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O'HARA: Stafford fully entrenched as Lions' QB and leader

PHOENIX –It was almost an afterthought when Matthew Stafford's name came up Wednesday morning near the end of Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell's 45-minute interview session with the media at the NFL Annual Meeting.

That was more a sign of Stafford's rising stature than a slight that Caldwell had fielded questions on just about every position group before a question arose about his franchise quarterback.

As Stafford goes into his ninth season, he could not be more entrenched as the Lions' starter and leader. While other NFL teams struggle to put the pieces of their quarterback puzzle together, Stafford is locked in place in Detroit.

When the question about Stafford came up, the reporter noted that it was almost 40 minutes into Caldwell's session without his name being mentioned.

Caldwell has been a strong supporter of Stafford since he took over as head coach in 2014. He resurrected what he said early on about Stafford when he began to talk about him Wednesday.

"Overall since I've been here, I think he's always been a topic of discussion," Caldwell said. "You do remember early on, I said there's going to come a time when nobody's ever going to have to make an excuse for this guy.

"He's talented. He's got ability. He can play."

Stafford emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate last year with his late-game heroics. The Lions had a 9-4 record before losing their last three games to finish at 9-7 and limp into the playoffs as a Wild Card.

Before the fade – in the team's won-loss record and Stafford as an MVP contender -- Stafford had led the Lions on eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Caldwell talked about how his perspective on Stafford, which hasn't changed, compared to those outside the organization who often questioned Stafford despite his obvious talent and the statistics he has compiled at a historically prolific rate for his age and experience.

"Obviously, today you guys look at him differently," Caldwell said, referring to the recognition Stafford has gotten recently. "We always looked at him the exact same way – talented guy that's going to continue to get better.

"Even though we've seen him play well, I think he's going to play better. He's got an extraordinary amount of ability."

Caldwell also talked about the handicaps Stafford had to play over last year – the physical handicap of playing with an injury to the middle finger on his right (passing hand), and the schematic handicap of having one of the league's most ineffective running games.

The finger has been fixed – with rest in the offseason. It remains to be seen how much the running game improves. Starting tailback Ameer Abdullah is expected to be back at full health after missing the last 14 games of last season with a foot injury, and the offensive line should be stronger with the signing of free agents T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner.

"We have not been nearly as good as we'd like to be," Caldwell said of the running game. "We haven't gotten there yet. Do I think we'll get there? Absolutely. Do I think it will help him in the overall offense, the overall scheme? Absolutely."

Caldwell does not dwell on injuries, but he said Wednesday the finger injury obviously diminished Stafford's performance. His stats indicate that.

Stafford had 24 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions for the season. He had three TD passes and five interceptions after injuring the finger in the first half of the Lions' win over Chicago in Game 13.

"All I can tell you is the same thing I said before," Caldwell said. "Obviously it affected him. It would be naive and disingenuous to think that he functioned as normally with his injury.

"The fact of the matter is, we don't make excuses. I think he'd be the first to tell you, he's going to find a way to work through it. It was hard. It was difficult. It wasn't easy.

"I think without question he made the best of the situation."

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