Matthew Stafford is the Detroit Lions. The team can only go as far as he takes them. There is no way to tell the history of the Detroit Lions without including Stafford. Both the franchise and the player have the same perception to the outside world. They are both the scrappy underdog with enough talent to be noticed but never enough to get the recognition they truly deserve. The Lions are one of a handful of teams to have winning records in both 2016 and 2017, yet still were seen as nothing more than an afterthought in both seasons. Stafford has a legitimate chance to finish his career as the most statistically accomplished passer to ever play football, yet he has only been named to a single Pro Bowl and rarely is named among the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
The organization—and fans—saw Stafford’s value, though. Detroit penned the quarterback to a five year, $135 million, deal in 2016—the richest contract in NFL history at the time. Fans have viewed him a messiah-type figure. The gunslinger from Georgia who was going to drag the franchise from the depths of 0-16 to the heights of winning the Super Bowl. While some were always skeptical of his value, fans—for the most part, Lions fans—have been eager to find an excuse for any criticisms of the quarterback.
Whether it was “he just needs a run game,” “he just needs an offensive line,” or “give him a creative play caller,” many Lions fan were eager to defend the quarterback no matter how valid criticism was.
This should have been the year that the stars aligned for Stafford. The offensive line was among the best in the NFL for the first few months of the season. Rookie Kerryon Johnson breathed life back into the run game and LeGarrette Blount has given the team confidence in converting third-and-short. There was no shortage of talent on Detroit’s offense to start the season, and it was finally time for Stafford to shine. His light was dim, though.
On opening night he threw four interceptions during a blowout loss to the New York Jets. A week later against the San Francisco 49ers a crucial fumble and bunch of missed throws set the team way behind. A costly fumble put the team in a hole once again against Seattle. Stafford looking lost in the pocket and walking himself into sacks stagnated the offense against Minnesota. Two late interceptions ruined the comeback effort against the Bears on Thanksgiving. A late fumble against the Los Angeles Rams derailed the Lions valiant upset effort.
After years of Stafford being the only thing Detroit could rely on, the tables have turned. The man who dragged the worst of teams to nominal success is now the one responsible for holding them back. For years he was a great quarterback, unable to reach the peak of success because of all the dead weight he had to carry to get there. Now that the pieces have finally been put in place, he has become the problem. Just before the Lions have reached the peak of success an obstacle has risen to keep them from their prize.
In a way, this has been the story of Stafford’s career. The quarterback’s first year as a full 16-game starter was in 2011, a season where the team got off to a hot 5-0 start. He threw for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns but poor defense cost the team down the stretch and they got buzzsawed by Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the wild card round of the playoffs.
2014 may have been the most talented roster Stafford ever played with. Dumb luck with poor kickers early in the season earned them two losses that would eventually be the difference in the race for the NFC North. The Lions entered the playoffs as a wild card team yet again at 11-5. Conservative play calling and a controversial picked up flag down the stretch hurt them as they blew a lead and were eliminated by the Dallas Cowboys.
The quarterback was firmly in the MVP conversation in 2016. He led the team to eight fourth-quarter comebacks and dragged a talent deficient roster to a 9-4 record. Late in the season, his hand would catch the helmet of a Bears defender on the follow through of one of his passes. He badly injured his hand and the team could not recover. They lost their final three games of the regular season, dropped from a first round bye in the NFC to a wild card spot, and eventually were bounced in the opening round of the playoffs.
No matter how close Stafford has gotten to finally winning a division or a playoff game, he would always come just short. No matter how close he came to reaching the peak, something out of his control would block him from finally reaching the top of the mountain.
This has also been the case for Detroit over the entire course of the team’s history.
A great 2014 team was almost instantly stripped of its core when Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley left in free agency. 2014 was also the final year that linebacker DeAndre Levy was regularly on the field. Injuries hindered him over the past few years of his career and Detroit still has not recovered from losing him.
Only a year later, Calvin Johnson retired. One of the most productive receivers in the history of the game retired just as Golden Tate and Eric Ebron arrived and gave Stafford the number two and three receiving options he never really had.
Legendary running back Barry Sanders elected to retire after the 1998 season, only a year removed from his 2,000-yard year. Had he stayed slightly longer, he most likely would have eclipsed Emmitt Smith’s all-time leading rushing yards total. More importantly, a team that went to the playoffs in 1997 had a chance to remain relevant with their star, but instead entered a 13-year playoff drought.
Suh, Fairley, Levy and Johnson all left Detroit with no playoff wins and no division titles. All came extremely close to reaching those markers but ended up leaving the Lions with no tangible success. All came within inches of reaching the success the franchise has been desperate for. While Sanders did win the team’s lone division title and playoff win, he also retired without playing in a Super Bowl or truly etching his name into NFL history.
This was supposed to be the year the Lions finally broke through the barrier. Stafford had reached age 30, the year where majority of quarterbacks start playing their best football. After two consecutive winning seasons, the addition of a run game and a healthy offensive line, it looked like Stafford was finally going to carry the team to the promised land. Instead, the usually steady quarterback has failed. Detroit’s offense is a mess and somehow is playing worse than an under-powered defense. He has not physically gone anywhere, but the stand out, confident quarterback that could make any throw and pull out a win despite the odds facing him has vanished for the team.
2018 seems like an aberration for Stafford. In reality, though, his regression is just par for the course in the grand history of the Lions.
Truly, there is no player that is more “Detroit Lions” than Matthew Stafford.