| The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford was joking about a tombstone this week, which shows he still has a sly sense of humor. Or perhaps an ironic sense of timing.
This feels like a tombstone-type game for the 1-3 Lions, headed to face 1-4 Jacksonville. When teams are struggling, they’re advised to look in the mirror, and that’s what the Lions and Jaguars will be doing Sunday. Two poor defenses, two spotty offenses, two coaches who can’t afford to lose a game they’re not supposed to lose.
In the NFL, if you’re not in contention, you’re on the clock. We already know Matt Patricia and Jaguars coach Doug Marrone hear the ticking. If the Lions lose this game, at the start of a favorable stretch in the schedule, it’ll be difficult for Patricia — and GM Bob Quinn — to find a way to save their jobs. Heck, it might be difficult to find their way back on the team plane.
For all the focus on Quinntricia, someone else’s future also is nudging toward limbo. Stafford is off to a rough start, and at 32, he’s not an ideal candidate to start over. Trade conjecture began the minute the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott snapped his ankle last Sunday, and Stafford’s connection to hometown Dallas was duly noted. Trade rumors are hardly new for Stafford, who has lasted 12 seasons here without a playoff victory, which is remarkable when you think about it.
He’s still here because the Lions haven’t entertained serious offers, and just as likely, no team has made one, partly because of Stafford’s cumbersome contract. Quinn and Patricia have adamantly denied all trade rumors and there’s no evidence Stafford wants to leave, either.
But circumstances could change quickly, and this might be the first time you can legitimately wonder if his run is nearing an end. The trade deadline is Nov. 3, but any move almost certainly would come after the season. So why am I talking about this now, with the schedule barely 25% complete? Because now is when future plans are sown. Now is when we see if Patricia can pull something out, because if he can’t, it’d be time for a clean break — Quinn, Patricia, Stafford — at the end of the year.
I doubt Stafford would want to rebuild again here with a new regime. I suspect a new regime would want a new quarterback. Stafford isn’t biting on the questions, and isn’t snapping either. His greatest strength is his ability to project pleasant normalcy even in crisis, and plow straight ahead with minimal complaint. Some would say it’s also his weakness — too accepting of his fate, of the franchise’s historic incompetence and of his own fundamental flaws.
Stafford isn’t unbreakable, as broken bones in his back the past two seasons prove. But he’s not about to break now, and isn’t interested in the blame game. The Lions still don’t have a consistent running game and they do possess the 28th-ranked defense. Stafford knows he bears responsibility for some of the Lions’ woes too, but he’s not into deep public self-analysis.
If this is the beginning of the final stretch of his career here, fine. He’ll try his best and try to enjoy it.
“I just go out there and play,” he said. “I don’t really worry too much about that stuff. I understand the game and the life of NFL football just as much as anybody else, but I don’t think about it too much, to be honest.”
Stafford’s numbers are down and his completion percentage (60.6) is his lowest in six years. He’s thrown three interceptions and been sacked 12 times and seems unsure in the pocket. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said they’ve discussed Stafford’s footwork, an enduring issue. Stafford likes to sling the ball from all angles, but when you’re not as nimble afoot, it’s easy to go awry.
“Your feet really tell you the story, your feet (are) what gets you through your progressions,” Bevell said. “I thought we were really at a good place last year, and then keep in mind, he had all that time off and not running plays with guys in our offense. Just continuing to work on those little details.”
Stafford hasn’t always been great on the little details. The problem is, the Lions as an organization have been much worse. So Stafford often feels the need to handle the big details, to make the big-armed play, and that’s when he forces throws or takes a sack.
After the 35-29 loss to New Orleans, in which Stafford threw a brutal end-zone interception, consternation reached an early crescendo. ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, the former Lions quarterback, voiced what Stafford rarely voices.
“Matty’s my boy and I love him like a family member, but it feels like they’ve taken his killer instinct away sometimes when I watch him play right now,” Orlovsky said on the “Pat McAfee Show.” “He used to be this killer. I don’t know if they’ve kind of peeled that away and he’s just been beat up for so long. He’s gotta be so sick and tired of losing. … What happens if they move on from Matt Patricia, I don’t know if they do that. What happens if the new coach wants a new quarterback? What do they do with Matthew Stafford?”
Others pose that question more often than Stafford himself. He smiled when asked about Orlovsky’s comments and denied his killer instinct was gone.
“I feel like I’ve got as much juice as I’ve ever had,” Stafford said. “I’m fighting tooth and nail every week. … I still love playing this game. Do I hate losing? Absolutely. Does it piss me off and frustrate me just like everybody else in this locker room? Absolutely. But when we’re in the game, there’s nothing more important than trying to win.”
Stafford answers plainly, without betraying his emotion. He doesn’t create controversies or make excuses, which endears him to the franchise and most fans. But everything runs its course, and I’m guessing if he hated Orlovsky’s statement, he’d say it.
Stafford’s contract becomes more trade-friendly after this season, with two years remaining. The Lions would take about a $25 million cap hit if they dealt him, less than the $35 million they’d pay him to stay. It’s also considerably less than the $40 million hit they’d have suffered last offseason.
That’s why when rumors swirled then, they gained little traction, although enough to stir Stafford’s wife, Kelly, who expressed dismay on social media. If Stafford went on the market this offseason, there’d be suitors seeking an experienced upgrade, and they might offer a first-round pick or more.
The Lions don’t have a young backup to groom, but they’d surely be interested in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence if they landed the No. 1 pick. They had no interest in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa at No. 3 this year, opting to ride it out with Stafford.
Stafford will take the ride with them, however bumpy it might be. He has looked more frustrated and confused, especially compared to last year’s eight-game stint, when he played well before getting injured. His gaudy individual numbers — 42,042 career passing yards — are functions of longevity, ability and availability. It’s impossible to know if his team numbers would rise somewhere else, but we just might get a chance to see it.
In the meantime, the minutes tick and the minutia grows. Stafford was asked Wednesday if he realized Jacksonville was the only NFL opponent he’d never thrown a touchdown pass against, and he was genuinely surprised and amused.
“Yeah, I need to make that happen,” he said.
“I’d love to have that on the tombstone one day or something.”
Milestones and tombstones tend to blend together these days.
Stafford’s sarcasm carried a hint of self-deprecation, an admission he needs bigger accomplishments to etch in stone. And perhaps a subtle acknowledgement he’ll have to go elsewhere to get them.