Feb. 26, 2019
Lions Look: Stuffed On Thanksgiving & Matthew Stafford Giveaway?
A surreal seven days, to say the least.
The Detroit Lions played their traditional Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears, with each looking for a desirable result. A Bears victory would increase their lead in the NFC North, putting distance between them and the struggling Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. A win by the Lions would keep their faint playoff chances afloat. Each team was missing key offensive players (Chicago QB Mitch Trubisky, along with Detroit playing without RB Kerryon Johnson and WR Marvin Jones) and needed their substitutes to contribute. The Bears got a good game from backup Chase Daniel and 2 key 4th quarter interceptions of Matt Stafford to give the Bears a 24-17 win. Chicago goes to 8-3 and in firm control of their division, with the Lions falling to 4-7 and practically left to play out the string for the rest of 2018.
What has happened since then has been either a mental exercise going out of control or everyone being straight mental.
While no one in Allen Park admitting it, the Lions are in a rebuilding process. Head coach Matt Patricia was going to rework the defense, as he is a Bill Belichickian disciple of the 3-4 alignment and the Lions have run a base 4-3 since 1994. Offensively, the pieces were supposed to be coming together, as Stafford was finally getting the run support he has lacked over the majority, if not the entirety of his career. The draft brought in top end picks OG Frank Ragnow and Johnson, and couple this with the free agent investments of RB LeGarrette Blount this year and OL's Rick Wagner and TJ Lang, the offense was set. Instead, Stafford has slid back both in passing efficiency and care of the football. Yes, the run game has improved, thanks in large part to Johnson. But the pass game has greatly regressed. Injuries to Lang and Jones putting them on injured reserve, Johnson both missing time to injuries (sprained knee) and coaching discretion has put heat on the high profile faces. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is squarely on the hot seat and not expected to survive past Week 17. There's even been talk of trading Stafford.
For the record, the Lions are not officially shopping their quarterback that just signed a huge contract extension with four years remaining. This trade talk is the fascinations of football media types. Most notably, NBC ProFootballTalk's Peter King tweeted an idea that the Jacksonville Jaguars pull the trigger on a deal that would give a first round and forth round picks to Detroit for Stafford. The legion of Lion associated critics of Stafford howled with glee that this could be reality, nevermind the fact that Stafford is the lone stabilizing influence over this franchise in the post-Matt Millen era.
Let's just burst the bubble of the Stafford haters right now: that trade is not happening in 2018. Why?
1) The Lions would still be on the hook for Stafford's cap number, which is sitting at about $30 million. That destroys the savings argument many make with dumping both the signal caller and his sizeable contract.
2) There's no clear contingency plan. Say Stafford is traded. Who replaces him? Many claim the draft is the way to go, as the team can get a starter on the cheap for four years. Ask any long time Lions fan about the team's success in the draft in terms of picking up quarterbacks and await the response. The other way is to sign a veteran languishing on a bench somewhere. This will more than likely translate into a $12 to $15 million deal that is only static savings from the incumbent Stafford. And let's state the common thread of both these routes: they are gambles. There is no assurance that the next great NFL QB is one transaction away. Any rationalization otherwise is akin to buying a lottery ticket and believing that this time they will win the millions of dollars as the grand prize.
3) A trade at this point would definitely not bode well for general manager Bob Quinn, as he witnessed the signing of the Stafford extension in the summer of 2017. Trading Stafford after two years would be regarded as a huge mistake in retrospect, as it would be foolish to send away your purported franchise player after only two seasons, hamstringing the team's salary cap in the process. The trade makes better sense in the latter years of the pact, as the Lions' dead money commitments taper. But today, barring catastrophic events to conclude 2018, Stafford is staying put.
It should be stated that while Stafford is not in the elite group of NFL quarterbacks, he's also not a stiff. He is in the second tier of passers; talented player but in need of players who can complement his play. That puts Stafford among many others. Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan has been considered overrated for a good part of his career, but with a bevy of playmakers around him and an offensive playcaller who maximized Ryan's capabilities and remained aggressive, Ryan became a league MVP and led the Falcons to an NFC championship. Stafford has that type of potential, but he needs help. The trade of WR Golden Tate and the aforementioned injured teammates have taken away weapons from Stafford. Cooter's system may be outmoded at this point, especially when one sees the dynamic offenses in New Orleans, Kansas City, and Los Angeles putting scoreboards across the league on tilt. Stafford critics point to his once record setting contract and subsequent annual salary as their indignation over his perceived underwhelming performances. Those who make that claim have no understanding of how these contracts are designed. These immense contracts have nothing to do with performance amongst contemporaries; they are based on market dynamics. When Stafford put his signature on that document, that was the going rate for a proficient passer that was an undisputed starter for his franchise. Consider the succeeding contracts of San Francisco's Jimmy Garappolo, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, and Minnesota's Kirk Cousins. It's not like they exceeded Stafford by leaps and bounds. And when other signal callers look to be extended or hit free agency, their contracts will go higher still. Soon, Stafford's contract will be around the middle of the pack, and the noise about it will subside. So for those of you who are raging on talk radio and ranting on social media about getting rid of Matthew Stafford and figuring out the money, please maintain a dignified silence to as to not obliterate your own credibility.
The ten day rest between the Thanksgiving tilt and the next game is blunted by the fact that the Lions next game is against the LA Rams. The Rams are coming off a bye and itching for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, while the Lions hope to put a good foot forward in the final month of the regular season. This could get ugly, but Detroit has surprised in the past. Looks like we'll find out soon enough.