Let's be realistic on Stafford expectations

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Detroit has the oldest team in the NFC North and the fifth-oldest in the NFL, according to this analysis from NFC West maven Mike Sando. But at the most important position in the game, they’ve got the league’s youngest starter.

Matthew Stafford left the University of Georgia a year early, turned 21 in February and on Monday was named Detroit’s starting quarterback. Speaking to reporters at the Lions’ practice facility, coach Jim Schwartz said the decision was not impacted by Daunte Culpepper’s toe injury and said Stafford is the Lions’ permanent starter.

So now is a good time to make a few things clear. First: It’s almost a given that this will be ugly, at least in the beginning. Stafford played like a classic young gunslinger during the preseason, completing seven passes of at least 20 yards while throwing four interceptions in 55 attempts. (In a 500-pass season, that ratio would bring 3,536 yards and 36 interceptions.) And as you can see from the chart on your right, recent NFL history is littered with the early struggles of highly-drafted quarterbacks.

To me, the near-constant references to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco need to end. Both took their teams to the playoffs as rookies last season, but I don’t think anyone would doubt they had the benefit of landing on a better team than the Lions. For every Ryan, there is a David Carr, JaMarcus Russell and Alex Smith. For every Flacco, there is a Peyton Manning. Yes, even Manning struggled as a rookie, throwing 28 interceptions as Indianapolis finished 3-13 in 1998.

This is not to suggest that the Lions have doomed Stafford’s career by naming him their starter right away. It just means the negative moments are going to outweigh the positive moments this season unless Stafford is different than nearly every other young quarterback who has taken over a sub-par team in recent years.

I actually like the way Stafford aggressively pursued the job this summer, especially compared to the way Culpepper appeared to be playing it safe. In the Lions preseason action that I saw, Stafford was throwing downfield routinely while Culpepper was far more conservative.

I suppose that could have been a function of playing calling, but ultimately the disparate approaches were reflected in the numbers: Stafford averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, while Culpepper averaged 5.7. Culpepper, on the other hand, threw no interceptions and finished with a solid passer rating of 89.6.

The end result is that neither quarterback separated himself. In other words, the competition was a draw. So if they were even, I have no problem with choosing the more aggressive player -- and the one who eventually would be taking over the job anyway.

I just think it’s better to be realistic about the short term from the outset, rather than start tossing out platitudes about Stafford’s presumed attributes before he takes his first NFL snap.