Carlos Monarrez | Detroit Free Press
I wanted to believe him. I really did.
“He’s the guy here,” Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola said.
It was my fourth season covering the Lions in 2009. They had won 10 games total in my first three years on the beat, and 2009 was looking like another disaster.
Matthew Stafford was the rookie quarterback everyone had pinned their hopes on when the team picked him No. 1 overall that spring — the same way seven springs earlier, everyone had pinned their hopes on No. 3 overall pick Joey Harrington.
Detroit was still raw from that experience. Fans, players and reporters. During Stafford’s rookie year, the public-address announcer who did play-by-play for the press box at Ford Field accidentally called him Joey Stafford.
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The Lions, and most certainly Raiola, wanted everyone to know Stafford was not Harrington.
So reporters gathered around Raiola’s locker after a 17-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field. It wasn’t going well. Stafford was struggling. The Lions were 1-6 and he had just thrown his seventh interception. He was taunted and heckled by fans after he ended the game with a slew of incompletions.
“I’m telling you,” Raiola kept insisting, “he’s going to be the guy.”
I wanted to believe him, because losing wears everyone down, including reporters who are paid to be there and can’t just turn off the TV or leave the stadium in the third quarter. The Lions had lost 29 of their past 31 games. They would win only once more the rest of that season.
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I have thought often about Raiola’s words in the 12 years I covered Stafford on a daily basis in the locker room, after games, during training camp, at promotional appearances. I wanted Raiola to be right. I wanted Stafford to be the guy. I wanted him to be the guy to end all the misery and the surrender I’ve seen in my friends’ and neighbors’ eyes for so long.
I wanted Stafford to be the guy. I truly did. But he never was. He was only the guy who was good enough to make you think he could be the guy.
And that’s a tragedy. Unfulfilled promise and hope always is.
But please spare me the convenient cop-out narrative that the Lions didn’t surround Stafford with enough talent. His teammates were selected to the Pro Bowl 24 times. During Stafford’s tenure, the Lions drafted a tight end in the first round three times. They drafted a running back in the first or second round five times. In free agency, they surrounded him with good receivers like Golden Tate and Nate Burleson and Marvin Jones. They gave him a 1,000-yard running back in Reggie Bush. They protected him by drafting four offensive linemen in the first round and nine in the first three rounds. They added pricey free agents like T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Oh, but the defense was terrible! True, it was rarely exceptional. But in Stafford’s 12 seasons, the defense had an average overall ranking of 20.25 out of 32 in total yards allowed. The Kansas City Chiefs are favored to win the Super Bowl on Sunday with a defense that ranks 16th overall. Last year, they won it with the 17th-ranked defense. The New England Patriots won it the year before that with the 21st-ranked defense. So please don’t tell me Stafford needed a defense that consistently ranked in the top 10 to win one measly playoff game or one division title in 12 years.
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But let’s forget all that. Forget the stats and the records. I watched Stafford carefully for 12 years and I came to this conclusion about why he wasn’t the guy. Trigger warning: It’s harsh.
Here it is: Stafford didn’t want to be great.
Yes, of course Stafford worked hard and he wanted to be good and he wanted to win. He played through injuries and kept his nose clean. News flash: Many NFL players do the same thing.
But there was a hesitancy about Stafford that kept him from pursuing greatness. He never had great mechanics, and I’m not even talking about his sidearm throws. The Lions had to hire quarterback whisperer Jim Caldwell and his ladder cam to help fix Stafford. For years, reporters would ask Stafford if he would work with a private throwing coach in the offseason and he would rebuff the idea. He finally started working with Tom House in 2017 — in his ninth season.
“The first time for me (I’ve worked with a private coach) ever since John Stafford taught me how to throw a football,” Stafford said, referring to his father.
This was Stafford’s blessing and his curse. He had so much arm strength and natural talent that he didn’t see much need to try to improve himself, even though the Lions had finished with a winning record in three of his first seven seasons.
Losing didn’t seem to bother Stafford enough. He seemed content with knowing he was doing as much as he thought was necessary to lead the offense, keep his job and make a fortune.
Stafford didn’t have Tom Brady’s sideline explosions. He didn’t call out teammates like Aaron Rodgers. The only two times Stafford seemed visibly upset was when he and Calvin Johnson had a chilly exchange on the sideline during a 2009 loss at Seattle, and during a 2019 tie in Arizona when he could be seen yelling “Trust me!” on the sideline after an ill-advised timeout was called.
I appreciate that everyone’s different. I’m not saying Stafford had to be a raving madman constantly throwing teammates under the bus. I just wanted him to be honest publically. When things weren’t going well, I wish he would have been forthright about the reasons, instead of spewing bland platitudes about working harder and focusing on the next game.
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And that was the other part of Stafford’s hesitancy when it came to pursuing greatness. There was a strange guardedness about him that kept us from understanding him better. During his rookie year, I was one of the first reporters to ask him about his friendship with Clayton Kershaw, who had just finished his rookie season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Stafford strangely pretended they were only passing childhood acquaintances.
Stafford also never bet on himself to pursue greatness. He could have headed into 2018 as one of the hottest free agents on the market. Instead, he signed a then-NFL-record $135-million, five-year extension in 2017. Maybe the Lions would have threatened to use the franchise tag, but I’m not so sure. They ended up with the 20th overall pick in 2018, which would have allowed them to pick Lamar Jackson if they wanted.
Financially, Stafford made the right call. Competitively, he didn’t. Yes, the Lions were coming off a 9-7 season where they snuck into the playoffs, then got whacked in Seattle. But after seven years, two coaches and two general managers, he knew enough about the Lions to know they were a flawed organization with limited potential. He could have signed with the Vikings or the Broncos or the Cardinals — all of which have had more success than the Lions since 2018 with lesser quarterbacks.
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Few would have blamed Stafford for wanting to leave after 2017. But that would have created a problem for him: He would have had to deliver wins instead of being the entrenched, anointed and unchallenged star quarterback with the Lions. The risk would have been high — as it is whenever people bet on themselves.
I thought about Stafford’s decision to stay and wondered how much he regretted it the past few years. A decade after Raiola talked about Stafford’s potential, I stood near Stafford’s locker after a tough loss at Ford Field in 2019. He was getting dressed and groused a little about having to go do his postgame news conference. I kidded him and said, “If you dressed faster, you’d already be done.”
Stafford looked back at me and quietly said, “There’s not a lot to say, Carlos.”
In that moment, I felt bad for him. I wished he wasn’t on the Lions. I wished he would have yelled back at me, “Don’t you think I’m sick of this?” I wished he would have passed up that contract, taken his talent and tried to be the guy somewhere else where he could have won.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.