If things really go as planned this season in Detroit, we won't see much of Stafford, the ninth quarterback to go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft in the past 12 years. And we shouldn't. The odds are pretty stacked against Stafford duplicating the rookie experiences of Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco of last year, so the Lions' thinking should be long term when it comes to their new franchise quarterback.
Detroit needs to show patience and a sense of resolve toward Stafford, giving the Georgia junior what amounts to a redshirt season in 2009. They'd do well to use the Carson Palmer first-year model of 2003 or the Philip Rivers example from 2004, and not the David Carr thrown-into-the-fire version of 2002. The Lions should realize they're not going anywhere truly significant in 2009, and they can best set Stafford and themselves up for success in the next decade if they play it smart early.
Both Palmer and Carr joined bad teams as No. 1 overall picks, just as Stafford will do. Carr was the new face of a new franchise in Houston and the city was wild about having NFL football back after an absence of five years. He started all 16 games as a rookie and proceeded to absorb a mind-boggling 76 sacks -- a beating from which he never really recovered. Palmer, by comparison, never took the field for Cincinnati as a rookie, and quickly emerged as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league shortly thereafter, taking the Bengals to the playoffs in his second season as a starter.
As for Rivers, the fourth overall pick in 2004 joined a quality team in San Diego and wound up sitting behind starter Drew Brees for two full seasons before getting his starting shot. He's now one of the AFC's Pro Bowl perennials and has taken the Chargers to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
It won't be easy for Detroit to stick with veteran Daunte Culpepper at quarterback this season when the fans and the media start calling for Stafford to play, because the expectation level and the hype factor always play a role in these situations. But if things are to really change in Detroit under new head coach Jim Schwartz, protecting Stafford's future and giving him the best possible shot at developing into a standout starter should take precedence over the urge for immediate results.
Recent history fairly well screams that Stafford would be better served by watching for a while. Remember, Ryan and Flacco were fifth-year seniors. Stafford is a true junior. In fact, of the 14 quarterbacks taken in the first round in the last five drafts, the only junior to have early success was Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, he of the two Super Bowl rings in his first five seasons.
The other four junior quarterbacks have been quite the mixed bag. Alex Smith went first overall to San Francisco in 2005 and is one more bad season away from being one of the bigger busts in recent draft history. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers was buried behind Brett Favre for his first three seasons, but last year, when finally given the chance, showed some return on the Packers' investment. Tennessee's Vince Young (2006) and Oakland's JaMarcus Russell (2007) remain works in progress who we can charitably say have yet to live up to expectations.
Which camp will Stafford wind up joining? If the Lions have learned anything from all their failures this decade -- and the failures of other first-round-quarterback-drafting teams -- Friday night's big headlines for Stafford should be his last for a while. It's now assured that he'll go No. 1 in Saturday's Draft, but that's the only time he should be first in line in 2009.