The Detroit Lions will one day add Matthew Stafford to their ring of honor, the “Pride of the Lions.” That's a near certainty. It’s not completely out of the question that his No. 9 could get retired.
This is despite never delivering the team an NFC North title, a playoff victory (0-3) or pretty much anything of substance.
For a franchise with so few stars, Stafford has been one of them. In 2019, in conjunction with the NFL’s' 100th anniversary, he was selected to Detroit’s all-time team. In 12 seasons, he threw for over 46,000 yards, scored over 300 touchdowns (passing and rushing) and led 38 game-winning drives.
He was a modern day Archie Manning, a really good quarterback playing for a really bad franchise. Counting “interims” and the freshly hired, Stafford had five coaches and four general managers.
For his part, he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 and was high effort and low drama. He showed up, played hurt and never complained. No, he wasn’t perfect. No, he isn’t Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. But he was better than most; a lot better on a lot of Sundays.
There was no denying his talent or his heart. The fans (overwhelmingly) loved him.
Now Stafford and the Lions are splitting up, a mutually agreed upon decision that is actually a year too late. Typical Lions mismanagement delayed a housecleaning and reboot that should have occurred 12 months ago – when Stafford would have had more time to resuscitate his career and would have fetched more on the open market.
Stafford leaves the way all Lions stars do, befuddled by an organization they couldn’t turn around. Yet unlike Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson or others, he does so with gas still in the tank and time to still show he can win big games, perhaps even big postseason games.
In doing so, he adds a significant level of spice to the NFL offseason.
Rather than go through another rebuild with new general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell, Stafford reportedly approached the team in January and asked for a trade that could work for both sides.
Stafford should fetch some decent assets, namely at least one first-round draft pick, to help the Lions construct a winner, likely with a cheaper young quarterback. Detroit already has the No. 7 overall selection of the 2021 draft.
And Stafford should find a new team who can contend for the playoffs or more, giving purpose to a career that has been long on eye-popping stats and huge contracts but little else. He’s trying to get out while he still can.
Stafford is 32 but he should spin heads on teams in desperate need of a quarterback to get them into Super Bowl contention – Indianapolis, Washington and so on. He could fit nearly anywhere.
He has a powerful arm, good mobility and plenty of experience. He’s a pro’s pro, a leader and a battler. Mostly he’s desperate to win, desperate to prove he is better than his record.
“It’s hard every time,” Stafford said after a Week 17 loss to Minnesota dropped the Lions to 5-11 on the season and everyone knew it was likely his last game for the franchise. “Difficult, disappointing all those things. I want to win. I want to be in those games more than anything.
“But it starts with me,” Stafford continued. “I can play better and help us win more games. I want to win more than anybody, if not more. But what I can control is how I play.”
It was classic Stafford, frustrated at another loss (he went 74-93-1 in Detroit) but shouldering more than his share of the blame. In truth the past few years he was doomed by a bad front office and a bad coach who left him surrounded by inferior talent and little development.
What if, however, he got plugged into the Colts, who have salary-cap space to add weapons. What about Washington or San Francisco, which have a defense but no solutions at QB? What about New Orleans, where Drew Brees is all but set to retire. Or Pittsburgh if Ben Roethlisberger calls it quits? How about filling the gap in New England, or just about everywhere but a half dozen, quarterback happy places.
He isn’t young anymore, but he isn’t that old, either. There have been plenty of injuries, but he has shown an ability to play through them. He threw for 4,084 yards and 26 touchdowns (against 10 picks) this past season. He’s at least a top-15 quarterback in the league. Maybe top-10 with a sound game plan and supporting talent (he never played with a 1,000-yard rusher, for instance).
And he’s available to the franchise that is willing to go all in on him. The “For Sale” sign is out in Detroit.
As for the Lions, whatever they get, they get. The team has far too many holes to fill. Draft picks and cap space from dealing Stafford will help achieve it. It’s a new day. The old QB may have deserved better, but that’s the business.
Stafford arrived in Detroit in 2009, fresh out of the University of Georgia and ready to rewrite the franchise’s history. In the end, he couldn’t. Too much dysfunction. Too many clowns. Too little competency.
He was a good to great player on an all-time bad franchise and one day that’ll get Matthew Stafford out on the 50-yard line of the Ford Field with fans cheering him into the Pride of the Lions.
It’s clear he wanted his career to mean more than that, and now he gets a chance to prove it.
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