The task of the NFL quarterback is a simple yet daunting one.
Win. A lot. And often.
It’s a job bereft of acceptable excuses. No one is interested in hearing them. The honeymoon period is short—like maybe a series of downs or two. Judgment for an entire career is cast after the first 60 minutes, if that long.
They used to hang Terry Bradshaw’s likeness in effigy in Pittsburgh. Bradshaw was the NFL’s number one overall pick in 1970 and quickly he gained a reputation of being a hick from Louisiana with low IQ—both in football and in life.
Bradshaw threw interceptions left and right, drawing boobirds at Three Rivers Stadium. He joined a team that won one game the year previous but that and a nickel could have bought Bradshaw a cup of coffee. He was supposed to save the Steelers franchise, which had been slapstick for decades. And he had to do so immediately.
It took Bradshaw and the Steelers a few years to gel. Amazingly successful drafting by coach Chuck Noll, combined with Bradshaw growing into his job, turned the Steelers into a behemoth. And it put Bradshaw into the Hall of Fame, thanks to four Super Bowl victories.
Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger entered the NFL under much different circumstances.
Rodgers, drafted by the Packers in 2005 out of California, merely had to serve as Brett Favre’s apprentice, then promptly make the fans in Green Bay forget about no. 4 as soon as Rodgers took over.
Roethlisberger, drafted by the Steelers in 2004 out of Miami (OH), was the first QB in Pittsburgh that truly had a chance to do for the franchise what Bradshaw did in the 1970s.
Rodgers is going to the Hall of Fame. So, likely, is Roethlisberger—both signal callers with Super Bowl wins under their wide belts.
It’s one thing to make fans forget Favre and Bradshaw. It’s quite another to make them forget Eric Hipple and Scott Mitchell.
And Gary Danielson. And Greg Landry. And Bill Munson. And Rusty Hilger. And Jon Kitna. And Joey Harrington. And Bob Gagliano.
In fact, I could simply type the names of the quarterbacks the Lions have employed since their last championship in 1957, combine them with no other text, and yet have a 1,000-word column when I was done.
Hear ye, hear ye
So friends, Lions fans and countrymen, I come to bury Matthew Stafford, not to praise him. I have done plenty of the latter over the years.
Stafford’s entry into the NFL in 2009 was similar to Bradshaw’s in 1970.
Stafford was drafted number one overall as well. And he was joining a franchise that had been mostly a laughingstock for decades—especially at the quarterback position, where his predecessors were more known for stepping out of their own end zone than winning playoff games.
When it came to fellow QBs in Detroit, Stafford had the softest of acts to follow. Yet he did have to assume the weight of 50-plus years of franchise ineptitude before he threw his first pass.
It’s clear, now, some 10 years into his NFL career, that Matthew Stafford isn’t going to be the quarterback that leads the Lions to the promised land.
It’s another joke played on the Lions fans, who’ve been suckers for them for years. This time, the punchline is that their realization that Stafford isn’t the guy, is coming several years too late. The financial punchline, for the Lions, is the length and richness of Stafford’s contract.
Of course, the Stafford haters won’t be shy to tell you that they’ve known that no. 9 wasn’t “the guy” for quite some time. You can identify them quite easily. They’re the ones doubled over in laughter.
Former NFL quarterbacks-turned-blabbermouths like Rich Gannon and Boomer Esiason have taken Stafford to task this season. Without Honolulu Blue-colored glasses filtering their view, Gannon and Esiason have identified Stafford for what he is: a stat-building guy who’s low on mental toughness.
Ah, that word—toughness.
Physically tough; mentally, not so much
It’s been frequently attached to Stafford, but in a physical way. He’s been admired by league observers for his durability. For how he always gets up, no matter how hard he’s hit.
Wanna know a secret?
Every NFL quarterback is tough, physically. Every single one of them. Or else they wouldn’t be in the league.
Mental toughness? That’s another ballgame. And that’s what separates the greats from the others.
Stafford is mentally fragile. He hasn’t consistently shown the ability to damn the torpedoes. In the latest example, the Lions traded Golden Tate and immediately, Stafford regressed into looking like a lost rookie.
The Lions have surrounded Stafford with talented receivers, including Hall of Fame caliber ones. They’ve fired offensive coordinators that didn’t gel with him, in mid-season. They’ve kept offensive coordinators that he personally likes. None of it has worked.
Yes, the offensive line play has been spotty. And, famously, he hasn’t had much of a run game with which to work in 10 years.
You know what? Tough. And there’s that word again.
Did Dan Marino have a running game in Miami? Not much of one. Yet Marino took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second season and won several other playoff games.
But I digress.
This is as good as it gets
Stafford is a good quarterback. The numbers don’t lie, even if some of them were compiled in garbage time. But he’s not great. And that’s not a crime.
Stafford’s helmet is hitting the ceiling and it has been for several years. His regression in 2018—the best way I can describe it is that he looks like a rookie—is a little shocking but when a guy has done all he can do, the only direction he can go is backwards.
The opening night horror against the Jets is looking like a tone-setter for the season. Stafford recovered from that, sort of, but only because it couldn’t have gotten any worse.
But then the Lions traded Tate, and say what you will about the move (I think it made good long-term sense), Stafford has again regressed.
The great quarterbacks don’t regress because a slot receiver, even one as good as Tate, gets traded.
The great quarterbacks don’t care who the receivers are. The great quarterbacks say damn the torpedoes and play with who they have.
The great quarterbacks win games on the road against good teams. The great quarterbacks don’t need to be coddled. The great quarterbacks don’t turn the ball over in crucial situations.
The great quarterbacks throw for 250 yards and win—not for 400 yards and lose. The great quarterbacks will their teams to victory when it’s needed the most.
Yes, Stafford has led the Lions to many a fourth quarter comeback. In the regular season, and in games that, ultimately, were meaningless. And the comebacks were often needed due to his inept play earlier in the game.
Full disclosure: I have not been a Stafford hater. I’m certainly not a card-carrying member of that club. In fact, I’ve been a defender of his. Probably to a fault.
It took me awhile to realize that when the bar for quarterbacks in Detroit is so low, it makes a good one like Stafford look like the second coming of Bobby Layne.
When talent doesn’t equal success
I will say this. Matthew Stafford is the most talented man to play quarterback for the Lions in franchise history, and that’s not subject to debate.
But it takes more than talent to win in the NFL. That’s why far less talented QBs in league history are wearing rings right now.
It’s not going to happen for the Lions and Stafford while the latter is in Detroit. The fact that it isn’t, isn’t all Stafford’s fault.
The Lions can’t trade him, because of his contract. When in league history have teams traded for expensive quarterbacks in their 30s?
So there isn’t much to do, is there, other than to ride the rest of Stafford’s career out and hope for a thrill or two along the way?
I have no idea if the Lions will win another championship in my lifetime. I’m 55, and I’ve followed the team for 48 of those years. But I do know that they won’t win one under Stafford.
There was a time, in the 1980s, when I never could imagine the Red Wings winning another Stanley Cup, which they hadn’t done since 1955. And the Wings have won four since 1997.
But the Red Wings were owned by Mike Ilitch. Enough said.
Better luck next time
The clincher for me was seeing how lost he looked without Tate. Without Golden Freaking Tate. That led to the realization: Stafford has topped out in Detroit. He’s done all that he can do.
He did a lot, frankly, but he was following Jon Kitna and the others I mentioned. And, Stafford was drafted by a dysfunctional franchise. But so was Terry Bradshaw, and Terry got the Steelers rolling by his third season and didn’t look back.
Stafford didn’t benefit from the amazing drafting that Bradshaw did in Pittsburgh, but so haven’t a lot of championship caliber quarterbacks.
It’s not going to happen for the Lions with Matthew Stafford. In that regard, he’s no more guilty than dozens of other men who have tried their hand under center. He’s the most ballyhooed, and the most expensive, but he’s no more guilty.
But another 10-12 years will have ticked off the calendar, plus who knows how many more in the post-Stafford era.
He wasn’t the guy, as it turns out.
Stafford is the best quarterback to ever suit up for the Lions. He’s just not the most successful.
Better luck next time.