Whenever I encounter a football fan who knows I’m a native Detroiter who covers the NFL for a living, it never takes long for them to eventually ask the same question:
“So, um … what do you think of Matthew Stafford?”
At which point I inevitably shrug, sigh and do some live-action version of the Alonzo Mourning Meme. How do you explain watching an incredibly gifted player take a starring role in the most frustrating fan experience in football?
Eventually, I settled on this: Watching Stafford — who was just reportedly dealt to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff, two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder — in Detroit was the football equivalent of seeing Ben Affleck, a gifted actor, slog his way through “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Following Detroit is such a grind that many fans either check out of Lions fandom altogether or instead latch on to a second team, usually one that actually wins games.
Lions make it easy to explain away Matthew Stafford’s record
Since their last NFL championship in 1957, the Lions have won a miserable 41 percent of their games and only one playoff game. They are also among the four teams to have never played in the Super Bowl across 55 seasons. A big reason for the futility is their unbelievable knack for either giving too much power to the wrong people — Matt Millen or Bob Quinn or Matt Patricia — or outright failing to provide a winning organizational structure.
Even when they have people who could have done the job well — like current Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, Detroit’s pro scouting director from 1990-1999 — they let them get away. This has led to a talent deficiency year after year, ensuring that even when the Lions land special players, the slog of being a Lion either forces them to retire early — like Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders — or, like Ndamukong Suh and now Stafford, skip town when they can.
No one knows this more than Lions fans, so yes, I expect Stafford to largely get a pass for his trade request, despite the fact he went only 74-93-1 during his 12 seasons in Detroit. That includes a 14-25-1 mark the past three years, when Stafford has averaged 22 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions per season.
In a league where the quarterback matters more than ever, where a great one can lift a team’s championship hopes almost singlehandedly, Stafford’s inability to do so in Detroit will go on his football epitaph along with some of his other warts, which include a tendency to force passes and take ill-timed sacks.
It’s fair to expect a No. 1 overall quarterback to lift the fate of an ill franchise, especially given Stafford’s toughness, rocket arm, off-platform throwing ability and gunslinger mentality. But the Lions’ top-down ineptitude makes it easy to explain away Stafford making the playoffs only three times and never winning a postseason game despite his gaudy stats.
Heck, even I’m guilty of it. Over time, I began to think, “it’s a shame we never got to see him with a coach like Andy Reid.”
I’m glad we’ll finally get the answer to that question now.
Sean McVay pairing means excuses are over for Stafford
In Los Angeles, Stafford will have everything he never had (at least for long) in Detroit — a top-flight head coach (Sean McVay) with a dynamic, quarterback-friendly offensive scheme and a strong run game that helped elevate Jared Goff for the past four years.
Stafford will also have an elite defense as the Rams finished fourth in defensive DVOA this season. He’s also playing for a front office and coaching staff that has proven to be excellent at drafting and developing talent.
In other words, the excuses are officially over for Stafford, folks. And the fact the Rams still surrendered a three-pick bounty for him acknowledges the anchor that was Goff’s contract and an indication that Los Angeles, like everyone else, is effectively blaming Stafford’s lack of recent winning on the Lions’ infrastructure.
“That’s a great haul for Detroit,” one league source told Yahoo Sports.
Given the Lions’ history, we already know how this is going to probably turn out. As for Stafford, well, that’s where things get interesting because there actually aren’t a ton of trades like this in NFL history, one where an established, prolific passer is traded in his early 30s in hopes of a fresh start.
Best comparison for Stafford trade? One involving a former NFL MVP
Interestingly enough, the comparison I was drawn to the most over the past four decades also involved the Rams, who traded the No. 4 overall pick in 1982 and a second-rounder to Baltimore for 31-year-old gunslinger Bert Jones, the 1976 MVP.
Now, if you’re under the age of 50, you might not remember Jones. Like Stafford, Jones was extremely talented. The No. 2 overall pick in 1973, chosen to be the heir apparent to Johnny Unitas, had a reputation for toughness and premium arm strength (sound familiar?). So much so that Bill Belichick, who spent a season as a Colts assistant in the ’70s, described Jones as the “best pure passer” he’d ever seen.
There was one problem for Jones: During his nine-year stint in Baltimore, he dealt with multiple shoulder injuries and arm injuries. He went 47-49 as a starter before demanding a trade in 1982, citing issues with ownership (again, sound familiar?). Unfortunately for him, the injury issues followed him to Los Angeles, where he lasted only four games before a neck ailment ended his career.
These days, Jones is mainly known as a “what if” guy thanks to his 1976 season, when his 3,104 passing yards, 24 touchdown passes and nine interceptions at age 25 were essentially the equivalent of … well, Stafford’s 2011 season, when he threw for over 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions at age 23. Also worth noting: Jones, like Stafford, went 0-3 in the playoffs.
While the comparison is apt, it certainly isn’t perfect. For one, Stafford has proven to be far more durable than Jones. For another, you can argue that Stafford’s 2014 season, when the Lions went 11-5, was even better than his 2011 season.
Jones’ fate in Los Angeles doesn’t have to be Stafford’s. The Rams are counting on Stafford, considering they bet the farm that his old organization is the primary culprit for the Lions’ overwhelming failures. And historically speaking, it’s not a bad bet.
It’s still up to Stafford to prove L.A. right. While his numbers give the NFL’s most preeminent “what if” guy a Hall of Fame ceiling, if he fails to deliver for the Rams for any reason other than health, we’ll no longer have to wonder what his career could have been like had he never landed in Detroit.
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