Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford wants more ‘big-time moments.’ He may need to leave for them

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

The debate about what the Detroit Lions should do with Matthew Stafford has always been less about Stafford’s play and more about the franchise itself.

How big a rebuild do the Lions really, truly need to become Super Bowl contenders? Where will Stafford be in his career when that finally happens? And what’s the best way to maximize another high draft pick to help them get there?

The Lions took tight end T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 pick of the draft two years ago, and while he has turned into a pretty good player, the franchise is no closer to contending than it was after that 2018 season. Last spring, the Lions took cornerback Jeff Okudah at No. 3, and the jury remains decidedly out on his future.

Come April, the Lions should be picking somewhere in that range again, and already the debate is raging over whether to take a quarterback, and if so, which quarterback to take.

I’ve said for months that the Lions cannot force a quarterback pick in the draft. When you draft for need, you end up with Jahlani Tavai in Round 2.

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But early signs point to this draft being strong at the quarterback position, and the way the order is shaping up, the Lions could have their pick of signal callers not named Trevor Lawrence.

It will be up to the next regime to decide which if any of Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and maybe even Florida’s Kyle Trask is a future NFL star, and if one of them is, to make sure they get that player.

What that means for Stafford’s future, I do not know — and it does not particularly matter.

The fact is, the best franchises in the NFL in recent years have had both the foresight and fortitude to draft a quarterback, even when it might not have been the popular thing to do in the locker room or within their fan base.

The Green Bay Packers have won seven of the last 10 NFC North championships and have a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers closing in on his third MVP, yet they traded up to take quarterback Jordan Love in last year’s draft.

The Kansas City Chiefs had won 43 games in a four-year span when they made the bold move up to draft Patrick Mahomes four years ago. Mahomes has turned into the best quarterback in the NFL.

The New England Patriots spent a second-round choice on Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014. A few months later, Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl.

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And to come full circle, the Packers drafted Rodgers in Round 1 in 2005, when Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre was entering his age 36 season.

The timing is not quite the same for the Lions. Stafford turns 33 in February, though his body might feel 10 years older after all the pounding it’s taken.

But the fact is, fortune favors the bold and the Lions have been anything but in recent years.

Stafford, no doubt, has several good years left, if he can stay healthy — which is no guarantee given the array of back, hand, rib and now ankle injuries he’s dealt with the last few seasons. But drafting a quarterback, even in Round 1, does not mean his time in Detroit is done.

I asked Stafford on Monday how he would feel about a Rodgers-Love or Brady-Garoppolo situation unfolding here in Detroit; the Lions spend a high pick on a quarterback as insurance for the one they have, then decide what to do at the position when the time comes.

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“That’s so hypothetical and so far in the future it’s tough for me to even wrap my head around that,” he said. “So many decisions that are out of my control. All I know is that, wherever I’m at, if I’m here, if I’m somewhere else, I’ll be doing everything I can to try to be as good a football player and as good a teammate as I possibly can be. That’s something that I’ve always tried to be and I’ll continue to try to be as long as I’m playing this game.”

Drafting a quarterback could lead to hurt feelings in the locker room, or it could get Stafford to where he needs to be — mentally, physically or otherwise — after what has clearly been a tough season.

The Packers did not draft Love to motivate Rodgers, but the pick had that effect. Coming off a down season by his standards, Rodgers, at 37 years old, is having arguably the best year of his career.

Stafford, after 12 seasons as a Lion, seems at peace with how things have played out so far and where they go from here, even if he might be conflicted — like I and many are — over what comes next.

I remember the 2010 season, my first at the Free Press, when Stafford was dealing with shoulder injuries that eventually required season-ending surgery. He made a comment one day in the locker room (I don’t even recall what, though it was probably deserved on my end) that hinted at him being annoyed at something I wrote.

In the 10 seasons since, Stafford has never seemed to pay much mind to what’s been written or said about him, and I think he’s been a better quarterback for it. Even this year, while his frustration at the Lions’ play has been palpable at times, Stafford seems comfortable with — or maybe even immune to — the narrative playing out: He and the next regime have a major decision to make about his future in the months ahead.

Asked about that Monday, Stafford said he is not worried about it “at the moment” and is only thinking Sunday’s game against Minnesota Vikings and “trying to get myself healthy” enough to play.

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“You play this game to go out there and play the big-time moments and we didn’t do a good enough job this year as a team to make sure we had those opportunities this late in the season,” he said. “That’s obviously disappointing. It’s something that you want to rectify as a player, as a teammate, as a part of an organization, but all I can do is focus on the opportunity that we have right now and the opportunity that we have is one more game against Minnesota and going out there and trying to get the bad taste out of our mouth from last week.”

In some ways, Stafford seems determined to finish what he started here in Detroit. In others, I think deep down he realizes his best chance of success is starting over somewhere else.

Ultimately, the next Lions regime may give him that chance, one way or another, after mapping out its best path to sustainable, long-term success.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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