Detroit Lions fans have a unique indignity facing them as December arrives.
The co-leader in touchdown receptions in the NFL is Eric Ebron.
The tight end who was intensely disliked by the diehards in Detroit is a star in Indianapolis, on his way to a likely Pro Bowl bid while his former team sputters along with an offense that scares no one. The Lions have 17 passing touchdowns, compared to Ebron’s 11 scores.
The rationales are easy to muster. Ebron now has Colts offensive guru Frank Reich, while last year he had the uninspiring Jim Bob Cooter. Ebron is getting more attention now from Andrew Luck, while in years past there were other options like Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and even Kenny Golladay. And there is the tried-and-not-necessarily-true “Lions culture” excuse, which is the vague notion that the Detroit franchise is in a permanent state of rot and talented people don’t excel until they get out.
There’s one issue, however, that is harder for people in Michigan to consider: Ebron now has a better quarterback.
Matthew Stafford is a likable guy with a great arm, but as his career goes on it’s harder and harder to figure out what else makes him transcendent. On Thanksgiving he threw two key interceptions to lose at home on a short week to a Chicago Bears team led by Chase Daniel. That’s hard to explain away, especially in what was basically a must-win situation. Yes, the Lions were without several offensive weapons, but they had the best one on the field, by far. And that weapon was the one that failed in the moment of truth. That’s loss No. 7 for Detroit, when it should have been win No. 5.
You can’t blame Stafford for Ebron’s drops – which are still an issue – but who has come through Detroit and become significantly better with Stafford? Jones’ best career touchdown mark came in Cincinnati. Tate’s top single-season touchdown total came in Seattle. Calvin Johnson would have starred anywhere. And now Ebron has as many touchdowns in Indianapolis as he had in his entire career in Detroit.
In today’s NFL, most elite quarterbacks can give receivers extra cushion with either their minds or their feet. Brady moves the pocket. Rodgers and Russell Wilson extend the play. Cam Newton can tuck it and run. Brees isn’t as mobile anymore, but he scans the field and fools defensive backs like no one else in the sport.
Stafford is paid $135 million over five years to excel in the way those others do. He hasn’t. And now there are a bushel of young quarterbacks who are on their way to the playoffs: Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and this weekend’s Lions opponent, Jared Goff.
There’s almost a tradition in Detroit to lay blame with everyone other than the franchise quarterback. Stafford has had some majestic comebacks. He is as tough as anyone physically, shaking off even injuries that seem devastating. He took over after the 0-16 season, and he has given back to the community he has adopted. And he has pinball stats, including a 5,000-yard season in 2011.
It’s easier to blame the Ford Family, which has been ineffective at creating a winning environment for decades. It’s easier to blame the coach, whether the irascible Jim Schwartz, the staid Jim Caldwell or the beard-scratching Matt Patricia. It’s easier to blame any of the offensive coordinators along the way.
But none of those people play. Stafford has never won the crucial game, and he won’t be winning one this season either. The Lions are all but done this year. Stafford will be 31 in February. In three career playoff games, he has zero wins, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. The only playoff game that was close was in Dallas, where the Lions led at halftime and lost (in part because of referee gaffes). Forbes has Stafford ranked as the 10th highest paid athlete in the world, right in front of Kevin Durant. Matthew Stafford is not Kevin Durant. He’s closer to Carmelo Anthony.
There’s certainly the old familiar stat of how the Lions went nearly five years without a 100-yard rusher. Kerryon Johnson broke that streak this season against the New England Patriots, who the Lions beat convincingly. But the Lions have aggressively tried to help Stafford in the backfield. They went and got Reggie Bush. They drafted Ameer Abdullah. They picked up LeGarrette Blount. They have completely rebuilt their offensive line. And Ebron was a big part of that effort. Instead of going for Aaron Donald in the first round of the 2014 draft, they got Stafford a huge target with speed. Now, this Sunday, they will be facing Donald, and Stafford will be staring his team’s decision square in the face.
Meanwhile, prioritizing Stafford’s welfare has cost the team on defense. The depth hasn’t been there for years, despite the efforts of Glover Quin and Darius Slay. And it’s hard to invest in big names on defense when so much money is spent on the big name on offense.
It’s curious that Stafford hasn’t reacted much in public to the growing criticism, or the losing. He’s fiery at times on the sideline, and he’s a warrior in the last two minutes of a game, but other than that he’s fairly unanimated. There have been several times this season and in years past when a well-placed public rant from the franchise leader may have helped. Ebron, for example, was booed mercilessly throughout his career. Would a hell-raising lecture from Stafford to the fan base have changed anything? We’ll never know.
Stafford isn’t Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles or Jameis Winston. He has been durable. He has been stellar at times. He has been the face of the franchise the Lions desperately needed after the 2008 winless embarrassment. But after several coordinators and coaches, the Lions are still an also-ran. At some point, hard as it may be, the Lions have to ask themselves if $135 million in salary should buy more than a participation trophy.
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