The roster says that Matthew Stafford is a third-year NFL quarterback. Don’t believe everything that you read.

Stafford is the Paper Lion, with apologies to George Plimpton. The kid reared in Texas was drafted first overall in 2009 by the Lions out of the University of Georgia, and he’s still working on a complete season of 16 games.

He stands at 13 games played after two seasons—10 in 2009, three last year. The other 19 have been missed because of his knees or his shoulders.

If this was baseball, 13-for-32 would be a cool .406 batting average—very Ted Williams-ish.

But this is pro football, where 13-for-32 for a quarterback isn’t good, no matter how you slice it. It’s not good as a completion percentage, and it’s downright disdainful as a playing percentage.

Stafford is entering his third year as a pro, but we don’t know enough about him to make a clear, confident assessment of his quarterbacking abilities.

Everything about Stafford is talked about as if you’re looking at him through a dirty screen door.

“Gosh,” folks will say, “he looks like a good quarterback.” Then, they’ll just as quickly add, “But I really can’t tell.

Well, he’d better be good, because for all the offensive weapons the Lions possess, they won’t mean a hill of beans if Stafford can’t stay upright for an entire season.

Speaking of hills, the Lions have one named Shaun, who will serve as Stafford’s backup. Even though Hill is a great guy and a gutsy player, the Lions hope he’s seen as often as Olivier’s understudy.

The Lions plunge into the 2011 season with more national and local buzz surrounding them than I can recall—and I’ve been following them since 1970. I think some of the old-timers whose recollection goes back much further would agree with me.

What do you call it when even Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, usually so wise, puts “Super Bowl” and “Detroit Lions” in the same sentence? And just three years after 0-16?

King went on record last week as hinting that the Lions, if things go right and this happens and that happens, could—maybe, might—find themselves in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Lions had the gall to win their last four games of the 2010 season, and as soon as they did, I knew they’d be the trendy pick of 2011.

Maybe the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have something to worry about, maybe they don’t.

But all of the nicey-nicey talk about the Lions, all the excitement and buzz and high expectations, all of it floats around an assumption that has yet to transpire.

The Lions will be a contender, the optimists say, because their assumption is that Matthew Stafford will be under center and not under the surgeon’s knife.

That’s quite an assumption. That’s a leap of epic proportions. It involves suspending disbelief.

Here’s the conundrum: Believers in Stafford and the Lions would convince you that the young QB isn’t snake-bitten, that he isn’t injury-prone. Yet the only way they can be proven right is if Stafford makes it through a full season without setting foot in a hospital, unless it’s to visit sick kids.

This injury-prone thing is going to follow Stafford, like it or not. And it should. The pessimists have history on their side.

The pessimists and haters look at Stafford cross-eyed, like he’s a defendant on trial and the prosecution has bags and bags of evidence and witnesses lining up around the block to testify: “He’s the one, your honor!”

You really can’t blame the pessimists.

The play that separated Stafford’s shoulder for the second time last season, in a November tilt against the New York Jets, didn’t appear to be anything that doesn’t happen to NFL quarterbacks every week.

Of all his injuries, I believe the one against the Jets is what turned a lot of folks in the Lions fanbase against Stafford.

And until he gets through at least one full season without serious injury, the discussion about Stafford’s durability will continue to fester.

Might as well call the dudes from Guinness, because we’re about to set a world’s record for most people holding their breath every Sunday, from September to January.

Every time Stafford gets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.

The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.

The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other than Stafford, I will grant you that.

There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.

There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.

There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.

But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.

Let me take you back to 1979.

The Lions’ quarterback was the competent Gary Danielson, who didn’t have as much talent in his entire body as Stafford has in his left bicep. But Gary was good enough for the Lions and their rebuilding process. In 1978, against the Minnesota Vikings in the Silverdome, Danielson threw five TD passes—still a shared franchise record.

But in the final exhibition game of ’79 in Baltimore, Danielson wrecked his knee. He was lost for the season. The Lions didn’t have a capable backup, like they do today.

In an instant, the Lions went from being led by Danielson to relying on a rookie named Jeff Komlo. A 2-14 season ensued.

But all was not lost—that awful season enabled the Lions to draft running back Billy Sims in 1980. Sims was the Lions’ best player until a game in 1984, when he suffered a career-ending knee injury. Again the Lions went rebuilding.

The Lions have been rebuilding ever since. They’re the Bob Vila of the NFL.

The slapstick might be near an end. The Lions might have found the superstar quarterback they’ve been lacking for over half a century.

I think. Though, I can’t tell for sure.

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