There is a certain mythology in the dealings of the NFL. It is a meme (the original conception of such, not the ones with a stern looking shiba inu) that has been passed down from older fans and sports commentators over the course of 30 years.
In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in a transaction also involving the San Diego Chargers, hauling in 12 players in exchange for the star running back. The whole thing was bait for a ESPN 30 For 30 Short titled “The Great Trade Robbery.” It was a smashing success for Cowboys and their head coach Jimmy Johnson, setting the franchise up for a dynasty in the early 90s; for the Vikings it was a disaster, a team that got caught up in the explosive play of Herschel Walker that they felt it prudent to trade away players and draft capital.
That’s the archetype we’re dealing with on trades. Like all things in American sports, it’s all so very zero sum - one side wins, one side loses because of it. It’s rough, brutish and reductive. You win, they lose, crass morality established therein.
Not so. It’s quite possible multiple sides can mutually benefit, and their goals at the onset all clear. In this case, there’s four parties involved in this trade: the Detroit Lions, the Los Angeles Rams, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff.
Detroit Lions: Winners
It’s a lot of picks, especially for a guy who apparently didn’t warrant a first rounder according to a gaggle of clowns who consider themselves experts on football.
The Lions probably couldn’t have gotten a better haul than what they got, no matter what the smoke around Washington might be, nor whatever they could have taken from Denver had they not folded on the river.
The move to take first round picks in 2022 and 2023 gives the Lions an impressive amount of flexibility in their rebuild strategy. There is no need to commit to the 2021 draft class should the players they fall in love with come off the board. They can easily come back around in 2022 if they so choose (hopefully with a full college season). And those picks for the next few years are just as good spending this year as in the future.
(“But the quarterback class in 2022 won’t be as good as in 2021.” Sure, okay, whatever we say that every damn year, nobody learns nothing.)
As for Jared Goff, his contract is unwieldy, but can be restructured. Depending on where the Lions go from here, he is a stopgap or bridge quarterback, or someone to hold down the fort while a rookie learns from the sideline. Do not discount such a thing. Nobody is served by throwing a rookie into the fire and watching him get smashed.
I don’t know if the Lions hope to compete in 2021, but the signs are clear that they have bigger plans for the years following. The best way to rebuild a team like this is to commit to young players, building through the draft and acquire draft capital. Head coach Dan Campbell has a six-year contract, and his staff is assuredly given the same sort of security and comfort. Patience and restructuring seem to be the name of the game.
Of course, such things are only great on paper. They have to be executed, draft picks have to hit. But we’re asking in the instant about who is a winner or loser, so this is the game you play.
As a bonus, the Lions also got Stafford out of town happy. After a few years of high profile screw-ups, it has to be a good sign for the new regime that they were able to keep a departing superstar happy.
Los Angeles Rams: Winners
Wow. Unbelievable. There are two winning teams in this trade. What an un-American concept.
Let’s be clear: the Rams have not “proven” that first round picks aren’t as valuable as we believe. They are operating on a hypothesis, not a theory. But a Super Bowl, any Super Bowl, would be enough to offset the costs they have incurred over a decade of drafts in which they now squarely sit in the middle.
Let’s also be clear what the Rams are looking for here: the edge in the Los Angeles market. Both the Rams and the Chargers are hoping for fans in SoFi Stadium next season. Both are desperate to take the pole position on the heartstrings of Angelenos who are either holdover Raiders fans or remain cynical about the commitment of either team to winning ballgames. While the Rams may have made a Super Bowl in the past, they annihilated any goodwill by completely lying down for the Patriots. I live in this city, and even in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, local sports radio showed no sign they were buying into any Rams hype, and fully expected a loss like the one they suffered. There is no mercy in the Freak Kingdom for a sucker.
What Stafford brings to the Rams is the prayer of legitimacy. An ace quarterback, a team built to go deep in the NFL playoffs. To do so, they needed to unload Jared Goff, which also gives them the flexibility they need to make the final adjustments in free agency and with existing contracts.
Did they pay “too much?” Hogwash. The only thing that matters is the damn ring.
At this cost, jobs are on the line. Failure won’t be well broached. But the Rams front office seems completely cognizant of this. Cards are down and they’re chipping in.
It may flame out. But at least it’ll be glorious if it does.
Matthew Stafford: Winner
Stafford now has a chance to prove that it was the Lions holding him back. All the discussion of garbage time stats, record against winning teams, record in the playoffs, all those kind of bogus Colin Cowherd metrics—the narrative gets to get flipped and f***ed.
But only if you pull this off.
It sounds like Stafford wanted to be in Los Angeles. It sounds like he’s leaving Detroit on good terms. For his own legacy, that’s all fantastic. Nothing is seemingly bitter in the Lions breakup and you’ve hand-picked the destination where your profile will take the next big step.
If Stafford plays well too, then the Rams will probably look to extend the contract, and further secure his position in what can only be imagined to be a favorable position.
Jared Goff: Loser (but not by much)
Goff lost his starting role to John Wolford last season. The Rams chose to play Wolford over Goff in a playoff game. Incredible - in the sense that it doesn’t sound real.
Goff is now at the mercy of the Lions and their long-term plans. If the Lions cut Goff in the next two seasons, that might be that: he’d be cemented as a journeyman quarterback in the league at best, doom to roam the world.
The good news for Goff is that he’s got a chance to prove his worth to this league once more. He’s got a solid core in Detroit’s offensive line, potentially a running game in D’Andre Swift, plus tight end T.J. Hockenson. That’s a good support core, and enough groceries to whip something up on a Sunday.
But there’s very little time for Goff to prove he can do it. Furthermore, should Goff get traded again by the Lions to some other quarterback-hungry team, it might be to an even more unstable spot.
Deshaun Watson: Loser (tangentially)
The price on Stafford will not go unnoticed. Even as the Texans double down, and general Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley both commit to Watson, and Watson himself pushes back as hard as he can, they may find themselves forced into a price point that might be too rich for the blood of many other teams.
I know this is a Lions blog and there’s some easy shot to be taken “lol you’re a lions fan” but the situation in Houston seems singularly disastrous. Not that the Rams and Lions have too much say on the matter, but Stafford’s ransom does have implications for the quarterback market. If you believe Watson is worth more than Stafford (and he very well may be, given his young age and purported talent), then consider how this trade sets the price point.
Too many teams are still desperate for quarterbacks though, but two first rounders and change may still be far too much for destinations that Watson might be more inclined to sign off on.