Published April 29, 2017
The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957. That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by anyone who hasn’t resided under a rock.
Fittingly, as it turned out, the Ford family officially took sole ownership of the team on November 22, 1963. It was a year after one of the last truly great Lions teams was fielded.
The 1962 squad went 11-3 but, of course, there was no wild card in those days so all the Lions got for finishing second to the 13-1 Packers was a trip to the now defunct Runner Up Bowl—and that’s not something I’m making up.
Then Bill Ford took over and while the Lions usually featured one of the league’s best defenses in the 1960s and early part of the 1970s, the offense was always a plodding, mostly ineffective unit.
Under the Ford ownership, the Lions have run quarterbacks around the maypole like the children’s game.
Milt Plum. Karl Sweetan. Greg Landry. Bill Munson. Joe Reed. Gary Danielson. Eric Hipple. Joe Ferguson. Chuck Long. Rodney Peete. Erik Kramer. Andre Ware. Scott Mitchell. Dave Krieg. Don Majkowski. Charlie Batch. Mike McMahon. Joey Harrington. Jon Kitna. Daunte Culpepper.
I’m sure I’m leaving out a few.
And now, Matthew Stafford.
The QB carousel ends with Stafford. Not that we have a consensus here.
There are those who would lay the blame for the Lions’ continuance of their Super Bowl-less streak in recent years, squarely on Matt Stafford.
One playoff win in 60 years will make a fan base lose its sanity, I suppose.
Stafford isn’t what ills the Lions. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Lions were 9-8 last season, including the playoffs. But they were 9-4 before Stafford injured his hand. After that, the team’s fortunes went south, mainly because no matter how many different tailor-made gloves Stafford tested, he could never get comfortable. His play suffered, and so did the Lions.
The Lions were 9-4 before Stafford got hurt, but they would have been 3-10 with a lesser signal caller. Such were his late-game heroics and that je ne sais quoi that appeals to teammates in the huddle.
The position of quarterback is the most important in all of sports. Yet it’s also unabashedly affected, for good and for bad, by those mercurial, intangible elements of athletic leadership.
Look no further than Detroit’s own Bobby Layne.
Layne’s passes looked like wounded ducks. His arm strength was hardly impressive. He wouldn’t have won any awards for being fundamentally sound.
But Layne’s football IQ was off the charts. He consistently amazed coaches and teammates alike with his knowledge of quarterbacking. Layne was famous for sandbagging it in the first half of games, throwing some passes that he didn’t care were completed or not, with designs on feeling the defense out, looking for ways to exploit the opposition later, when it mattered most.
In practice, Layne was pretty much a player-coach on the field.
“You tell that fella to take it down two more steps on that last route and cut it hard to the right,” Layne would tell coach Buddy Parker in the 1950s after an errant throw. Parker would relay the message, and the next pass was right where Layne told the receiver to be.
Joe Namath’s unmitigated hubris and cockiness have largely been credited for the New York Jets’ thrashing of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Namath was talented, yes, but his teammates backed up Broadway Joe’s victory guarantee by rallying around their QB.
Matt Stafford isn’t what has been wrong with the Lions. He’s not why they’re 0-3 in the playoffs in his Lions career. The haters don’t want to hear that, but that makes it no less true.
The Lions, since drafting Stafford out of Georgia in 2009, haven’t been able to cobble together a winning unit around him. Some of it has been bad luck (some would say karma). Most of it has been bad drafting and questionable free agent signings.
The issue of Stafford’s place with the Lions is relevant now because it’s NFL Draft weekend, and simultaneously there are debates about whether to offer the quarterback a contract extension of magnanimous proportions. Stafford’s current pact expires after the 2017 season.
No quarterback since 1957 has truly been beloved in Detroit, Stafford certainly included. It’s not like there hasn’t been an ample selection from which to choose over the decades.
The Lions fan base, prior to Stafford’s arrival, has often fallen in love with whoever the backup quarterback was at any given time. That was in the days when the carousel spun with impunity.
But Stafford is entrenched as the number one guy, has been for years, and is not going to be unseated. So if you can’t pit Stafford against a popular backup, might as well pit him against his contract. Such is the fickleness of fans.
You can’t pay Stafford the dough it’s going to take to keep him in Detroit long term, the critics say, because it will cripple the Lions financially. And, for goodness sake, he doesn’t deserve it, anyway.
Balderdash, on both fronts.
I understand why some long-suffering fans shudder at the idea of Stafford potentially becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL. Why should that honor be bestowed on a Detroit Lion?
Well, someone has to be the highest-paid player. And not long after the ink dries on the contract, someone else will become the highest-paid. Such is the economics of professional sports.
The Lions should pay Stafford. Then they should, in no particular order, give him: a running attack; a tenacious, stingy defense; and receivers who won’t drop the football at inopportune times.
If the Lions do all that, and they still don’t win, then it’s fair to say that Matt Stafford isn’t the guy to lead the boys in Honolulu Blue to the promised land.
But the Stafford Era in Detroit hasn’t exactly been filled with Pro Bowl/All-Pro type players. There’s been one Hall of Fame-caliber receiver, a pretty good defensive tackle and…not much else, anywhere else on the field. The offensive line has mostly been a mishmash of disappointing draft picks and aging veterans who’ve seen better days.
The Lions haven’t sent an offensive lineman to the Pro Bowl since Wayne Fontes coached the team. And Wayne’s been gone for 20 years.
Can the Lions continue to build around Stafford if he has a contract that rivals the GNP of a third-world country?
Sure. Other teams seem to be able to pay their superstars while also putting together a supporting cast that wins. Lions GM Bob Quinn’s former team is an example.
The Lions haven’t been able to do it, because they haven’t had the right people making the personnel decisions. For decades. Maybe that’s changed.
There have been a lot of things wrong with the Detroit Lions since their last championship in 1957. There have been a lot of mediocre quarterbacks along the way.
Matt Stafford isn’t what’s wrong with the Lions. And he’s not mediocre.
His teammates have been, however.
It’s not just that Stafford is the most talented quarterback the Lions have ever had. It’s that it’s not even close.
Bob Quinn’s task is quite simply put. He has to replace mediocrity with talented playmakers, on both sides of the ball.
At least Quinn doesn’t have to find a quarterback around which to build, which is vexing so many other NFL teams.
All the GM has to do is lock up the one he currently has.