I was at a Detroit Lions game this preseason when I ran into a longtime NFL scout I know who asked what I thought of the team Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell had assembled.
They were young and thin, I told him, and I wasn’t buying what the Lions were doing on offense. Their receiving corps was lacking. They had few proven playmakers. And Jared Goff was a step or two below Matthew Stafford as a quarterback.
The scout told me something that rings especially true now, with Goff coming off his worst game as a Lion and about to face his old team the Los Angeles Rams — where Stafford is a legitimate MVP candidate: Remember, he said, the guy you spent the past 12 years watching looked like a 1-1 every day in practice.
In other words, Stafford is a rare talent, a true first overall pick-type when it comes to having the arm and brain and many of the other traits quarterbacks need to be successful in the NFL. Goff, who went No. 1 overall seven years after Stafford, is not the same caliber player, though he still is better than a lot of what’s out there.
That conversation has resonated with me the past six weeks as I’ve watched Goff and the Lions struggle during their NFL-worst 0-6 start, and Stafford and the Rams thrive.
And it’s reaffirmed my belief that teams need high-level quarterback play to sustain any type of long-term success in the NFL, and then need to surround that quarterback with talent.
Goff is a placeholder for the Lions. That should be clear by now to anyone who doubted it before.
He is here to help shepherd the organization through the early stages of its rebuild, and to help the Lions avoid a truly disastrous season like the one they are careening towards.
The Lions have the worst receiving corps in the NFL and are down their two best offensive linemen. They have not played an offensive snap with a lead all season, and their young, injury-riddled defense has talent deficiencies of its own.
The way the Lions are currently constructed, they cannot cover for mistakes by their quarterback. And unfortunately for them, Goff has made many mistakes so far.
Still, Campbell was right to give Goff a semi-vote of confidence as his starter after Sunday’s disastrous 34-11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals because Goff still gives the Lions their best chance to win. Benching him for David Blough will not transform the Lions’ CFL-caliber receiving corps into a productive unit, and it won’t magically bring Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow or left tackle Taylor Decker back to health.
“I think he’s going to need to put a little bit of weight on his shoulders here and it’s time to step up and make some throws and do some things,” Campbell said. “But he needs help. He needs help. And look, I told him out there, he knows this, but some of that stuff, we’re getting these holding calls, well, it’s cause he’s drifting back in the pocket 10 yards deep. That’s not fair to those guys, either, if you hang onto the ball. It’s like I told you, this is a collective effort now. Everything goes hand in hand, but I want to see him step up, I do. I do. Cause I think he can do it.”
If by “do it,” Campbell means help the Lions avoid an 0-17 season, I wholeheartedly agree. There are plenty of NFL teams, all of them with wins, currently in similar or worse spots at quarterback.
But the second part of this equation, what’s unsaid by Campbell but obvious to everyone with a pulse, is that the Lions must be patiently desperate to find their next quarterback.
Patient in the fact that this is a decision they can’t screw up, otherwise it will cost Campbell and Holmes their jobs. It is better to not take a quarterback in next year’s draft and put the decision off, than to take the wrong one. And desperate in the fact that they won’t win a thing until they have a new trigger man — one who is better than the man they jettisoned this winter.
Stafford, as talented as he is, was only able to lift the Lions so far in his dozen seasons in Detroit.
He took over an 0-16 team not too dissimilar from where the Lions are now, and led them to four winning records and three playoff appearances without a postseason victory.
Not all of that was his fault, of course, just like not all of the Lions’ current struggles are on Goff. But to absolve Stafford of blame based on the success he’s had through six games in L.A. — with a brilliant offensive mind calling plays and two of the best defensive players in the game on the other side of the ball — is to mistake talent for production and fall on the wrong side of which matters more.
Stafford was a good quarterback in Detroit, and better than that for stretches of time. He did things with his arm that defied logic, and he made plays most seasons to lift the Lions to victories they did not deserve.
But like Goff, when the time came “to put a little bit of weight on his shoulders,” Stafford often failed to deliver. In Dallas in the playoff game. In Green Bay late in the season. And with a Hall of Fame receiver in Calvin Johnson and an All-Pro defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh sometimes by his side.
There is no point litigating Stafford’s career now when there is so much still to be written. He is the best quarterback most Lions fans have rooted for, and the fact he never won anything in Detroit is a blemish on the franchise.
Stafford, by me and many, likely was underappreciated while he was in Detroit and his true value is starting to show now that he is gone. The same could end up being said for Goff, who turned 27 years old last week and reached a Super Bowl when he had a strong supporting cast in L.A.
But that does not mean wanting more from either player, or the position they play, or the team they play for, is wrong.
The road to success in the NFL is strewn with players like Goff and Stafford, caretakers and incredible talents who could not summit Everest on their own, or needed a new Sherpa to make it happen.
The Lions have never had a superstar quarterback in the modern era who can climb that mountain and take others along for the ride. They will be looking for one this offseason, and until they find him, reminiscing about what could have been.