The pressure on Matthew Stafford's $135M deal isn't on Matthew Stafford

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Matthew Stafford had just inked the richest deal in the NFL, just inked himself about $27 million per year, just inked himself to the Detroit Lions for six more years, “at least.”

Already rich and already famous, not much was going to change, he said. The 29-year-old said he was going to celebrate by splurging on “diapers,” shooting a smile off to the side of the news conference, where his wife Kelly held the couple’s nearly five-month-old twin daughters.

It was another great contract day for the Stafford family, the third such mega-bucks deal of his career. Yet in terms of the football future of the Lions, Matthew may not even have been the most important person in the room.

Matthew Stafford is still searching for a playoff victory in Detroit. (Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford is still searching for a playoff victory in Detroit. (Getty Images)

Bob Quinn is entering his second season as the Lions’ general manager, and whether the millions spent on Stafford deliver anything more than the millions already spent on Stafford rests on Quinn’s ability to surround the quarterback with a team capable of advancing in January.

Stafford came to Detroit as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, the product of the NFL’s only 0-16 season. From that talent-deprived hole, he has been the centerpiece of three playoff teams, including a wild-card spot last season. Yet, Detroit failed to win a single game in any of them, just as it has generally failed to win anything in the playoffs since 1957 (just one postseason victory, way back in January of 1992).

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Stafford has proven to be a good and occasionally very good quarterback. There are 30,000 career yards already. There are 187 career touchdowns already. There’s a proven track record of late-game heroics.

“He doesn’t flinch,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “He doesn’t get nervous.”

He’s good enough to be worth the money, if only because the alternative is the endless second-chance quarterback merry-go-round that plagues Cleveland, the New York Jets, Houston and about half the league.

Yet just how good Stafford really is remains unknown. He isn’t exonerated from those playoff defeats. He could have been better. He could have carried the team to victory. He could’ve delivered on the opportunity. A truly great one would have.

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, after all. It isn’t the only position, though. Tim Tebow won a playoff game. T.J. Yates won a playoff game. Matt Schaub won a playoff game.

Mark Sanchez won four.

Calvin Johnson couldn't deal with the futility in Detroit. Matthew Stafford, however, sounds up to the challenge for now. (Getty Images)
Calvin Johnson couldn’t deal with the futility in Detroit. Matthew Stafford, however, sounds up to the challenge for now. (Getty)

So that’s the standard here. That’s the benchmark. Playoff advancement or bust. With this much money, it has to be. Which means Stafford needs to continue to improve and continue to see improvement around him.

Stafford’s eight-year history of work says the former will happen, at least a little. “He’s still climbing,” Caldwell said. “There’s no telling how good he can be.”

Quinn’s 20-month history of work says the latter will, too. Or at least, he acknowledges, it better.

“I need to do a good job in the draft, first and foremost,” Quinn said. “We can’t be going into free agency each season being a top spender. That’s not reasonable. That’s not how you build teams the right way.

“It’s my job to go out and draft and sign the best players possible to put players in place around Matthew,” Quinn continued. “And that’s not just receivers and offensive linemen and running backs, that’s on the defensive side of the ball also.”

Quinn is 40 years old, arriving here after a decade and a half in New England, where he rose from player personnel assistant to director of pro scouting. There is no nonsense about him, no excuse making. He is a product of Bill Belichick.

His first draft in 2016 yielded seven contributors last season, including likely long-term stars Taylor Decker at offensive left tackle and A’Shawn Robinson at defensive tackle. It’s a big reason the Lions even reached the playoffs.

There’s no telling at this point on the 2017 group, but there is hope, particularly in the form of third-round pick Kenny Golladay, a wide receiver.

“I feel we are a better team than a year ago,” Caldwell said. “I feel we are a deeper team than a year ago.”

The process has to be patient and painstaking. Nothing else has worked here. Potential has proved fleeting. Promise has proved empty. Just ringing up a 9-7 mark and getting killed in some forgettable wild-card game isn’t satisfying.

The team is desperate to win. The town is desperate for a winner. Quinn knew that and saw the possibilities here, in part because of Stafford’s presence. He didn’t know when he arrived if Stafford was a franchise guy, but the day in, day out work habits and leadership has convinced him.

So he locked him up. Maybe most importantly, he set a culture that made Stafford decide to stay and not walk into free agency at the end of the year as a coveted, and even richer, prospect. For a franchise that saw Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson retire in part out of hopelessness, that means something.

It doesn’t mean enough, though.

“Doing this contract with Matthew was one step into a process,” Quinn said.

It’s always the next step that’s been the toughest to climb.

“There is a long way to go,” Quinn noted. “… We have a lot of work to do.”

The celebratory press conference was soon over. The man most responsible for making it mean something great went back upstairs to scout film.

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