Should the Detroit Lions move on from Matthew Stafford in 2016?


I’ve seen more than a few articles that suggest 2016 is the year the Detroit Lions could move on from Matthew Stafford. The reasoning behind this line of thinking is partly financial. In 2016, Stafford will count $22.5M against the cap. However, his dead money is only $11M. That means, if the Lions were so inclined they could save $11.5M by closing the chapter on the Matthew Stafford era.

There’s also a performance-based component to this premise as well. Since his breakout season of 2011, Stafford’s numbers have steadily declined. While Stafford is still a young player, the core of players surrounding him has changed. Free agency has taken players like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley away from the team’s nucleus while age has begun to affect the availability of Calvin Johnson.

Jan 1, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) holds up the Cotton Bowl trophy after the game against the Michigan State Spartans in the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium. Michigan State beat Baylor 42-41. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The task of keeping the window of opportunity open now falls to a new core of players like Golden Tate, Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay. With this transition the Lions may opt to reassess whether they’ve seen enough from Stafford to continue believing he’s capable of leading the franchise to a championship.

If social media is any indication, Lions fans have no shortage of opinion on the matter. Some adamantly believe Stafford’s no longer ‘worth’ the money he’s being paid. Others think the Lions should move on from Stafford by virtue of free agency or the draft. While there is a small contingent who still view Kellen Moore as a viable successor to Matthew Stafford some momentum is building for those hoping the Lions take a long look at the 2016 NFL draft for solutions.

As the season progresses players like Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg or MSU’s Connor Cook will saturate the media. A bad stretch of games from Stafford is all it will take to trigger widespread criticism from television ‘experts’ who will go on to say the Lions should cut ties with Stafford in the off-season.

To those who might agree with this sentiment I say consider the alternative — replacing Stafford with a mediocre quarterback.

Recently Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks caused a stir when he made the following statement on the matter:

“Quarterback is the only position in the NFL where you could be mediocre and get paid. At every other position, you can’t be mediocre.”  

Like him or not, Bennett’s right.

This is a quarterback’s market. While some look at the big numbers teams are throwing around to starting quarterbacks I can’t think of a better example than Matt Flynn. In the final game of the 2011 season Matt Flynn turned in a performance for the ages throwing for over 400 yards and 6 touchdowns. Flynn exchanged one game in a no defense allowed shootout into a windfall of earnings that seemingly has no end. While he’s never shown even a modicum of talent afterwards, GMs around the league are so desperate for quality backups they continue recruiting him for their teams.

As a Lions fan I can sympathize. Before Stafford we had to watch a string of unspectacular quarterbacks take the field for our beloved franchise. Week after week they tried their best but they simply were not good enough to make the team competitive.  Having no viable explanation as to why our team had such misfortune in finding a quality starting quarterback we resorted to making excuses with none being better than the infamous curse of Bobby Layne?

The Curse of Bobby Layne

Most fans will remember Bobby Layne as the best quarterback in Detroit Lions history. In the 50’s Layne led the team to championships all while setting franchise passing records that stood for decades. When the Lions traded Layne to the Steelers, he allegedly said the Lions wouldn’t win another championship for 50 years.

And with those words ‘The Curse of Bobby Layne’ was born.

ESPN Films recorded an entertaining and informative retrospective on the curse here. Cursed or not, poor quarterback play would plague the Lions for over five decades. During that time the team was forced to start quarterbacks like Scott Mitchell, Charlie Batch & Jon Kitna who in hindsight were probably at their best when used as backups.

In 2009 the curse was lifted when the franchise chose Matthew Stafford to lead a new era of Detroit Lions Football.

Is Stafford a Franchise Quarterback?

Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) shakes hands with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) following the game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Ndamukong Suh has departed for South Beach, Matthew Stafford is probably the franchise’s most polarizing figure. Some fans consider Stafford an elite player, citing his prolific passing stats as justification for their view. Others consider Stafford a mediocre player pointing to his success (or lack thereof) against winning teams.

To delve into this issue we must first identify the difference between a ‘franchise quarterback’ and an ‘elite quarterback.’

Elite quarterbacks are rare. They are the best of the best and could win games in almost any era of football. In addition to having supreme talent, elite quarterbacks are galvanizing leaders who have an innate propensity to win at whatever they undertake in life and in sports.

Franchise quarterbacks on the other hand are players who have sufficient health and talent to make their teams competitive. While they can’t always ‘will’ their teams to wins they are not usually why their teams lose.

Based on the above, Stafford is clearly a franchise quarterback. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons to start his career he’s become the franchise’s all-time leader in consecutive starts. Whatever else can be said about him one thing is certain – Matthew Stafford has stabilized the Lions quarterback situation in ways the franchise hasn’t enjoyed in decades.

But with Stafford it’s more than just stability. In very short order, Matthew Stafford has rewritten passing records for the franchise. For example, in 2013, he [Stafford] broke Bobby Layne’s record for most passing yards in franchise history. And as an encore, he went on to break Layne’s passing touchdown mark the following year.

At a mere 27 years old Stafford, is now the Lions franchise leader in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns. And he’s not only shattering franchise records he’s breaking NFL records as well.

Nov 9, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) makes a touchdown catch while being pressured by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes (21) during the first quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Consider this, when Matthew Stafford reached 20,000 yards in just 71 games he became the fastest ever to do so. That bested Dan Marino (74), Kurt Warner (76) & Peyton Manning (78).

Although scoring was an issue for the Lions in 2014 this was an anomaly. In his career Stafford has thrown 131 touchdowns and has been at the heart of some of the league’s most exciting comebacks.

In 2009 the Lions could have ended up with Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman. There were even reports suggesting Detroit attempted to trade the #1 overall pick to Denver for Jay Cutler of all people. Seven years later, it’s hard to keep track of whether Josh Freeman is in or out of the league. Mark Sanchez has proven a somewhat reliable BACKUP but nothing more and Jay Cutler is the nightmare that just won’t end for Chicago.

Meanwhile, the narrative regarding Matthew Stafford revolves around whether he can recapture the elite play he demonstrated in 2011 or is he locked in as mereljust a ‘good quarterback.’ I don’t know about you but I’d take a good, reliable starting quarterback over drafting a player who has an equal shot at being awful as he has at being awesome.

Final Verdict

Turning the page from a proven franchise quarterback isn’t merely a decision that impacts a team’s financial ledger as its ramifications reverberate throughout the organization. In considering a change of this magnitude the front office would have to consider how veteran players would respond to such a move. It would also signal a departure from the course the team has followed over the past 7 years.

While there have been no titles, divisional or otherwise, with Matthew Stafford at the helm the Lions have gone from laughing stock to spoiler and now onto contender.

The last time the Lions had a team capable of making a strong playoff push was during the 1990’s. That Lions squad had a tenacious defense, a quality coaching staff and a dynamic young running back who left defenses gasping at air in his wake. History remembers the 1990’s Lions as a playoff contender that was a solid quarterback away from playing in or winning a Superbowl.

This modern iteration of the Detroit Lions once again has a stout defense, a quality coaching staff and a talented young runner who has flashed uncanny evasiveness. The 2010’s Lions enter their playoff era better positioned to reach a Superbowl than their 1990’s counterpart because of Matthew Stafford. Where Scott Mitchell was at best fringe starter, Matthew Stafford has proven his play can occasionally rise to elite levels.

The 2014 NFL Playoffs showed us why quarterbacks are so valuable in today’s NFL. As inevitably, the road to an NFL Championship is paved by at least a few stretches of very good quarterback play. The Lions can get that from Stafford. While it may become a sexy hypothetical topic to discuss at some point in the near future, I’m not sure one could say with certainty a rookie, a journeyman or any of the other options available could match, let alone exceed what Stafford offers. As such, the Lions are much better equipped to reach their goals by staying their present course rather than taking a detour.

That’s my take on the issue, what say you?

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