Wojo: Lions’ Matthew Stafford era reaches its logical end

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
 
| The Detroit News

Detroit — If this was the end for Matthew Stafford in Detroit, it was a fitting finish. He played through injuries in a meaningless game at the conclusion of another losing season. He made some spectacular throws, fired a few touchdown passes and tossed an ugly interception. The Lions lost and Stafford was not the reason, but that’s no longer the point.

It can’t go on like this, and I doubt Stafford wants it to go on like this. It’s time for him to leave, for his own sake, and time for the Lions to untether themselves from their longtime crutch, for their own sake. In the aftermath of the 37-35 loss to the Vikings Sunday at Ford Field, all the talk was about the future. If this were a meaningful game, the talk would’ve been about dreadful officiating calls against the Lions, although ultimately that helped because this was a game they could only win by losing.

The Lions will get a higher draft slot, at least in the top seven, by finishing 5-11. Soon they will have a new GM and coach. They should have a completely new defense because this group was horrifically outmanned, surrendering the most yards and points in team history, the ashes of Matt Patricia’s amazingly awful reign.

Stafford wasn’t the problem Sunday and hasn’t been the primary problem in most of his 12 seasons here. But he hasn’t been the solution either, no matter how badly the Lions wanted it, no matter how many times they tried to pin everything on him, while either ignoring or failing everywhere else. You know, football basics such as fielding a defense or developing a running game.

For a franchise with one playoff victory in 63 years, the Lions habitually cling to a singular hope, squeeze it dry, then wonder where the time went. From Barry Sanders to Calvin Jonson to Stafford, they’ve tried to build around a star, or a concept, and never built a team.

Time to recalibrate

That’s what has to end now, with a new regime that at least is being properly vetted, as the Lions continue the lengthy interview process. This is not a free-Stafford stance. That’s not what I’m saying and not what Stafford has ever said. It’s an acknowledgement this no longer is a mutually beneficial relationship — the Lions aren’t getting enough out of it, partly because of their own blunders, and neither is Stafford, partly because of his own mistakes.

If indeed Stafford just played his final game as a Lion, he wasn’t interested in speaking on it.

“I’m not going to get into that hypothetical,” he said. “You guys can talk to me after whatever my last game is here, who knows. Until that’s final, I’m not going to have any thoughts on that. Sorry.”

He showed everything he does well in the finale, firing lasers to Marvin Jones, who caught eight passes for 180 yards in his own possible farewell. Stafford played despite rib, ankle and thumb injuries, and despite the wishes of fans who feared a drop in draft position. Another batch of help could come in a Stafford trade, and he enhanced his value there, completing 20 of 31 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns. He has two years left on his contract, but if the Lions deal him, their cap hit for next season has shrunk to a palatable $19 million.

Stafford’s status will be the talk of the quarterback-carousel this offseason. Once again, he declined to request an exit, even as everyone around him says he should, including his buddy Dan Orlovsky, who made another Twitter plea for his freedom. For the ninth time in 12 seasons under Stafford, the Lions aren’t going to the playoffs, and he tried to hide any pain behind his standard pleasant demeanor.

“It’s hard every time, difficult, disappointing, all of those words come to mind,” Stafford, 32, said. “I want to win. I want to be in those games more than anything. It starts with me, I can play better, help us get there. That’s the way I look at it. I want to win just as bad as anybody, if not more so, but the thing that I can control is how I play.”

Stafford isn’t as good as his most-ardent supporters suggest, and isn’t as flawed as his harshest critics insist. Somehow he has made it this deep into his career without defining himself, or refining himself. He’s saddled by playing for one of the most-disjointed, passive franchises in professional sports. Rather than stand out, or speak out, he has opted to blend in.

True grit

Not to go all psychoanalytical, but it’s almost as if Stafford recognized at some point he wouldn’t win big here, but he was going to prove he’s the toughest, most respected teammate he could be. He definitely accomplished that, and players and coaches rave about him. In a team meeting the night before the finale, Stafford stood up and said a few words about taking his responsibility seriously, about respecting the game by playing the game, even if it made much more sense for him to sit.

“The guy is out there, not 100%, and he’s fighting for his teammates, he’s fighting for the respect for the game, the history, the guys that have come before us,” interim coach Darrell Bevell said. “The guy is laying everything on the line in a game that he doesn’t need to. I think that says a lot about him as a person, about him as a quarterback, what he means to the team.”

It does, but it’s a bond that has become binding for the Lions. Coaches and GMs enamored with Stafford’s arm talent annually hunt for pieces to fit him, and ownership clings to him as the lone face of the franchise. Sheila Ford Hamp can have no sentimentality here, and neither can new special assistant Chris Spielman.  

You could sense the emotion in Jones’ voice, as he’s set to be a free agent. In some ways, Jones is Stafford’s soulmate, doing his job without complaint, even when he was jobbed by a bizarre replay review that took away a possible third touchdown. Jones doesn’t know if he’ll be back, after five fine seasons, but he certainly increased his market value.

And despite nagging injuries, so did Stafford. He has started 16 games nine of the past 10 seasons, a remarkable and underrated trait. The drumbeat around the league to find Stafford a new home grows ever louder, with the Colts, Patriots and others cited as possible destinations. If the Lions can’t pry reasonable value — perhaps a couple prime draft picks — they should be patient until they can.

The loudest drumbeat comes from Orlovsky, the ESPN commentator and former Lions quarterback, and one of Stafford’s closest friends.

“Today should be the final game for Matthew Stafford in a Lions uniform,” Orlovsky wrote on Twitter. “He goes down as one of the franchise’s best players, and certainly one that represented the city of Detroit and its people as well as anyone. He needs a new home — let him leave … The Lions need a full reboot.”

There’s no denying that, and it’s underway. If this was Stafford’s farewell, it was more fitting than fond, a fair approximation of his career here. It always seemed there was more to get from Stafford, and more for the Lions to give. They’ve exhausted options and exhausted each other, and in the coming weeks, the new regime has to find a way to cash in its biggest asset.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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