Mitch Albom: Matthew Stafford leaving Detroit Lions was inevitable, but still depressing

Detroit Free Press

Mitch Albom
 
| Detroit Free Press

Matthew Stafford is the best player the Detroit Lions have. And the most dedicated. So when your best and most dedicated player comes to and you and suggests maybe parting company would be the best thing, you ought to be worried about your team.

So much for the happy glow the Lions front office put out last week. It turns out they knew all the time that Stafford had pretty much had enough. If we are to believe the reports, the 32-year-old quarterback approached them after the season and said he’d be open to going elsewhere. Supposedly, the Lions brass has agreed.

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Which means the first task facing the nascent duo of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell — neither of whom have ever made an NFL trade on their own — will be trying to find fair value for their most important player.

Good luck.

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This is bad news on many fronts. First of all, with the story now out there, teams know the Lions are seeking to trade Stafford, and maybe even have to. So much for leverage. Plus, these days starting quarterbacks tend to fetch draft picks, and even if the Lions get a first rounder, unless it’s Jacksonville’s No. 1 pick and they take Trevor Lawrence, everything else is a crap shoot.

Answer honestly. Do you really trust this franchise with drafting? They’ve turned a No. 2 pick into Charles Rogers, a No. 3 into Joey Harrington, a No. 5 into Ezekiel Ansah and a No. 10 into Eric Ebron.

[ Lions, Matthew Stafford seek fresh start via trade: How it came to this ]

And don’t tell me there is any quarterback besides Lawrence who is a sure thing in this draft. Certainly not as sure as Stafford now and for another year.

Yes, the Lions have a new man pulling the draft strings. The former college scouting director of the Rams. Does that make you confident or nervous?

Whatever the case, it’ll be a shakeup of seismic proportions. Stafford is a known entity. The only star player the Lions really have. Go ahead. Who’s next? The injured Kenny Golladay?  Frank Ragnow in the distance? There’s no one on the defense, just a few names past their glory days. They’ve got a really good punter, if that makes you feel better.

The rebuild is on

But take Stafford off this team, and you are truly starting over. And maybe that’s the only thing they can do. Living in the middle at 5-11 and 6-10 gets you nowhere.

But this news, which broke on Saturday, is another bang to the gong that signals how long and consistently the Lions mess things up.

Stafford was the top pick in the 2009 draft, Detroit’s reward for enduring an 0-16 season. He became the fastest player in NFL history to 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 yards. He holds virtually all the Lions passing marks. From 2011 to 2019 he started every single game. He’s played through all kinds of injuries. Put up big numbers. Made one Pro Bowl and led the Lions to three playoff games in three separate years. I know that sounds pathetic. But it’s actually more than any previous Lions’ starter in more than 50 years.

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On top of that, Stafford is a quality guy. I’ve gotten to know him fairly well over the years. What you see is what you get. He a stand-up person. The ultimate teammate. A leader. A grinder. A spotlight-avoider. A non-complainer. His stand over the summer during the George Floyd protests revealed a man who’s fully morphed from taking things seriously to doing things seriously.

I know him well enough to say if he indeed approached the Lions about this, then he’s been bottling it inside for a long time. The last time he spoke with the media, following another dismal season, he reiterated that he loves it here in Detroit. I believe that’s true. His kids have been raised here. His marriage blossomed here. He’s intricately involved with the community and charities here.

He’s a Lion through and through. But anyone who’s that much a Lion must know the following feelings: Heartbreak. Frustration. Aggravation. Depression.

Can you blame him for seeking greener pastures?

Hard to blame him

Someone will get themselves a whale of a quarterback, just turning 33 in a league where guys are playing beyond 40. And if you like Stafford, part of you might be happy if he gets to play, say, for Bill Belichick in New England, or with all those weapons in New Orleans, or with that young aggressive group in Washington.

Mark my words. If Stafford gets with a real coach and a reliable offensive line, his biggest achievements are ahead of him.

But it’s shame he never had that here. He was coached by Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell, Matt Patricia and Darrell Bevell. Not exactly a Hall of Fame group. And his coordinators were even less remarkable. Turn him loose with that arm and some innovative minds and who knows what will happen?

And maybe that’s what he’s after. Maybe he realizes there are only so many autumns left. He’s got tools. He’s got talent. But he can’t coach the team, can’t build the roster, can’t make the trades. At some point, maybe, like every Lions fan, a player throws his hands up. Heck, it took Bobby Ross less than two seasons before he was screaming “I don’t coach this —-!”

It’s not the city. It’s not the fans. It’s the franchise. Would YOU want to spend your entire career here if you had enough talent to possibly make a Super Bowl?

So begins the long goodbye to the best quarterback the Lions have ever had. And the long hello to a rebuild that could try the patience of even us, the league’s longest-suffering fans base. When you think this through, you know what you feel like saying to Stafford? “Send us a postcard.” We’re not going anywhere.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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