Matthew Stafford setting himself up to possibly be NFL's highest-paid player

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford had a small smile creep across his face. He had been asked moments earlier about the critics throughout his career and how maybe, possibly, he had converted them into believers.

For years there have been questions -- some deserved -- about Stafford, whom the Detroit Lions took with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. The arm was there. So were all the physical tools. So was the criticism. The Lions didn’t win enough, and to be fair, they have only two playoff appearances in Stafford’s career. Stafford was too reliant on star receiver Calvin Johnson. His decisions were questionable.

Stafford has tackled the latter two issues this year and turned into one of the most consistent, reliable quarterbacks in the NFL. It’s starting to lead to wins as well. He’s 10-6 since Week 8 of last season, the same time Jim Bob Cooter took control of the offense.

Since Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, Stafford has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 4,310 yards, 35 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 105.4. Plus, the Lions have started to win.

This all led to the smirk and then to his answer, which kind of recognized it all.

“Yeah, sure,” Stafford said. “I’m just trying to be the same old guy I’ve always been. Just trying to do what I can and play as good as I possibly can.”

All of those reasons make for a somewhat simple answer to what the Lions need to do this offseason, with Stafford heading into the final year of his contract in 2017. If Stafford continues his current play, Detroit needs to offer him a contract extension to ensure he remains with the Lions for the foreseeable future, even if it means giving him the going rate for franchise quarterbacks, turning him into the richest player in the NFL.

Andrew Luck, the league’s highest-paid quarterback, makes an average of $24.594 million off the contract extension he signed earlier this year, and Joe Flacco, the third-highest-paid quarterback in the league, is making an average of $21,133,333 per year off the contract extension he signed earlier in the year, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

With the salary cap likely to jump again, and with a premium on accomplished quarterbacks, Stafford could end up clearing both of those numbers.

Stafford, of course, would never discuss that. He shooed those questions away multiple times in the past. He dismissed them Wednesday almost as quickly as he deflected discussion of a potential Most Valuable Player candidacy.

“It’s not on my mind,” Stafford said. “I don’t pay too much attention to it. I’ve had 5,000-yard seasons and 40 touchdowns and haven’t sniffed the Pro Bowl for it, so I don’t really care. I just go and play for the guys in that locker room. That’s all that matters to me.”

Part of the reason Stafford eschews national attention is because he has been living in it for so long. At Highland Park High School in Dallas, he was the top prep quarterback in the nation. Then he was the starting quarterback at SEC power Georgia and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

“I don’t know any other way, because I’ve only lived my life,” Stafford said. “But I’ve learned a long time ago to not really pay attention to that stuff. If I get worried about that, then I’m doing a disservice to my teammates. The only thing I can do is prepare as hard as I can to help us win.”

It has shown over the past seven games how much those players believe in Stafford and how much his preparation has helped. He has made smart, efficient reads on plays throughout the season. He is the calming influence in the huddle late in games. He is the one with the unflappable belief the Lions can pull out a win even when they are trailing late.

In every game the Lions have won this season, it has been Stafford leading a winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Some of this has to do with his comfort with Cooter, their shared football vision and ability to communicate with each other.

“Jim Bob’s done a great job with him since they started working together when he first got here,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think they developed a real good rapport, and I think [quarterbacks coach] Brian Callahan has come in just to kind of really cement that. He’s got a good relationship with him. He has a good sense of the offense.

“You know, I think there is very, very positive dialogue between them that allows Matthew to do what he loves to do and do what he does well. I don’t think he’s afraid to share his thoughts in terms of what works for him, what doesn’t, what he likes, et cetera.”

If it keeps working, Stafford’s doubters will continue to decrease while the money he's earning likely will rise.