The Lions traded Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and three draft picks in January, and after watching his new quarterback this spring, Holmes said his happiness with the deal and his new quarterback rivals that of the coach who gushed about being in a better mood once Goff was traded away.
“There’s some things that I’ve seen in him this year that you can truly see, yes, there’s a chip on his shoulder that I hadn’t seen in a while,” Holmes said. “But there’s also a sigh of relief that I’ve seen. You can see, you can visibly see the breath of fresh air. You can visibly see the enjoyment of the ownership (in the offense) that he has.”
Goff was a central piece of the trade that has taken the Lions down a completely different path than the one Holmes thought he would be following when he first interviewed for the GM job.
His plan then, and up until he learned of the trade request, was to build around Stafford, the Lions’ now-33-year-old all-time leading passer.
“I totally had every intention on that he was going to be the quarterback,” Holmes said. “When I started breaking tape down, I was like, ‘Wow, this dude, he’s a talent,’ which you already knew. But then you get refreshed when you start breaking him down, like, ‘Wow.’ But, no, not till when we were all made aware that he wanted a trade, ‘All right, let’s do the best thing for the club.’”
Stafford told the Free Press in February it was a difficult decision to seek a trade from the team that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, but that he “didn’t feel like (he) was the appropriate person to oversee” a rebuild.
The Lions are coming off three straight losing seasons and are projected to be near the bottom of the NFL this fall after overhauling much of their roster. But Holmes said he might have taken a different approach to the turnaround had he not needed to pivot after Stafford’s trade request.
Specifically, Stafford’s rapport with the Lions’ free agent receivers might have resulted in the Lions trying to keep one or more of last year’s pass catchers.
Holmes opted not to use the franchise tag on receiver Kenny Golladay, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the New York Giants, and the Lions let Stafford’s good friend, Marvin Jones, leave for the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
In their place, the Lions signed Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman to one-year deals and drafted Amon-Ra St. Brown.
“Everybody talked about the wide receiver,” Holmes said. “When you have the quarterback that has the rapport with all the receivers, how different would it have been, some of those decisions have been? Would it have been, like, ‘All right, Matt’s telling us, hey look, you got to keep this guy,’ where, because he requested the trade and it went through, now it’s kind of like, ‘All right, we kind of set on our own journey.’”
Quarterback has long been football’s most important position. Legitimate contenders and struggling also-rans usually can be separated by who has what under center.
Teams with good, stable quarterback play tend to compete for division championships. Teams with great quarterback play can become dynasties.
Philosophically, Holmes said he believes that teams must excel at the quarterback position to achieve consistent success, though that success is about more than just the quarterback.
“It seems like only the truly great ones are sustaining success,” Holmes said. “But you also hear about at the quarterback position so much goes into what’s the situation that player’s in and what’s around that player? What is that player working with? I look at it like, obviously the great ones, Tom Brady. I mean, those guys — now, at what point did you know that the ‘sustain’ was sustained? Like at what point did you know, say with Peyton Manning, for example, did you know it by Year 2? I think that’s kind of what you’d have to dive deep into, when do you truly define sustained success? After Brady’s third championship?”
Manning was considered a generational talent early in his career, yet did not win a second championship until his final season, when his skills had eroded as a player.
Brady might go down as the greatest quarterback of all time, but his eminence was not as evident early on as a sixth-round pick. The New England Patriots, it’s easy to forget, were a defensively dominant team early in their dynasty.
Three of the best quarterbacks playing today, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, have similarly achieved varying levels of success. Surrounded by one of the league’s best defenses early in his career, Wilson won a Super Bowl in 2014 but has reached just one other NFC title game. Watson has one postseason victory and played for a team that went 4-12 last year. Mahomes has played in two straight Super Bowls and is on a Hall of Fame track.
“It’s a good conversation,” Holmes said. “It’s like how do you truly know you’ve got one of the great ones? Probably pretty easy with Patrick Mahomes early on. He’s still young and it’s like, he’s shown the league that. It seems like that’s how the movie’s going to end.”
With most quarterbacks, it is not that easy. Because players of Mahomes’ caliber are rare, and because success often does not come in a straight line, Holmes said he defines great quarterbacks by one thing: Winning.
That explains in part why he was adamant about including Goff in the trade he made with the Rams in January, and why he preferred that deal to others that included 2021 first-round picks.
Goff had fallen out of favor with Rams head coach Sean McVay after two years of mediocre play, but the 26-year-old has 42 wins over the past four seasons — second most in the NFL behind Brady — and three playoff appearances, including one trip to the Super Bowl.
The Rams needed to unload Goff’s contract to make a Stafford trade work, and while Holmes said they had interest from other NFL teams, he believed in Goff as a reclamation project after being part of the L.A. front office that drafted Goff No. 1 overall out of Cal in 2016.
“To receive a quarterback that we got in Jared, I know a lot of things are said, and it’s a subjective league and everybody’s got their opinions on how they view Jared — a lot of people had their opinions on how they viewed Matthew as well,” Holmes said. “So you can go both ways there. Everybody has their viewpoints, but I do think that the compensation was fair.”
New team, new approach
Goff is under contract in Detroit through 2024, though the Lions, even after restructuring his deal this spring, are not tied to him beyond this season.
Holmes previously told the Free Press that he would have considered a quarterback with the seventh pick of this year’s draft had the right one been there, and he was upfront about that with Goff as he crisscrossed the country looking at quarterback prospects this spring.
Still, to hear Holmes talk about Goff now, it is clear the Lions are hopeful about Goff’s future in Detroit.
“I think he’s shown that he’s a winning quarterback in this league, I think he’s shown that he’s a successful quarterback in this league,” Holmes said. “It’ll be interesting to see this year that, how does he look like in, not only this situation but where he’s at, at this stage in his life. He’s still a young guy and so it seems like he’s older because he’s played a lot of football, he’s accomplished a lot in a short period of time. But him going through what he went through the last year in L.A., where is his mindset at in terms of how he envisions the thing?
“I will say, I’ve seen things from him that I had not seen from him in L.A., just from a personality standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. And everybody leads in their own ways.”
Goff played second-fiddle in L.A., to Todd Gurley on offense early in his career, to Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey — two of the best defensive players in the NFL — more recently, and to McVay, the Rams’ wunderkind head coach.
McVay made headlines last week when he said during an event to promote Super Bowl LVI in L.A. that he has been in a better mood this offseason since acquiring Stafford.
He later insisted his remarks were not meant as a jab at Goff, and Holmes said he did not take them that way when asked about them this week.
“Absolutely not,” Holmes said. “Everybody, there’s a whole season that’s coming about. I think that’s the fun and exciting part about it, we’ll see how it goes. But we feel good about where Jared is.”
The Lions’ comfort in Goff is grounded in the determined, hands-on approach Holmes saw him take this offseason.
Not long after the trade, Holmes said Goff asked for the phone numbers of “all the guys on the offensive side of the ball.” By the time formal offseason workouts started in May, Goff had run multiple informal workouts with his receivers in California, and he plans to have at least one more throwing session there this summer.
“He was aggressive,” Holmes said, snapping his fingers. “He aggressively was like, ‘I need to call this guy, call this guy. I need to get all these guys’ (numbers).’ When we brought him up for his first physical after (the trade), that eagerness and that aggressiveness to really even grab that moment was like, ‘Wow, even I hadn’t seen that.’ Now, I wasn’t around Jared as intimately as I am now, in this position. But from afar (I didn’t know it was there in L.A.).”
Asked if that was because of McVay’s presence, Holmes said he did not want to speak on the Rams coach or his relationship with Goff. But he said he has seen a driven, even tenacious side of Goff in the past.
At Cal, Goff as an early enrollee joined a three-win team that had just fired its coach. He won the starting quarterback job as a true freshman, and two years after a 1-11 season, led the Bears to eight wins and a bowl game before leaving for the NFL.
In L.A., Goff went 0-7 as a part-time starter as a rookie, which Holmes said caused some to write him off as a bust. A year later, he went 11-4 as a starter to help the Rams reach the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. By the next season, the Rams were in the Super Bowl.
Whether or not Goff can lead the Lions to similar success ultimately will determine his future in Detroit. But as Holmes makes his way down this unexpected path, he is happy to have Goff by his side.
“He had a chip on his shoulder going into ’17 and then you see the last four years of how many games that he has won,” Holmes said. “Well, I think going into this year — not I think, I know going into this year, that chip is back from how things ended last year and I think Dan (Campbell) has done an incredible job managing basically the expectations of him, the ownership that he’s getting. … Having intimate knowledge of what he did go through in L.A., and the conversation we had, I think we’re getting him at a good spot.”