Wojo: Lions pull a fast one, get a steal of a deal for Matthew Stafford

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski| The Detroit News

Matthew Stafford got what he wanted, precisely what he wanted. He was traded to a contender in Los Angeles, near where he owns a home. It was done swiftly and without rancor.

But the stunning aspect of the blockbuster deal is, the Lions also got what they craved, much more than most predicted. They landed multiple draft picks and a young quarterback, and essentially completed the circle. Twelve years after Stafford arrived in Detroit as the No. 1 pick to help rebuild a broken team, his departure should greatly help the Lions rebuild a broken team.

This was a huge win for the Lions’ new leaders, stamping their aggressive mark on the franchise. They did exactly what they needed to do, and did it creatively and efficiently. The freshly minted front office — general manager Brad Holmes, assistant GM Ray Agnew, personnel executive John Dorsey — sent Stafford to the Rams for two first-round picks (2022 and 2023), a third-round pick this year and a former No. 1 pick, quarterback Jared Goff.

Stafford may indeed flourish in L.A., where the Rams have Super Bowl aspirations and a terrific defense, but for all his admirable effort, it’s clear he wasn’t going to flourish here. If you’re a Stafford fan, you don’t have to love the deal. If you’re a Lions fan, you should be ecstatic.

By most accounts, it’s a massive haul. As many as eight teams reportedly were offering packages that included only one first-round pick. The Lions got two, and added a quarterback who isn’t just a throw-in. Goff, 26, was the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 and guided the Rams to the Super Bowl two years ago. After landing a $134 million contract extension, he struggled with turnovers and confidence and fell out of favor with coach Sean McVay.

Holmes and Agnew were hired away from the Rams, so they know exactly what they’re getting. A change of scenery could boost both quarterbacks, and while the Lions assume a larger contract with Goff, they can get out of it in two years without a major salary-cap hit. I’m guessing Goff begins next season as the starter, but the Lions also retain flexibility to draft a quarterback with the No. 7 pick. Goff welcomed the trade, telling Mike Silver of the NFL Network, “I’m just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me.”

All the right moves

I won’t say the Lions ripped off the Rams, because in the short term, the Rams will benefit more. But this is confirmation the Lions are smartly, finally taking the long view, which is code for “rebuild.” That doesn’t mean they can keep losing without recourse for years. It means they have a plan, which is starkly different than the previous plan.

Until the Lions actually win games, there will be skepticism that owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood have figured things out. Doubt has been sown deeply through decades of the Ford ownership and doesn’t get erased in one offseason.

But from the hiring of a young, energized head coach in Dan Campbell, to the mix of experienced and respected assistants he’s been able to attract, this looks promising. There’s been no hesitation with the hires and not a hint of hesitation with the trade. Stafford was dealt late Saturday night, exactly a week after his request was made public.

I thought he did the Lions a favor asking to be traded, and he did it amicably so the team couldn’t be accused of dumping him. The Lions returned the favor by sending him to L.A., where his wife, Kelly, has said they’d love to live. And hey, maybe Holmes’ former boss with the Rams, GM Les Snead, did his protege a favor.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, there was a report Stafford only asked he not be traded to one team — the Patriots. That’s where Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia came from, and where Patricia has returned in an undefined capacity.

The Lions were 13-29-1 in nearly three seasons under Patricia, and Quinn dismantled the roster with poor drafts and signings. It didn’t make sense to keep trying to patch and play with Stafford, who turns 33 on Super Bowl Sunday.

If there’s a downside to the deal, it centers on Goff. The contract is large, $43 million guaranteed. McVay soured on him for his rash of turnovers — 38 the past two seasons, second-highest total in the league. But Goff played very well for two years and has been good in several big games, going 2-3 in the playoffs.

Stafford is 0-3 in the playoffs, although I’m legally required to remind people he has played for a historically woeful franchise. But at some point, the stain sticks and is hard to get out. NFL people still praise Stafford’s arm talent and toughness, but doubts have grown over the years. Former Patriot Tedy Bruschi, now an NFL analyst, said recently that Stafford “is a star, but, yes, he is not a winner.”

In 12 seasons here, Stafford was 74-90-1 as a starter. In five seasons with the Rams, Goff was 42-27. It’s even more impressive considering he was 0-7 as a rookie under Jeff Fisher, then 42-20 after McVay took over.


Stafford diehards will shriek the win-loss records don’t tell the story because the Rams are a superior overall team. True enough. But the records tell part of the story, and maybe Goff isn’t just a two-year stopgap before the Lions find a young talent in the draft. Goff has made the Pro Bowl twice in five seasons. Stafford made it once in a dozen seasons.

The parallels between Goff and Stafford go right down to painful thumb injuries that both suffered. Goff was benched at the start of the Rams’ playoff opener at Seattle this season, only 12 days removed from thumb surgery. He came in later and gutted out a 30-20 victory. But after the Rams were eliminated by Green Bay, McVay would only say Goff was their quarterback “right now.”

He’s the Lions’ quarterback right now, for now. And while Goff can’t match Stafford’s since-broken streak of 136 straight starts, he has missed only two games the past four seasons.

Reaction around the league was mostly positive for the Lions, negative for the Rams. National NFL writer Mike Tanier wrote, “The Stafford trade is so monumentally dumb for the Rams on every level that I am astounded at how many people are outsmarting themselves trying to make it seem shrewd.”

Tony Dungy, NBC commentator and Super Bowl-winning coach, warned people not to underestimate Goff, writing in a tweet: “People are saying Rams gave extra to get out of Jared Goff’s big contract but Lions GM Brad Holmes was with LA when they drafted Goff. He may believe in him & feel Lions are getting a 26 yr old who’s been to a SB & will grow into a franchise QB. If that happens it’s a GREAT deal.”

Maybe this was part of the plan all along, that the former Rams executives, Holmes and Agnew, knew they could get Goff and knew they needed to trade Stafford. That’s why the team announced shortly after the season it was fielding offers, to get ahead of others. Several high-level quarterbacks reportedly might flood the trade market soon — Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, maybe even Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

The Lions figured someone would want a quarterback who’s immediately available, and someone did. The Rams leapt for Stafford, and good for them and good for him. He could be the piece that gets them back to the Super Bowl, and he’ll get his shot.

This might turn out to be the rare win-win trade for everyone. If nothing else, it will help solve two concurrent riddles. Was Stafford holding the Lions back, or were they holding him back? And, were the Rams inflating Goff’s record, or can he still be a star elsewhere?

In one fascinating, whirlwind week, everything shifted direction and the Lions were the ones leading the way. Where this ultimately leads them remains to be seen, but you can’t get anywhere unless you get moving.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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