Niyo: Lions can’t afford to let Jared Goff become a bridge to nowhere

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

They like him, and to borrow a line from Sally Field — not to be confused with Justin Fields, obviously — they can’t deny the fact that they like him now.

But how much do the Lions really like Jared Goff? Is it just enough to get from here to there? Or is it enough to get themselves in trouble?

Odds are, it’s the former, not the latter. And while they don’t have to make their true feelings known just yet, they will soon enough. Maybe even sooner than they’d like, which is where the hidden danger lies for the Lions in this blockbuster trade they’ve just made.

It isn’t that they’ll suddenly have buyer’s remorse if, say, Matthew Stafford is playing in the Super Bowl a year from now in the Rams’ home stadium in Los Angeles. No, it’s almost the opposite of that.

It’s the risk that they’ll feel some sort of obligation here — either to the bridge they’ve just bought or the route they’ve already started mapping out — and fall into the same trap that kept them on the road to nowhere for the last decade.

And that’s the crazy thing about this whole deal: After all this time spent debating Stafford’s value in Detroit — and trying to calculate the opportunity cost of continuing to build a team around him — it’s possible things have gotten even more complicated now that he’s gone.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Detroit’s new regime, either. The more options you have, the more possibilities there are, right? Right. But it is something Lions fans will have to consider, probably even before Goff ever takes a snap in a Lions uniform this fall. Because some of the same questions that applied before the trade still do now, and they will be the ones we’re all asking as the NFL Draft approaches this spring.

No rush

Namely, when is the right time to go find your quarterback of the future? The good news, we’re told, is that new Lions general manager Brad Holmes won’t feel compelled to do it this year. But that’s also the bad news, perhaps, because a lack of urgency in that regard is part of what led the Lions to this point.

The Lions haven’t won a game with a quarterback other Stafford in more than a decade, a streak that dates all the way back to the 2010 regular-season finale, when Shaun Hill led the Lions to a 20-13 win over Joe Webb and the Vikings at Ford Field. That’s about to change this fall, obviously. 

But they also haven’t drafted a quarterback higher than the sixth round since they made Stafford the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. In fact, they’ve only drafted two quarterbacks at all in the last 11 years — Jake Rudock and Brad Kaaya. And that needs to change in a hurry.

Once the Lions decided they had their guy, they never bothered to look for the next one, or for something better, the way the Rams just did. Money had a lot to do with that, along with Stafford’s enigmatic talent. But if that seemed like malpractice before, it’ll feel like a capital offense going forward, no matter what Holmes and Dan Campbell think they have in Goff, a former No. 1 overall pick himself who won’t turn 27 until October.

Goff won plenty of games in L.A. and even helped lead Sean McVay’s team to a Super Bowl three years ago. But he’s largely been exposed for what he’s not the last couple years, too often crumbling under pressure and lacking the mobility and the off-schedule ability that separates the better quarterbacks in this league. Goff’s play-action success came crashing down without a dominant run game led by All-Pro Todd Gurley, and the turnovers were even more alarming this season, given what he was being asked to do.

There’s still enough talent there to make him a competent NFL starter, and maybe more, operating in the kind of offense he’ll be running with Anthony Lynn calling the plays in Detroit. And particularly if Goff is as motivated as he should be now that he’s been publicly humiliated by the team that drafted him. The Rams sent Goff packing less than 17 months after signing him to a $134 million contract extension that doesn’t even kick in until this upcoming season. That’s colder even than the winters will feel here for a guy who has lived his entire life in California.

Which is all a way of saying that what is there with Goff certainly isn’t enough for the Lions to somehow decide they’ve already solved their quarterback dilemma. Holmes might’ve lobbied for Goff over Carson Wentz in the run-up to the 2016 draft, when the Rams paid a ton to move up from No. 15 to select him No. 1. The Lions’ GM would know better than most how much scapegoating is going on in L.A., too.

But that better not be clouding anyone’s thinking in Allen Park. And it shouldn’t preclude the Lions from taking their shot with a quarterback in this draft class if they think there’s one worth building a team around, whether it’s Fields or Zach Wilson or perhaps Trey Lance. Never mind the message that would send to the quarterback they just acquired via trade.

Many options

There’s draft capital available to move up if needed, so that can’t be an excuse, either. Then again, there will be next year as well when teams — maybe including the Lions — are coveting North Carolina’s Sam Howell or USC’s Kedon Slovis. And the options will be the year after that, too, thanks to the delayed-gratification deal they just struck with the Rams. (Not coincidentally, that’s when the financial obligations to Goff will be gone as well.)

Taking Goff and his contract back in this deal bought the Lions time, too, and that’s something Campbell talked about over the weekend, even before the trade with the Rams was finalized.

“I think more than anything — this is just me, and I feel like Brad thinks that way, too — it doesn’t mean we’re not going to draft a quarterback early,” Campbell told the News. “What I do think is, let’s build this team first. Let’s build the nucleus and the foundation of this team first and get some roots in the ground. And once you get the roots in the ground and let it grow a little bit, we’ll find the right guy at the helm. …

“To me, your odds are better if you do that first and then find the right guy to get under center than vice versa. Not that we wouldn’t go that way. I’m just saying that that’s kind of, philosophy-wise, that’s how I think of it.”

And I think that’s how they’re going to approach this, finding some other pieces first — Jaylen Waddle? Micah Parsons? Kwity Paye? — before circling back to the most important position later. Maybe they use this newfound freedom to trade back from No. 7 and add more picks on draft night, in fact. It’d be hard to argue with the thinking there.

But there’s also an argument to be made that it’s never the wrong time to find the right quarterback. And before they worry about burning a bridge they’ve just, they’d better make sure there isn’t a better route. Because sometimes the further you go down a path, the harder it is to turn around.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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