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What happens after Matthew Stafford leaves Detroit?

Fear and loathing in Michigan.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The smoke was clear. No, not the smoke mind you, smoke is rarely clear; the intention of the smoke, its message inherent. The end of Matthew Stafford in Detroit was clear: the contract spoke it, the narrative spoke it, the cost-benefit hummed. It was going to happen; it was just a matter of when it would come down. The announcement still hit like hell.

What begins an end? Where did the end start for Stafford and the Lions? The rumors have been around for a few years now: the reticence of Stafford to start again, with a potential fifth offensive coordinator, a fourth head coach. It should have been clear: the more the Lions flailed, the less time Stafford would remain with the chair-changing of coaches.

For the Lions, pain comes first. But at least a plan exists, and as much as everyone will try to bury the Lions, everyone who is coming to Detroit is doing so in knowledge that Stafford won’t be the future. The plan might not work, but no plan is a guarantee anyway.

The truth of the matter is that this is, once again, this is the fault of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, and every last person who believed in those ridiculous Boston Boys. The jettisoning of Jim Caldwell is ultimately what started this ride: this was when we first started to hear about Stafford’s exhaustion with the constant changing of guards. For everyone who thought 9-7 with Caldwell wasn’t good enough, this is your just desserts. Let it be a lesson for the future. Damn Icarus.

Never mind the past though. Where does it all go from here? Well, for now, self-flagellation, flagellation of others and all the rest. After all, how could the Lions be so stupid to waste all this? To be incapable of putting it all together, for hiring bad coaches, all that. The hindsight will be vicious, severe, uncompromising. Defenestration will be the word of the moment; this organization will face a verbal version of that. Never mind that they know where they stand already, or that they haven’t already known - there’s this strange demand to constantly remind the Lions of this fact, as if somehow you could be ignorant of the past failures.

(For the record, I don’t think it was for lack of trying. The Lions had an impressive defense in 2014. Maybe the offensive line wasn’t fantastic, and maybe you could have done better than Reggie Bush for a run game, but if there was ever a chance to do it, it was there and it was lost. At some point you got to do the thing.)

But perhaps, a sea change is what is needed. The Lions have failed to compile anything with Stafford at the helm. This is no fault of his, but at some point, the rock is starting to roll back again and maybe you’re Sisyphus. Time to try another rock.

Is that reasonable? Is that rational? Buddy, this is football. This is a sport that loves narratives, momentum, curses, superstitions. Analytical forays do not hold the same purchase that they take in other sports; your advanced statistics are always in service to these demiurges of irrationality. One of the regular callers I’ve encountered in my time in radio is a sports-loving woman who regularly joins shows to discuss astrology charts in relation to athletes and teams, and it all seems comfortingly appropriate.

So for Stafford, the wandering road; for the Lions, growing pains. Even if the Lions seek to take a quarterback in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft (which they should do, more on that later), there will be acclimation in the year to come. The Lions are probably bound for another top 10 pick.

The good news is that everyone at least seems to have come to terms with that fact. The new head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes both came into this situation knowing about what dread fate awaited them. That’s either confidence or insanity, and absolutely elements of both.

The quarterback landscape has changed in football. The whole archetype looks very different compared to when the Lions drafted Stafford in 2009. The idea of a quarterback being “dual threat” came into existence and then swiftly felt anachronistic; to both rush and pass now feels like a baseline for quarterbacking, rather than an exotic asset.

It’s a hell of a year for quarterbacks, and from the looks of things, it’s the right window for it all. The forecast for 2022 doesn’t look ripe, although that’s always subject to change every year it seems. But in this crop, the options past Trevor Lawrence are malleable: Trey Lance presents running prowess, while BYU’s Zach Wilson might be the next big name past Lawrence.

It wasn’t long ago when the New York Times wrote about a growing crisis in adapting spread offense quarterbacks to pro systems. But the crisis never came. Everyone adapted. Spreads are the norm. Quarterbacks are acclimating faster to friendly systems focused on play-action passing; but few are also hitting those sky-high levels of Patrick Mahomes.

The good news is that whoever comes in next to replace Stafford will inherit a strong core of an offensive line and, hopefully, continued growth from D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson. The defense is another matter; but hasn’t that always been?

The strange new future is here, and the Lions just got thrown in the deep end. They’ll sink or swim.

What do they have to lose? They’re already regarded as a dysfunctional organization across the board. A good chunk of people regard Campbell nothing more than a meathead addicted to Oklahoma drills based off a 30-second sound bite. Half this godforsaken town thinks it’s a waste to even watch this team.

And now the team has lost its big name.

It might be a disaster, but would that future be any different from the present? All you can trust is that this plan might pan out. We’re supposed to love failure as a stepping stone to success. The Lions will test that for you. If it doesn’t, you grab that rock one more time.

(We recognize this column features at least two allusions to Greek mythology embedded within. We deeply apologize and shall sack the appropriate daemons.)

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.