Wojo: Love Stafford or blame him, Lions fans can’t turn away from him

Detroit News

Detroit — One year ago, the Lions finally admitted they had a problem. It wasn’t a Matthew Stafford problem, not exactly. It was a team-building problem, an organizational problem, and Stafford was not the solution, no matter how desperately they and fans tried to believe it.

So they set him free, traded him where he wanted to go, and gave him a chance to rewrite the narrative of the big-armed quarterback who couldn’t win the big one. Stafford began the rewrite Monday night with a fine, efficient performance in a 34-11 wild-card victory over the Cardinals, the first playoff success of his 13-year career.

It was only one victory over an embarrassingly scattered opponent, and I imagine many Lions fans watched with mixed emotions. Because this isn’t just about Stafford changing his narrative; it’s about the Lions doing the same. That’s why people are so fixated, so invested.

As Stafford starts over, so do the Lions. It had to happen, and we’re seeing why. It’s not a zero-sum equation -— one winner, one loser. Both arguments can be true — the Lions’ incompetence created a situation where Stafford often played outside his means and made big mistakes in big moments. His record against teams that finished with winning records in 12 seasons was 8-67, and 0-3 in the playoffs.

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The Lions couldn’t fix Stafford and he couldn’t fix them, and they finally surrendered to the reality of their failings. They had to fix themselves. The new regime of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell shows promise, and has two Rams first-round picks as part of the trade. Jared Goff also was set free from a Rams franchise and a coach, Sean McVay, who no longer believed in him.

If you saw Goff late this season, winning three of his final four starts, you saw a guy growing comfortable, supported by Campbell. In a way, Arizona helped resurrect Goff and Stafford. The Lions slammed the Cardinals 30-12 last month, the first eye-opening sign of progress. It also was an eye-opening crack in the Cardinals, who are built on the shaky foundation of an undersized, unconventional quarterback, Kyler Murray.

Murray was awful against the Rams. Stafford was good — 13-for-17 for 202 yards — but didn’t need to be great. The Rams defense was superb, their running game was effective and Stafford, 33, ditched his label as one of the longest-tenured quarterbacks in NFL history without a playoff victory. He had thrown the most career touchdown passes (323) ever without tasting postseason success.

Because it was at home against a collapsing opponent, it doesn’t end an argument, only a narrative. The Rams play at defending champion Tampa Bay this Sunday against the indomitable Tom Brady, and the guess is, Stafford will have to throw more than 17 passes. If the Rams lose, the Trade Evaluation Needle tilts back toward the Lions. Goff won three playoff games and reached the Super Bowl with the Rams, and they gave up a ton to take a shot at winning it all.

They may yet do it, and if Stafford leads them past Brady, and then potentially Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers, and then potentially Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes, OK, arguments and narratives end. I doubt it will end that cleanly, and under no circumstances will the Lions be absolved of wasting Stafford and other stars. They haven’t won a playoff game in 30 years, the longest current streak in the league.

Detroit no longer has a hold on Stafford but he still has a hold here. In the absence of storylines during a 3-13-1 season, he remained a volatile topic. I think Lions fans loved the concept of Stafford more than the reality. He was a risk-taking, swashbuckling good guy who got hurt, got back up and kept falling short. It was much easier to believe in him than the Lions, who haven’t won a championship in 65 years.

Some Lions fans — maybe a majority — still root for Stafford because he was their primary hope for so long. Some want him to win so the Lions are shamed, their culpability confirmed. That’s kind of silly considering the Lions’ futility under the Ford ownership has been confirmed for decades, and anything Stafford does won’t change that.

Others root against him, partly out of practicality. The earlier the Rams are ousted, the better their first-round pick becomes for the Lions. Some also argue he didn’t do enough to change the culture here, and Stafford deserves his share of blame for that. Just showing up, trying his best and wearing an Olde English D cap wasn’t enough.

Stafford’s easy-going manner may have been endearing but it didn’t spur dramatic change. Oh, the Lions would get a new offensive coordinator, a few more receivers and a tight end — almost never a running game or a decent defense — and it would be OK because he could sling it. He always seemed willing to endorse it, without pushing it.

To his credit, he was consistent. He was classy in his exit, appreciative the Lions granted his trade request, something they selfishly didn’t do for others. While going 12-5 in Los Angeles, Stafford reminded everyone how good he can be (third in the league with 4,886 passing yards) and how reckless (tied for most interceptions with 17).

Stafford rarely fed the debate and steadfastly avoided controversy. Even now, he lets others do the talking, whether it’s his wife and her social-media musings, or the gaggle of NFL commentators eager to wipe away the Detroit stain and reveal the gloss beneath.

After beating the Cardinals, Stafford was predictably low-key, knowing there’s nothing to say unless he reaches the Super Bowl, and even then I doubt he’d say much.

“I’m just excited for our team to get the win,” Stafford told reporters. “Just happy to be moving on.”

I bet McVay is even happier because he pinned his reputation to Stafford. McVay was 42-20 with Goff, which emboldened him to reach even higher. He’s under just as much pressure as Stafford.

Every general manager and coach in Detroit, from Jim Schwartz to Matt Patricia, tried mightily to prop up Stafford, and in the process, let him down. They never challenged him by courting other quarterbacks, more coddling than coaching.

Even McVay joked last week that Stafford’s playoff zero wasn’t real because the Lions would’ve beaten the Cowboys in 2015 if not for an egregious overturned pass interference penalty. Of course that call came with 8:25 left and the Lions still leading 20-17.

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The Rams got Stafford, but sorry, they don’t get the time-honored excuses too. The Lions had Calvin Johnson and the Rams have Cooper Kupp, and that’s where the parallels end. The Rams have a defensive foundation and loaded up on win-now pieces, including Odell Beckham Jr. Stafford’s 17 pass attempts against the Cardinals were the fewest in a winning effort in his career, according to ESPN.

“I thought he did a great job leading the way,” McVay said. “I think it’s good so you guys don’t have to talk about (the playoff drought) anymore. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

Not necessarily true. They were here a year ago when an injured Goff led them to a playoff victory, and then was banished.

McVay and Stafford aren’t instantly validated, just as the Lions won’t ever be vindicated. I’m certain we’ll revisit the debate soon — like immediately after the Rams-Bucs game Sunday night. Stafford is the rare Lions star who got out with his career intact, and good for him. Lions fans may celebrate it or tolerate it, but they sure can’t ignore it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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