Benching your starting quarterback speaks volumes. After throwing his second interception vs. the Cardinals this past Sunday, Matthew Stafford was approached by his head coach, Jim Caldwell, and given the ultimatum that if he threw another INT, he was getting benched. It didn't take long for that to happen.
Benching your QB is one thing, but telling him you're going to bench him after he throws another interception is asinine to me; you're down by three or four touchdowns at this point. Prior to the season starting, you address the fans and media, telling them you want your QB to take more chances this year in order to create some big plays for the offense. Doesn't giving him an ultimatum mid-game completely defeat that purpose?
Regardless, this article is about Matthew Stafford, not the coaching staff. Now that we've seen Stafford take a back seat, this begs the question, "What happens now?" Is Stafford still the franchise QB moving forward? Caldwell insists that Stafford is still the starter, but what about next year? I put together several options that the Lions' current (or future) coaching staff may consider.
Disclaimer: I do not consider myself an NFL rules or salary cap expert at all. So if there are any mistakes that you know are wrong, feel free to point it out and call me an idiot.
Option 1: CUT/TRADE HIM NOW!
This is by far my least favorite option. Those that have doubted Stafford for long before his benching vs. the Cardinals would have been fine with cutting Stafford forever ago. What they tend to forget, or flat out ignore, is that Stafford's contract has been restructured more than once by Martin Mayhew and has a ton of dead money at the back end of the contract.
Basically, if you cut Matthew Stafford from the team before the season ends, you have to eat a little over $27 million in dead money immediately. If you want to pull off a trade, that's a little over $19 million in dead money you're stuck with. It just wouldn't make a whole lot of sense moving forward.
Below are the full details of Matthew Stafford's current contract:
Option 2: Cut/Trade Stafford following the end of this season or the next
This option is much more desirable than Option 1, but still provides problems. There are way too many variables in place to even guess which path is going to be the right path with Stafford. We're not sure how this team is going to finish the year, and there are no guarantees that we'll have the same coaching staff next year.
If the Lions decide to bring in a new general manager and a new coaching staff, then maybe they'll decide that Stafford does not fall into their plans for the foreseeable future and would rather draft a QB instead. If you cut/trade Stafford immediately following the end of this year, you save $11.5 million in cap space, but you're also dealing with $11 million in dead money that remains on the Lions' 2016 salary cap. Still, it could be a number you can work around, and if it provides you problems, there is always an option to wait and declare Stafford as a "post-June 1 designation." What this means is that if a team runs into some trouble with cap space, they can release a player as a post-June 1 designation and spread the money out over two years.
In Stafford's case, the Lions would split his $11 million of dead money in half ($5.5 million in 2016 and 2017). The dead money would still be on the books until June 1, and the new cap room would be effective June 2. Keep in mind, this is only possible if you decide to release him, and executing a trade after June 1 would still result in dealing with the $11 million up front. What some people fail to realize is that a post-June 1 designation does not save you money; It only spreads the money out over two years.
If the Lions decide to keep Stafford for the 2016 season and want to move on after that, then they are left with just $5.5 million in dead cap for 2017, and end up saving $16.5 million in cap space for that year. This could be an option if a new coaching staff comes in and drafts a new QB, but does not intend to start him right away. And who knows, maybe Stafford will suddenly live up to his potential during the process.
Option 3: Move on after the contract is up in 2018
Matthew Stafford is likely going to be the highest paid QB in the history of the NFL for a long time no matter what team he plays for next. It may be wise for the Lions to let another team hand him the third massive contract of his career and move on.
Stafford is still young, but this would already be the third time you're asking him to learn a new offensive scheme and assume things are going to be any different. Maybe it's time to have a full house cleaning and start a rebuild.
Option 4: Keep Stafford for at least another three years
Last but not least, you have the option of keeping Matthew Stafford as your franchise QB and live and die by his arm. There is no question that Stafford is extremely talented. He has the strongest arm in the NFL and can fit a ball through a window that no other NFL QB can. The problem is finding a coaching staff that truly understands how to utilize his talents.
The Detroit Lions' franchise has a history of being loyal. It's taken a lot for this ownership to cut ties with their front office despite years of perpetual failure. It's completely possible that the Lions could lose 10+ games this year and keep the same staff. Or who knows, maybe they'll turn things around and go 11-5! (wishful thinking, I know). Will they be loyal to Matthew Stafford, too? Only time will tell.