But the flip side is what you know he can be, which is that rarest of NFL commodities -- a franchise quarterback. You imagine a day when he puts the team on his back, overcomes some ridiculous obstacle (an expired clock, say, or an injured shoulder ... or both!) and leads the team to an emotional, season-defining win. You believe he can be that kind of player, and so, you give him the money and hope. And then, in Week 11 of his first season, he gives you a glimpse.
Just a glimpse, mind you. All those questions about Stafford, they're still out there, not fully answered. He's got bad games still to come, whether his left shoulder bounces back right away or not. And his big win Sunday did come against the Browns, who are as big a joke this year as the Lions were last year.
But of all the zany and incredible things to come out of the final moments of Sunday's loony Browns-Lions game, the most potentially significant was the first chapter in what could be the building of Matthew Stafford's legend.
"He's a smooth guy," Lions linebacker Larry Foote said of his quarterback. "He plays with a lot of poise."
Sounds cliche, but if there were ever a time to gauge poise, this was it. The final eight seconds of this game were a frenzy, and Stafford managed to keep his head about him while others (notably Browns coach Eric Mangini) were losing theirs.
The ball was at the Browns 32-yard line, and the clock showed eight seconds left. Detroit needed a touchdown. Stafford took the ball from center Dominic Raiola and began to run around. And then kept running around.
"We didn't draft him for his elusiveness," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "During that play I screamed 'Throw the ball!' about six times, but he just kept on making somebody miss and buying himself time."
Here's how Stafford described it:
"Just trying to buy some time. It wasn't going to be a timing throw. Just trying to look around. I knew when I was scrambling left, I wouldn't be able to get it off because that dude was bearing down pretty good, so I kind of ducked around. Then I think (running back) Kevin Smith came back and cut somebody down that was chasing me. Then I saw Calvin (receiver Calvin Johnson) -- he was the only guy I saw -- in the back of the end zone. It looked like he was tired as hell, running back this way, and I just threw it up and then got planted."
It was Cleveland DT C.J. Mosley who "planted" Stafford, driving him to the ground hard on his left shoulder. Lying on the ground, Stafford didn't see Cleveland's Hank Poteat tackle Johnson in the end zone. Didn't see the yellow flags hit the turf. Didn't imagine that anybody would ever call pass interference in the end zone on a Hail Mary play with no time left on the clock.
"I was content to lay there for a while," Stafford said, continuing his painkiller-aided rambling description of the play. "And then Dom (Raiola) grabbed me and told me that pass interference was called and I was like, 'Really? Come on.' I need to figure out which ref called it, because he's a good man."
It was pretty astounding. Nobody can seem to remember the last time such a call was made in such a spot. FanHouse's human pro football encyclopedia, Dave Goldberg, recalls a game on Nov. 29, 1998 between the Bills and the Patriots in Foxborough where Drew Bledsoe and New England got an untimed down after a Hail Mary pass interference call and the Bills were so mad they stormed off into the locker room before the extra-point attempt that followed the ensuing touchdown. It's possible that was the last time, but regardless, it's pretty unusual. It was the right call here, but Poteat said he never imagined it would be made.
Anyway, when Stafford got up, he walked off the field grabbing his left arm. He lay on a table on the sideline with Detroit team doctors examining his shoulder. Daunte Culpepper was frantically throwing to get loose for the final play, since the rules say an injured player has to sit out one play before going back in the game.
Unless the opposing team calls a timeout. Which Mangini and the Browns did. And when Stafford found out that's what had happened, he sat up.
"I heard timeout over the loudspeaker and knew that was probably my only chance to get back in," said Stafford, an NFL rookie who apparently knows a rule that an NFL head coach does not. "It was my left shoulder and I don't really need it to throw."
Armed with such rock-solid logic, he raced over to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and told him, "I can throw." Stunned, Linehan sent him back onto the field for the final play, which was a touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew. The extra point won the game.
"He made a great play to finish the game, but probably his best play was eluding four team doctors on the sideline that were all trying to stop him (from going back into the game)," Schwartz said. "It's a good thing our team doctors didn't play on varsity, because Matt had to work his way back onto the field."
Now, as much fun as it is to rip Mangini, it's hard to get on him for allowing Stafford back into the game when he didn't have to. Mangini said he called the timeout to get the right personnel on the field to defend a goal-line play. It likely didn't occur to him that he'd just done the only thing that could have brought Stafford in to run the play, because he'd probably watched Stafford walk off the field holding his limp left arm and figured he was maybe out for the rest of the season (which, technically, he still could be, right?)
Mangini was done in by over-coaching -- micro-managing from the sideline unnecessarily. But what else do you expect from a guy who fakes a field goal, converts the first down and then kicks a field goal on the very next play, as Mangini did at the end of the first half of this very same game? Mangini is what he is, and in this case he was a mere foil. If Stafford grows into the next great star NFL quarterback, they'll forever tell the story of that late-November Sunday his rookie year when he went back into the game with one arm and no time left on the clock and threw the winning touchdown. At the rate Mangini's going, he'll be long forgotten by then, and Stafford will have become a legend.
Which is what the Lions were hoping they were drafting No. 1 overall back in April. Nice of the kid to draw them a living-color sketch of their best-case scenario so soon.