Detroit is supportive of Matthew Stafford as he tries to win the Super Bowl he never could for the Lions

REDFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The television above the counter at the humble Golden Grill Restaurant here was replaying highlights of this city’s one-time quarterback, who requested a trade out of town, leading a new team to the Super Bowl.

In a lot of places that would lead to understandable bitterness, even outright rooting against someone who skipped off to greener pastures (and warmer, sunnier skies) and then immediately found success. After all, it’s not like Matthew Stafford was to Detroit what Tom Brady was to New England.

Brady delivered six Super Bowls and a generation of glorious memories to Patriots fans before finally leaving to chase (and win) one more in Tampa Bay. Stafford was in Detroit for a dozen seasons and never won even a single playoff game or division title. There are almost no warm thoughts to lean back on. Just unfulfilled potential.

Yet here on a cold Monday morning in Metro Detroit, from the breakfast patrons to the short-order cook, the mood was generally supportive. There was a measure of anger, but most of that was directed at the Lions, not Stafford.

It was a sentiment replayed at conversations across the city, on social media, and in a flood of calls and texts to local radio.

“I’d say only 5-10 percent of people are rooting against him,” said Mike Stone, who hosted the morning show Monday on 97.1 the Ticket and has worked in Detroit sports talk radio since 1994. “People weren’t mad that he left because they understand why he left. They are mad at the Lions.”

The Lions never win. Like, ever. Since 1957 they have a single playoff victory and that was in early 1992, which itself is the longest current postseason drought in the NFL.

The reason they don’t have the high-profile, gut-punch losses such as Buffalo or Cleveland is because they never get to a high-profile game to suffer a gut-punch loss. The 64 seasons of Lions misery is one born out of obscure futility that makes the entire enterprise an abject disaster. What they can’t forget, no one else even remembers.

“The worst franchise in sports history,” Stone said.

Old Barry Sanders highlights can take you only so far.

Stafford arrived here in 2009 as the No. 1 overall draft pick from the University of Georgia to change that. He was strong-armed with a rare combination of confidence and humility, a fabulously rich pro athlete who drove an F-150, never posted on social media and basically spent his free time hanging out with his wife and kids and performing charity work.

“I’m just one of those guys that just wants to win,” he said on the eve of being drafted. “I don’t care how. It doesn’t have to be pretty.”

As Matthew Stafford chases the Super Bowl he never won with the Lions, the mood in Detroit is supportive. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
As Matthew Stafford chases the Super Bowl he never won with the Lions, the mood in Detroit is supportive. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Well it wasn’t pretty. And, the “how” wasn’t the issue; it was the how-few. Stafford was a gunslinger (49,995 yards), fought through injuries, led 39 comeback victories in Detroit and never complained. But he went just 74-90-1 as a starter, plus 0-3 in the playoffs.

He was neither the first nor likely the last good to great player who accomplished very little on the Lions scoreboard. Sanders, a darting running back, retired early rather than keep playing for this franchise. Calvin Johnson, an unstoppable receiver, did the same only to have ownership, in a petty move, reclaim some of his signing bonus.

Sanders and Johnson are Hall of Famers. Stafford may get there too, but it will mostly be because he got out, asking for a trade last January rather than deal with another rebuild under his fourth full-time head coach.

The Rams sent two first-round draft picks, a third-round selection and starting quarterback Jared Goff for Stafford. The Lions went 3-13-1, and the first of those two first-rounders will be in the 30s. There remains suspicion among fans that the Fords turned down better offers to give Stafford his preferred L.A. destination.

Stafford built a lot of goodwill in how he carried himself. “Even people who were down on Stafford the player liked him personally, because what isn’t there to like?” Stone said. “The biggest criticism was that he didn’t publicly speak up to management enough.”

Yet the truth is Stafford was not a complete prisoner of the Ford Family failure. Oh, it played a role. The decision in 2018 — after two wild-card berths in four years — to bring in Matt Patricia as the coach who could push them to a Super Bowl was particularly devastating. In need of a spark, they instead sank.

There were additional bad drafts, bad free agents and a long standing tradition of sticking with mediocrity and/or incompetence too long. It’s an unfathomable cycle. Consider the Rams’ Super Bowl opponent, Cincinnati, is no model franchise, yet is in its third Super Bowl overall and just two years ago went 2-14.

Super Bowl LVI kicks off on Feb. 13 in Inglewood, California. For the second straight season, the NFC champion will be playing at home. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Super Bowl LVI kicks off on Feb. 13 in Inglewood, California. For the second straight season, the NFC champion will be playing at home. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

There were circumstances, as well. At one point the Lions had Stafford, Johnson and Ndamukong Suh anchoring the team, but all three were among the last groups of rookies who signed massive, salary-cap killing first contracts. That left the team with little money to build around them. Had they all been on today’s team-friendly rookie deals, well, it might be like having Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons ... and tons of money for free agents.

Yet Stafford also didn’t elevate the Lions like someone of his talent could have. At some point, he needed to just go win a playoff game. Great quarterbacks do that. The closest was in 2015, a 24-20 loss to Dallas that is famous in these parts for a picked-up pass interference call that stalled out a Lions fourth-quarter drive. That play came with 8:25 remaining in the game. Stafford got the ball back with 2:39 remaining, down just four points and couldn’t deliver a game-winner.

Even Sunday in defeating San Francisco, Stafford was far from perfect. He threw one pick and had a potentially devastating one dropped late. The Rams benefitted from a 49ers meltdown. Yes, Stafford was good, certainly good enough to get L.A. to the Super Bowl, and yes, just a week prior he led a final-minute comeback to likely end Tom Brady’s career, but he needed help too.

Either way, the mood here in Detroit is supportive. Stafford is still appreciated, still popular. He’s the closest they have to a Super Bowl rooting interest.

But it’s also a reminder they are still stuck with the Lions.

Always and, apparently, forever.