Dan Orlovsky: If Detroit Lions don’t win, Matthew Stafford could go elsewhere in 2021

Detroit Free Press

With last weekend’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony postponed until next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN decided to look at potential Hall of Famers on every NFL roster and separate them into four groups: The locks (who writer Bill Barnwell pegs as having a 100% chance of making it), those likely to get in (70% to 99%), those in the running (40% to 69%) and players who still have work to do (10% to 39%).

Barnwell put two Lions on his list, both in the “work-to-do” category: quarterback Matthew Stafford and cornerback Jeff Okudah.

Okudah, of course, is a rookie who never has played a down of NFL football but who made the list on his upside. He’s the sixth cornerback drafted in the top five this millennium, and while none of those players has yet to reach Canton, two of the three active ones — Patrick Peterson and Jalen Ramsey — drew a mention from Barnwell.

Stafford, 32 and entering his 12th season, is statistically on a trajectory to reach the Hall of Fame, though his resume is lacking in other areas the selection committee (of which I am a part) typically uses to gauge worthiness: He never has won a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl, and he never has seriously contended for major awards that tend to define greatness, such as MVP, Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Pro.

I’ve written about Stafford’s Hall of Fame chances before, and I just so happened to be talking to Stafford’s friend and former Lions teammate, Dan Orlovsky, earlier this week when the subject of Stafford’s Hall of Fame candidacy came up.

Orlovsky is a big Stafford fan, as you may know, and in our conversation he spoke of watching two future Hall of Famers play in his final game as a Lion in 2015.

One was Calvin Johnson, who will come before the committee after the season. When I asked who the other was, Orlovsky said, “Matthew.”

“I don’t think it’s even going to be a question,” he said.

[The epic tales of Matthew Stafford at 40,000 yards: Dislocated fingers, pranks and TDs ]

Stafford, if he stays reasonably healthy, should challenge the NFL career record for passing yards by the time he’s finished playing. He has 41,025 yards through 11 seasons, and is probably at or just beyond the mid-point of his career.

But it was Orlovsky’s argument beyond the stats that really caught my attention.

“His numbers will be great,” Orlovsky said. “I’ll keep it 100 with you, like, listen, he’s either going to win there this year or a winner’s going to come get him. I think if a winner comes gets him, or a team that’s on the brink of winning, is a quarterback away, I think that people will finally get to see him on a team that is fully complementary and supports that quarterback play, similar to the 2014 team. Or the 2011 team in some capacities.

“But I think that, maybe I’m stupid and naïve and biased, I just think eventually he’ll either win there or will be on a winner (if he doesn’t) because of it.”

There’s a lot to digest there, and, frankly, it’s hard to argue with what Orlovsky, now an analyst at ESPN, said.

Stafford played some of the best football of his career last season, when he threw for 2,499 yards and 19 touchdowns in eight games before missing the second half of the season with a back injury.

He really seems to enjoy Darrell Bevell’s offense, which  is suited for his skills. And he’s got a nice collection of young-enough weapons around him to think the Lions will have a potent offense for the foreseeable future: Kenny Golladay, who’s ticketed for a new contract in the next month or so; T.J. Hockenson, a talented young tight end; and two young running backs in second-round pick D’Andre Swift and the talented but oft-injured Kerryon Johnson.

But it’s the win-in-Detroit-or-go-somewhere-else part of Orlovsky’s prediction that really stands out.

Stafford has been the subject of trade speculation before, including this past offseason when the Lions had the No. 3 pick in the draft but never seriously considered dealing him and taking a young quarterback.

If he plays well again this year and the Lions win, a) that would, in theory, bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy, and b) put him reasonably in line for another contract extension relatively soon. Stafford’s current contract expires after the 2022 season and by next year his current deal will be below market value.

If he doesn’t play well, or plays well and the Lions struggle, the future becomes a little more murky. Orlovsky said he could see either scenario happening: a contending team trying to trade for Stafford (whose cap hit would be $19 million in the case of a trade) or the Lions, perhaps with a new regime, moving on.

“I think in both cases you could justify it,” Orlovsky said. “I’ve said this publicly and I’ve said it to Matthew, listen, if they don’t win, it’s probably the right decision. And they didn’t not win because of him, but you can totally sit there and go, ‘All right, we tried, it didn’t happen, let’s totally reboot.’ “

Orlovsky spent some time with Stafford earlier this summer, and while he said Stafford never has voiced that theory to him, he’s also smart enough to know how the NFL works.

“He’s just focused on like, ‘Listen, I think we got a good team. I was playing really, really good last year. I feel good, healthy. Like, I think I’ve got plenty of years of really good football left in me,’ ” Orlovsky said. “Listen, everyone knows he’s smart, so he’s aware. He knows what the reality of the NFL is.”

The reality is, Stafford was playing great football last year, and the Lions still were 3-4-1 when he went down. If he finds team success, not just this fall but more often than not in the second half of his career, he absolutely will be in the discussion for Canton. And if he doesn’t, well, he might finish his career outside of Detroit, with the chance to be looked at in a whole new light.

“I even (said) this to his face, I said, ‘Dude, sometimes people caveat with, do you think he’l play well?’ ” Orlovsky said. “And I’m like, ‘When did he not play well?’ And to his credit, he thought he did not play well two years ago, so I kind of differed on that a little bit, but he’s going to play well. Will he be MVP-level football (this year)? I would say more likely than not likely.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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