Matthew Stafford no longer can carry the misery of the Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Shawn Windsor
 
| Detroit Free Press

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He misses his kids. But acknowledges he’s not the only one who’s had to stay away from family during the pandemic, as Matthew Stafford had to do last week — per NFL COVID-19 protocol — after coming in close contact with an infected person.  

Stafford is nothing if not aware, and it’s why he has grown into fine leader for the Detroit Lions the last decade-plus. Listen to his postgame news conferences and you’ll hear humility and praise of his teammates after a win, self-reflection and inward criticism after a loss. 

He never points fingers. He always takes the blame, even if a receiver is at fault for an interception. Though that wasn’t the case Sunday afternoon against Minnesota, when the Lions’ quarterback threw picks on consecutive possessions in the red zone that effectively ended the game. 

“The two interceptions were bad decisions,” he explained. “Really, the first one, bad decision. The second one, just a poor throw.” 

True. And true.  

Still, Stafford didn’t lose the game. He just didn’t win it. There is a difference.  

This season, he hasn’t been able to win many. And while he hasn’t played as well as he can, no quarterback is going to lead their team to 35 points every week, which is how many Stafford needed to beat the Vikings. 

Even the best offenses in the NFL have off days. Every now and again the defense needs to win it. This isn’t to excuse Stafford’s drop in play this season, or his interceptions Sunday, or the couple of pick-sixes he has thrown. 

Whether it’s years of playing for a middling franchise, or simply months of playing in a pandemic, Stafford’s vision on the field is clouded. His mistakes are sometimes the result of gambles, but more often — at least lately — the result of not seeing. 

He is feeling the psychic weight of the times, of the pandemic, of twice now having to stay away from his little girls in quarantine. And while he joked that his beard is sprouting premature gray, he made clear that he is not alone in feeling stress and uncertainty.  

“This year has been difficult for everybody — everybody in the league, everybody around the world,” he said. “This is a really unique situation and a really tough one. I’m one of the people that’s lucky enough to get to do their job. You know, as tough as it is, there’s a lot of people that don’t have a job anymore because of this stuff. I feel blessed I get to do what I do.” 

And yet? 

“Doesn’t make it easy,” he said. 

On Friday night, his daughter, Hunter, fell and hit her head. Stafford was in a hotel room per protocol. His wife, Kelly, couldn’t find a sitter for the other kids. So, Stafford left his hotel to head home, calling Lions general manager Bob Quinn on the way, telling him he’d have to break the protocol and wouldn’t be able to play Sunday. 

About 10 minutes before he got home, his wife found someone to watch the kids, and Stafford turned around and went back to the hotel. He stayed in protocol. Flew separately from the team to Minneapolis. Awoke at 5 a.m. Sunday to get tested — twice. Got cleared. Got a ride to the stadium. Suited up and completed 16 of his first 17 passes. 

Meanwhile, the defense got obliterated. The Lions fell behind early. Then fell behind some more. 

With a chance to cut the lead to 13-7, facing third-and-1 from the 1-yard line, the Lions called a stretch run for Adrian Peterson. The line didn’t block. Peterson lost four yards.  

For most of Stafford’s career, he has broken huddles with an offense that struggled to get that yard. That takes a toll. And while he arrived in Detroit as a preternatural gunslinger who needed to work on his touch underneath, imagine trying to tamp down your instinct — and slow that golden arm — when you know the game will too often fall on you. 

Again, that doesn’t give him cover for his play this season, and for the backbreaking picks on Sunday. He gets paid to see when the linebacker drops back and lurks in the shadows near his target. And he didn’t. 

And he knows it.  

And he’s got to know now that the playoffs, while mathematically possible, are a longshot, and that his coach and general manager may be gone this winter if the team continues to struggle, and that a new regime awaits again, with different ideas, and different methods, and new promises that they will finally, mercifully, be the ones to right this listing ship. 

Stafford can’t do it on his own. He’s good, but not great, though he has had moments of greatness. And it’s those moments that have tantalized for years. 

He can win games with that arm. He can lose them, too, especially toiling for a franchise that rarely has fielded a team good enough to win without his very best. 

Yet here he is, almost 12 years in, flinging a football during a pandemic, the weight of a forsaken franchise on his back, struggling to find the level he knows is in him, that we know is in him, throwing did-you-see-that passes one minute and what-are-you-doing passes the next. 

It’s a familiar story, one that played out Sunday afternoon, and you wonder how much longer he can endure. Not that he has said he wants out, or ever hinted at doing anything other than his job: Just look at what he did to play Sunday, after not practicing all week. 

“It just shows you what kind of player he is and what kind of leader he is,” said Lions cornerback Desmond Trufant. “He was dealing with all that COVID stuff. Just to see him go out and compete for us, that just shows the type of player he is … so definitely got respect for that.” 

Stafford has earned that, by tone and by temperament and often by arm talent. And yet, he is still searching for the next level, for a little more consistency, for a way out of purgatory. 

One day he will find all that. Maybe that will come with a new regime, or in a new city.  

In the meantime, he is, by number and by eye, the most gifted quarterback in franchise history. Good enough to win games, not quite good enough to lift a curse.  

Whether he is ever freed from its sodden history, he continues to reveal the story of his journey, and that, no matter what happens on the field, he remains a thoughtful and gracious soul, aware of his imperfections, intent on staying in the fight.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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