Matthew Stafford’s injury forces next Lions GM to address issue Bob Quinn wouldn’t

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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The further away we get from this year’s NFL draft, the more it seems like a dereliction of duty the Detroit Lions passed on a quarterback with the No. 3 pick.

That has nothing to do with the player they did take third overall, cornerback Jeff Okudah, though with his rocky season scheduled to end when he undergoes groin surgery Tuesday, you could make that case.

And it has less to do with the two rookie quarterbacks the Lions passed on, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, than it does with the man the next Lions general manager eventually will be tasked to replace, Matthew Stafford.

What is best for both Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions may not be easy ]

Stafford, as I’ve said and written many times, is the best quarterback most Lions fans have ever seen play for their team. He makes a throw or two a game that only a handful of quarterbacks can make, and there are not many players, let alone quarterbacks, who are tougher in the NFL.

But 12 seasons into his career, Stafford is approaching the point where his body cannot be counted on to play 16 games, and at the quarterback position especially, that is a problem.

In the last three years, Stafford has fractured bones in his back in two different places — he missed eight games because of the injury last season, and played through it in 2018 — and is currently dealing with thumb and rib injuries that have his status for this week’s game against the Tennessee Titans in doubt.

Stafford was hurt on a routine play Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, when he scrambled for 6 yards on third-and-4 to set up the Lions’ final touchdown.

He was hit hard and twisted awkwardly to the ground by Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark. The play was reminiscent of the one he was injured on last year against the Oakland Raiders in that it was a normal play that happens every Sunday in the NFL.

Stafford got up clutching his midsection, stayed in to make one more handoff, then left in pain to be seen who-knows-when again.

Interim Lions coach Darrell Bevell said initial X-rays did not show any fractures, and he left open the possibility that Stafford will play Sunday in Tennessee.

Frankly, I would not bet against Stafford being on the field, no matter how much pain he is in. He has toughed out injuries that would sideline most others before, and in most of those cases gave his team a legitimate chance to win.

But no matter how many games Stafford plays over the next three weeks, the next Lions GM must prioritize a quarterback in the 2021 draft.

Stafford likely has several more good seasons in him, and that could persuade the incoming GM to pour his draft picks into a defense that needs a major rebuild. Fixing the defense is imperative, but it will not have the desired long-term effect unless the Lions also get the quarterback position right.

That does not necessarily mean jettisoning Stafford in March. Several factors will weigh in that decision, including where the Lions pick in the draft, the compensation available in a trade, and Stafford’s own desires for where he wants to play next fall.

But the league is riddled with aging quarterbacks whose play has waned as their seasons have gone on, and only a select few teams — the very best — have been able to overcome that dynamic.

The New Orleans Saints have remained one of the best teams in football, even has Drew Brees has missed chunks of the last two seasons with injuries; the Saints, it should be noted, saw Brees’ decline coming and hoped to take Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 11-2, despite Ben Roethlisberger’s recent play. Even the New England Patriots moved on from the most successful quarterback the NFL has ever seen, Tom Brady, and tried to do it well before this year.

Stafford is no Brees, Big Ben or Brady, all of whom have championships, and yet last year the Lions ignored some pretty obvious writing on the wall.

In 2016, the Lions were in prime playoff position before a finger injury rendered Stafford ineffective down the stretch. The Lions lost the final three games of the regular season, then no-showed in the playoffs.

In 2018, the Lions went 2-2 with a clearly limited Stafford after he suffered transverse fractures in his back in a December loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Lions had bigger issues at the time, and Stafford’s willingness to gut through the pain endeared him to general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia.

Last year, the Lions were 3-4-1 and fringe playoff contenders when Stafford was lost for the season to a back injury. They went on to lose their final eight games, then, given the chance to fortify the most important spot on the field, took a cornerback instead in the draft.

Currently, the Lions own the 11th pick in next year’s draft, and barring the unexpected should be picking somewhere in that range come April. 

That will give the next Lions GM the opportunity to set the franchise up for the next decade at the quarterback position. And no matter what he thinks of Stafford, it’s imperative he take it.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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