The season was done.
Workers were cleaning out Ford Field late Sunday afternoon but the score was left on the scoreboard: Lions 37, Green Bay 30.
Up in the press box, more than a dozen televisions were tuned to the same game. Matthew Stafford was on, leading the Rams to a back-and-forth game against the San Francisco 49ers. Since Stafford left Detroit, it seems like every game he plays is on national TV.
It was quite a strange sight, seeing Stafford play in Ford Field.
But only on TV.
Stafford’s new team is in a far different position than his old team. The Rams are heading to the playoffs, while the Lions ended with just three wins. But if you ask me, both teams got what they needed out of the trade that rocked the 2021 offseason.
Both teams are better off for it.
The Detroit Lions lost just about as many games this season than Stafford won. But they picked up extra draft picks and now hold three of the top 34 picks in this spring’s draft. It’s a tremendous opportunity. If they make the right picks — yes, I understand your skepticism — and combine those picks with the young players the Lions have developed this season, this organization has a chance for a quick transformation.
But there was another element to the Stafford trade that is intriguing.
The Jared Goff factor.
When the Lions traded Stafford, Goff seemed like a throw-in. Just a QB placeholder. And he struggled earlier this season. But as he grew, this team grew. As he improved, this team improved. And he guided them to a come-from-behind fourth-quarter victory on Sunday.
The kind of thing Stafford used to do for the Lions.
“A lot of work to do obviously,” Goff said. “Still only three wins, but the way we finished the season absolutely is a good springboard for us into the offseason.”
Don’t look now, but Goff just won his second-straight game as a starter.
And that Stafford trade looks better every day. Mainly because of the draft picks. But also because of Goff’s improvement.
“He’s played really well, he really has,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Look, there’s a number of reasons why we weren’t moving the football and things weren’t happening and it’s really all encompassing. And he took a lot of flak for it, I’ll be honest with you. That wasn’t totally on him, it wasn’t. But what I respect about him is the fact that he hung in there and he was resilient, but yet accountable to his own performance.”
Why things got better recently
It’s been a crazy season for Goff.
At one point, this team was winless through its first 11 games. But things started to change after Campbell took over the play calling duties.
Not just that. Practice changed.
“The way we approached each day in practice was a lot better,” Goff said. “Our mentality was, was so much better and so much improved.”
And this team seemed to turn a corner. The Lions won three of their last six games.
Best of all, the Lions discovered that Amon-Ra St. Brown is a heck of a player.
“He’s better than gold,” Campbell said. “When you’re the athlete he is, explosive, but then you’re tough and you’re competitive, it’s just the way you’re made up and he’s smart. And those guys are hard to find that are all-encompassing like that, so, I’m glad we’ve got him, and he proved again. The consistency is there, that’s for dang sure.”
St. Brown and Goff developed a special chemistry this season.
But it wasn’t that way at the start.
“There was a kind of a turning point but it was really slow,” St. Brown said. “I mean, today there’s throws that he made out there, that one job where I scored while I was like Geez, he’s fitting these into tight windows. I mean, week one I don’t think he’s throwing those balls to me. So you definitely can see the chemistry, the improvement, just the comfort-ability with him and us, him trusting us him know where we’re going to be.”
Shoot, in week one, I’m not sure the Lions knew what they had in St. Brown.
He only got this opportunity because of several injuries.
“If T.J. (Hockenson) is healthy and if (Quintez) Cephus is healthy and if Tyrell (Williams) is healthy the whole year, he probably doesn’t get these opportunities,” Goff said. “That’s how this league goes and he got those opportunities and clearly made the most of it. He’s a special player, a special dude. Look forward to playing with him for sure.”
St. Brown finished 912 yards — a franchise record for rookies — and four receiving touchdowns this season.
What we learned about this season
The Lions needed several trick plays to beat the Packers, a team that was sitting several starters in the second half.
But when you look under the surface, you find an offensive line that was solid, even when players were missing.
You find a coach who wasn’t afraid to take risks.
You find a defense that made massive improvements.
You find a coaching staff that drew up several creative plays that turned into touchdowns.
And you find a quarterback who took the criticism and grew from it.
“It’s a tale of two seasons kind of, the first half and the second half,” Goff said.
So as Stafford gets ready for the playoffs and these Lions clean out their lockers, there is optimism in Detroit.
I’m not saying Goff is the long-term answer. But his development is a reason to be encouraged about next season when this team has more pieces.
And more than anything, there is optimism because of the connection Goff has developed with St. Brown.
It’s as good as gold.