Wojo: Stafford rolling and Lions reeling, but that’s not the whole story

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s tempting, sure. It’s tempting for Lions fans to pine for the days of ol’ No. 9 slinging the ball deep, firing it sidearm, leading the Lions to 9-7 and the brink of playoff success but never getting there.

Don’t do it. Don’t look back. Go ahead and look away if you must on Sunday, when Matthew Stafford and the 5-1 Rams are expected to light up Jared Goff and the 0-6 Lions.

Everything changed in late-January when newly minted Lions GM Brad Holmes sent Stafford to Los Angeles for Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder. The Lions did the right thing, partly because they didn’t have a choice. Stafford requested a trade before Holmes’ arrival, and forcing a 33-year-old quarterback entering his 13th season into another lengthy rebuild made no sense.

Nine months ago, everyone was happy. Well, almost everyone. Probably not Goff. And probably not a legion of staunch Stafford supporters here.

But from a football standpoint, it was a win-win. And even now, with Stafford fashioning an exceptional season and Goff struggling to lead a decimated offense, the assessment hasn’t changed.

The Lions got what they wanted — a bevy of draft assets and a younger quarterback in Goff, 27, who started in the Super Bowl when Holmes was in L.A. The Rams got what they wanted — a power-armed leader who could direct Sean McVay’s fancy offense and actually win the Super Bowl.

There’s no disputing Stafford is an upgrade, but the franchises’ motives were as starkly different as the quarterbacks themselves. If you go back to the initial reaction, the Rams were taking the big risk and the Lions were widely lauded for winning the trade, collecting a virtually unprecedented draft bounty with strings (Goff’s contract) attached.

Now the deal looks tilted the other way, although that’s premature because the Lions haven’t used those first-round picks yet. Stafford and the Rams are in win-now mode. Dan Campbell and the Lions are in win-one mode.

Different directions

Honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised by either development. And no, we’re not prepared to declare an end to the mind-bending debate that has raged in Detroit for 12 years: Was Stafford holding the Lions back by faltering in big games, or were the Lions holding Stafford back by faltering for decades?

Framed that way, it seems like a silly question. Of course the Lions are more culpable, wasting rare talents over multiple eras, winning a solitary playoff game in 64 years. The Ford ownership’s role in the staggering run of failure is not debatable.

The problem is, no one could define Stafford’s role in it. He set career franchise records in every passing category but could be erratic and turnover-prone. He was great at times, disappointing at key moments. He did have Calvin Johnson but played under three different head coaches and four offensive coordinators, never had a consistent running game and only twice had a top-10 defense.

In L.A., the Rams have an elite defense (No. 1 last year, now 21st after a slow start), good receivers and a solid running game. Stafford is charting toward career highs in completion percentage (69.5), QBR (75.0) and yards per attempt (9.2). He’s thrown for 1,838 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and the Rams rank sixth in scoring. But remember, the true story will be told in the postseason.

In Detroit, Goff is charting toward career lows in yards per attempt (6.3) and QBR (32.9). He’s thrown for 1,505 yards with seven touchdowns, four interceptions and four lost fumbles.

The teams’ roster disparities shade the argument. Given better talent, Stafford is producing more. Duh. Given lesser talent, Goff is producing less. Duh.

No one is trying to turn Sunday’s game in Los Angeles into some judgment Armageddon, especially not Stafford.

“It’s just like every other game, an NFL opponent coming into our building,” Stafford said after the Rams hammered the Giants, 38-11, Sunday. “Do I have a ton of history with them? Absolutely. And pregame, am I gonna be saying hey to some old teammates and friends, the Ford family hopefully if they make the trip? Absolutely.”

Stafford is well liked by teammates, revered by many fans and has a laidback persona that’s easy to embrace. He’s rarely controversial, and I’m sorry, admitting he wanted to be traded so he could “play in big games” is not a bitter shot. He knows, whether he emphasizes it or not, he’s also to blame for the absence of “big games.”

Unsettled debate

To be clear, Stafford is a substantially better talent than Goff. But that’s not how this trade equation works. That won’t be settled until we see how Holmes uses the Rams’ first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, and how Rams GM Les Snead keeps contending without them. In one regard, Stafford’s success is hurting the Lions marginally, as the Rams’ picks will drop as their record rises.

Goff has been underwhelming, which was a known possibility. His check-down reputation is more glaring without a single deep threat in the Lions receiving corps. That makes it hard to fully judge him, but it would help if he made more aggressive attempts to be judged positively. The truth is, even if he’s viewed negatively as a placeholder, the Lions will gain something — a recognition and heightened urgency to draft a quarterback.

The grand experiment to determine how much responsibility Stafford bears for the Lions’ 74-90-1 record with him as the starter (0-3 in the playoffs) won’t be decided quickly or cleanly. It’s shaped by McVay, 35, who appears to be restoring his boy-genius status, directing an offense that produces open receivers at an astonishing rate. Cooper Kupp leads with 46 receptions, and by my estimation, hasn’t yet been touched by a cornerback. Robert Woods and Van Jefferson are dangerous, and the running game has survived after losing starter Cam Akers. If more weapons are needed, McVay will race to get them, already adding Sony Michel and DeSean Jackson.

The championship-or-bust pressure sits squarely on the Rams, and if they win the Super Bowl, they win the trade no matter what. Even if the Lions collect future All-Pros with the picks, the benefit won’t be realized for years.

Right now, it’s agony for the Lions and ecstasy for the Rams, lopsided in the short term. But no one would ask for a do-over if magically given the chance. Again, Lions ownership had agreed to Stafford’s request, finally mindful of doing right by one of their longtime stars. And Stafford wouldn’t be doing here what he’s doing in L.A., not with the Lions’ astoundingly thin group of receivers.

The Rams accepted the risk and reaped quick dividends, so far. The Lions’ draft capital is banked for future use, yet to be cashed. Try to remember that when you get a little weepy watching ol’ No. 9 zing the ball past Lions defenders you barely recognize. He’s where he wanted to be, trying to prove his point. The Lions are a long way from proving theirs.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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