The easy thing to do for whoever is in charge of leading the next iteration of your Detroit Lions is to ride Matthew Stafford into the sunset of his career. But if this organization is serious about remaking itself into a perennial Super Bowl contender, having and executing a new long-term vision at the quarterback position is where it begins.
Stafford is the best quarterback most Lions fans have rooted for in their lifetime, and it’s possible now is not the absolute time to move on.
That option, though, must at least be on the table as the franchise embarks on what could be an arduous rebuild.
Stafford’s long-term future in Detroit has been a topic of endless discussion in recent years, mostly from media types pontificating about what the team should do. Few in the organization have seemed willing to embrace change at quarterback, for obvious reasons, and Stafford has genuinely enjoyed playing in Detroit.
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But ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, Stafford’s good friend and former teammate, gave credence to the idea Stafford and the team would consider a mutual parting when I talked to him this summer.
“I’ll keep it 100 with you,” Orlovsky said at the time. “Like, listen, he’s either going to win there this year or a winner’s going to come get him. … Maybe I’m stupid and naïve and biased, I just think eventually he’ll either win there or will be on a winner (somewhere else if he doesn’t) because of it.”
Orlovsky went a step further Saturday on Twitter after the Lions fired head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, writing the time has come for a “full start over and move on from Stafford.”
“It’s time from both the organization standpoint and the players position as well,” Orlovsky wrote. “It didn’t work out.”
Whether Orlovsky is speaking for Stafford only he knows, but either way his point rings true: Neither Stafford nor the organization has reached the heights they hoped when the Lions took Stafford with the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft, and both might be better off going their own way in 2021.
Whoever the Lions hire as their chief football decision maker will have tight turns to navigate when it comes to Stafford’s future, which is why his long-term vision for the quarterback position is paramount.
Stafford, who turns 33 in February, has two years left on the contract extension he signed in 2017, and trading him, by my calculations, would leave the Lions with a dead money cap hit of $19.45 million.
That’s not ideal in a shrinking salary cap environment, though it can be managed. But the bigger issue would be the void trading Stafford would leave – one that, given how difficult it is to live in No Man’s Quarterback Land in the NFL, can only rightfully be filled by finding a successor in the draft.
Entering Sunday, the Lions project to have the ninth pick in the 2021 draft, which leaves them in no position – even if they acquire an extra first-round pick by trading Stafford – to take top quarterback prospects Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields.
The two worst teams in the NFL this season, the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars, seem locked into taking quarterbacks with the top two picks, and the Lions will be jockeying with several other quarterback-needy teams – Washington, the Carolina Panthers and maybe the Atlanta Falcons – for draft position.
Moving on from Stafford would have been easier last year, when the Lions had the third pick of the draft and their choice of future stars Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa. They passed on both, and now must wait their turn to attack the position.
BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Florida’s Kyle Trask are all first-round possibilities, but none has the star quality of Lawrence or Fields, and none is guaranteed to be on the board whenever the Lions pick.
That’s problematic in that if the Lions want to trade Stafford – or if Stafford asks for a trade in hopes of finding a better situation – the ideal time to do so would be at the start of free agency in March.
Keeping Stafford and drafting a young quarterback might be the best option, a la the Green Bay Packers and Jordan Love last spring, though that would take a new coach capable of handling all the hard feelings it would cause.
Stafford is a good player and an above average quarterback. He’s talented and tough, though after 12 seasons in Detroit, his injuries are starting to mount and he understandably seems beat down. To Orlovsky’s point, perhaps a change of scenery would help him create the legacy he wants for himself on the field.
For now, Stafford seems destined to go down as a quarterback good enough to get three coaches fired, and I don’t write that to insinuate he was behind the undoings of Patricia, Jim Caldwell or Jim Schwartz.
In this league, though, teams are looking for a quarterback until they find one, and once they feel they have one, they start the continuous process of looking for the right coach or GM.
Stafford is good enough to be that guy for most teams in this league, like Philip Rivers was with the Chargers for 16 years or Matt Ryan is with the Atlanta Falcons now.
Like Rivers and Ryan, Stafford has reached the point of his career where it seems unlikely he will be able to achieve the ultimate success, at least in Detroit.
Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp called Stafford an “extremely talented young man” and “tough as nails” in her post-firing Zoom on Saturday, but she rightfully took a pass on hitching the organization’s wagon to him long-term.
“Well, since I’m not the coach, I’m probably not the right person to ask that question to,” she said. “We’ll see what the new coach has to say.”
Any quarterback change will take buy-in from ownership, and a football man in charge who isn’t afraid of the unknown.
Stafford has proven to be a good player and a better person in Detroit, but for the next regime, that should not be enough.