Detroit Lions’ GOAT, or scapegoat? Matthew Stafford’s legacy hits national spotlight

Detroit Free Press

Former Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is underrated.

No, wait, he’s overrated, with a recent ESPN poll ranking him the sixth-best quarterback in the NFL.

And, well, that’s outrageous, sacrilege even. Quarterbacks are supposed to win! Stafford didn’t win a single playoff game during his 12-year run in Detroit! And, well, you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t.

Maybe you don’t care. Or never did. Or moved on the minute the Lions shipped him to Los Angeles for Jared Goff and a couple of first-round draft picks.

But I doubt it. Stafford will always be a Lion. More accurately, he will always be your quarterback. Which means how he’s viewed — or how he’s ranked — will always be your concern.

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And while it’s fine if you over- or under-rate him, it’s not so fine when outsiders do it. Kind of like bristling when your partner criticizes your parents, even if they are repeating what you just said.

This played out last week, as the initial ESPN poll sparked debate among that network’s football analysts “How dare you rank Stafford over Dak Prescott?!?!” — which then ignited debate on other networks before spilling to news sites and blogs and talk radio.

Stafford may well be the sixth-best QB in the NFL. Or not. Whatever he is, he will get to show it in a different way this fall.

Gone is the excuse of the Lions organization, dragging him down like an anchor in the ocean. Gone are the arguments about a lack of defense, running game or offensive line.

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Stafford had those things at various times in Detroit, and when he did, he got the franchise to the playoffs. Of course, once in the postseason, he never made the big play when it was most needed.

Is that entirely his fault?

That’s the eternal question when it comes to debating quarterbacks. Take the 2014 season’s wild-card round loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions led 20-7 midway through the third quarter, but couldn’t hold it.

Everyone remembers the flag that was picked up on a pass interference call on a throw to tight end Brandon Pettigrew as the Lions were driving with a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter. If the call had stayed made, and the Lions gone on to score, it likely would have iced the game.

The Cowboys took the lead on the next drive (after a shanked punt by Sam Martin), but  Stafford had another drive in the final three minutes.

As Jim Caldwell told reporters after the game when asked about the non-call:

“I’m not going to sit up here and act like that was the play that made a difference in the game. We still had our chances.”

It sounded like coach speak. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.

The Lions, including Stafford, did have plenty of chances. Just as he likely will in Los Angeles. Whether he is able to make the crucial play in L.A. will determine how he ultimately gets remembered.

If he wins, and the Rams go on a playoff run, it will change everything, especially if that run ends in a Super Bowl. It will give ammo to all the folks arguing the Lions held him back.

If he doesn’t, though … if the Rams finish like the Lions often did with Stafford, the crowd yelling “Overrated!” will have their needed evidence.

For now, the move was enough to vault Stafford up the rankings. Already, the perception has changed within the league.

ESPN’s ranking was based on private polling among coaches, executives, scouts and players. Here is the composite description the network used based on its Stafford feedback:

“Stafford moved up four spots for no other reason than his move to the Rams via trade could align him closer to the greats. ‘Him going to L.A. with Sean (McVay) and that offense will be great for his already massive abilities,’ a veteran NFL quarterback said. ‘This will be the deciding factor on who he is.’”

Isn’t that the question?

That has given Lions fans debate fodder for years, not to mention heartache and, occasionally, joy. Now that heartbreak debate will go national: The quarterback or the franchise?

In this way, it’s a small-scale version of the debate Tom Brady created when he left New England for Tampa Bay last year. In that case, it was over who was the G.O.A.T., Brady or Bill Belichick. For Stafford, it’s a goat of a different sort: Who is the scapegoat for years of losses in Detroit? Him or a perpetually troubled franchise? The stakes, for Stafford at least, aren’t small at all.

How he gets remembered is what’s in play. Not just in the NFL, but around here.

As ESPN wrote in its poll results:

“Stafford’s up-and-down time in Detroit is still central to his standing among the game’s best. Some knock him for zero playoff wins in 12 years; others applaud him for leading an oft-moribund franchise to four winning seasons and three playoff appearances. As one NFC exec said, he has been in a bad place long enough that he doesn’t know what a winner looks like.”

Finally, he’ll get to find out, as we get to see whether it was him or whether it was us.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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