we plan to do better.”

Stafford improved greatly once the Lions switched offensive coordinators to Jim Bob Cooter in the middle of last season, propelling him to put up the numbers of a top-10 quarterback over the final eight games.

In the past, Caldwell harped on completion percentage and cutting down interceptions. Stafford completed a career-best 67.2 percent of his passes in 2015 and threw 13 picks. Figure those to be the numbers he has to improve.

Durability is key, too. Stafford is expected to start his 81st consecutive regular-season game -- coincidentally Calvin Johnson's old number -- on Sunday against Indianapolis. Stafford cares about the streak, and it’s another way to value his long-term worth to the Lions.

“I take a lot of pride in it. Something that everybody here wanted to write me off about my first two years, had a lot of fun writing articles on that,” Stafford said. “Something that I like, I like being available. I put a lot of work in the offseason, I put a lot of work in during the season. To be available on Sunday is one of the biggest things, if not the biggest thing in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position. Having that one guy that you know is going to be there.

“There’s some luck involved with that, no question. What kind of nicks and bruises and injuries do you get? Can you play through them? Can you not? I’ve been lucky with those, and hopefully that continues.”

Johnson’s retirement means Stafford will take on a greater leadership role this season. He and Brandon Pettigrew are the second-longest-tenured Lions behind Don Muhlbach, and of the three, Stafford has the largest role by far.

The 28-year-old continues to try and be himself, but he recognizes the added eyes on him.

“There’s no question that there’s added responsibility on everybody’s shoulders,” Stafford said. “When you lose a guy that’s a Hall of Fame player like Calvin, if I just up my game, it doesn’t help us. We all have to up our game -- it’s everybody, it’s a collective.

“Football is a team sport. That’s why it’s a great team sport is everybody has to pull their weight. No question the quarterback has a huge weight. I have a big weight with how we play offense, there’s no question about that.”

How Stafford handles that weight could help the Lions make a decision on his future. It’s something the Lions appear to be planning for.

Lions president Rod Wood told Crain’s Business he had discussed Stafford’s possible extension with the team’s ownership, but not with Stafford.

“When the time is right, we’ll talk to his representatives about it,” Wood told Crain’s Business. “We’ve made long-term plans in terms of what that means to the team’s budget.”

How Stafford performs in 2016 could dictate how those conversations will go.