Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ranks, relative to the rest of his position in the NFL, somewhere between "middle tier with flashes of brilliance but probably overpaid" to "poor man’s Brett Favre." Among the spheres of Michigan sports, Stafford is probably the best quarterback the Lions have had in decades, but the bar is so low that such a platitude doesn’t mean much; it certainly hasn’t shielded Stafford from a vast amount of criticism in the town where he plays.
The polarized attitudes over Stafford from a hometown crowd is fascinating. He’s not bad enough to reach the depths of bum, but he also hasn’t shown enough consistency to be a figure protected and cherished by a supermajority of Lions fans. It’s a rare breed; while many sports figures are dissected on national stages, the local crowd is generally protective of anyone who might be a made man. That’s not true across Detroit for Stafford. While there might be some evidence Stafford was improving with the new offensive system near the end of last year, there are still those who believe the Lions should probably invest in someone else for their long-term plans.
With this in mind, we wanted to take a look at a few other divisive athletes that have graced Detroit before. You can decide where Stafford might rate among these figures of brilliance and frustration.
There’s a cavalcade of Detroit Bad Boys that could be picked from, but by and large the likes of Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer were richly supported in the state of Michigan; the roots of "Detroit vs. Everybody" run long and deep. While you could argue there was certainly division over Isiah on a national level, the separation didn’t happen much in Michigan.
Joe Dumars is far more interesting in the local sports landscape. His playing career is certainly not within question; he was good, damn good. That said, Pistons fans can’t quite come to terms with how his career in the front office should be regarded. One hand holds that he built a championship team in the early 2000s and created a lively contender out of a team with no superstar. The other holds the utter destruction of that same team by his own hand in his quest to acquire a superstar, often grabbing players like Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady long after their primes. There’s also the matter of Josh Smith and Darko Miličić... And again, the matter of the 2004 ring on the other side.
Matthew Stafford may be the best quarterback the Lions have had in ages, and his predecessor of that title was undoubtedly Bobby Layne (both also happened to come from the same Texas high school, Highland Park). It’s hard to think of Layne as a controversial figure for his play, but Layne’s final years in Detroit, and the accusations that would follow, cast a pall over the Texan who made the Lions a force in the 50s.
In 1957 the Lions acquired Tobin Rote from the Packers, and during that same year a coaching change led to the team alternating between Rote and Layne. Also that year, Bobby Layne would be arrested for drunk driving. With Rote leading Detroit to a comeback victory over Cleveland for the 1957 NFL championship, Layne was traded away before the '58 season. Since then, there's been Layne's eponymous curse lurking in the popular superstitions of Lions fans.
Then there’s the gambling accusations. Dan Moldea dug up testament from a Detroit hustler that Layne had been involved with numerous incidents of point shaving. The accusations against Layne were characterized as "shooting Santa Claus" by Dave Diles of WXYZ.
Cobb is a figure that history has detached from any possible observation of how divisive he might have been to Detroit sports fans (or what passed before "fan" was that big of a thing). Rather, it’s Cobb’s history that remains divisive for those alive today.
It’s not up for debate that Cobb was was a mean bastard and plenty racist, nor does the normalization of racism in his time excuse that mentality. Nevertheless his personality remains something for the history-minded sorts in Detroit to argue over. Talk to a Tigers fan who enjoys looking through history and there’s likely to be apologia somewhere for the mean Georgia bastard, perhaps even a firm rebuttal of his portrayals by Al Stump and other historians. However, it’s certainly not universal for the fanbase.
Miguel Cabrera’s MVP years
Nah. Maybe if you were a sabremetrics-minded sort and wanted to cape up for Mike Trout or something.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
I know, Money’s from Grand Rapids, not Detroit. Michigan still tends to count in the realm of what we’re talking about though, although to be honest hometowns aren’t really something that’s at the forefront of most boxers’ identities, unless you’re Deontay Wilder: Roll Tide. No one really thinks of Floyd as being a Michigan sports figure.
But goddamn, people get heated up over him and it’s pretty awesome to watch. By all accounts he's a pretty foul and unapologetic human being, but that's never stopped anyone from being good at a given sport, certainly not combat sports.
Putting aside the quest for free agency money, Suh’s dirty play on the field pushed the "Detroit vs. Everybody" motto to the limits. Not everyone could keep playing that game, certainly not when evidence kept piling on, plus a leg stomp for good measure.
One of like twelve different Red Wings goalies
I honestly don’t remember any of their names, I just know that it’s been a long time since anyone could agree on who should be in net for the Wheelies. There's a few new names every year, and what looked to be a bright future in Jimmy Howard turned out to be a wet fart and a big contract.
If Bobby Layne’s legacy was tarnished by accusations of gambling, Alex Karras was implicit in his connections to betting on NFL games. He was unapologetic for the below-the-boards sports betting that would go on at his Lindell AC Bar, preferring instead to admit guilt and take a suspension from the NFL than give up ownership in the place. He spent his time in exile in the regional pro wrestling circuits, and when he returned the shadow of gambling followed him, not to mention a few spats with Lions coaches like George Wilson.
However, Karras was always phenomenal. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro for three seasons. He also played a role in one of the best comedies of all time, which has to count for something.