For most Detroit Lions fans, Matthew Stafford’s request for a trade was a heartbreaking moment. For the past dozen years, Stafford—and Stafford alone—gave the Lions a chance to win every week, no matter the opponent, no matter the score. He took the Lions to the playoffs three times after a decade-long postseason drought. He showed tremendous grit on the field with his toughness and refusal to quit, even when no one would have blamed him if he did. Without a doubt, the Detroit Lions are a worse football team with him no longer under center.
But requesting a trade may have been one of the best things Stafford did for the franchise, and recent comments from Lions general manager Brad Holmes underscores this point.
Holmes told the Detroit Free Press that when he first interviewed for the Lions GM job, he had no plans to move Matthew Stafford.
“I totally had every intention on that he was going to be the quarterback,” Holmes said. “When I started breaking tape down, I was like, ‘Wow, this dude, he’s a talent,’ which you already knew. But then you get refreshed when you start breaking him down, like, ‘Wow.’”
That’s no surprise. Stafford was always overlooked and underrated by the national types. Given that Stafford is 33 years old—and several quarterbacks are playing near their 40s—it is understandable that Holmes may have believed he still had time to build a winner with Stafford behind center.
However, Holmes also told the Free Press that keeping Stafford could have changed his entire offseason approach. The Lions basically overturned their entire wide receiver room by choosing to not re-sign Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Danny Amendola, or Jamal Agnew. Had Stafford still been on the team, Holmes said he may have approached that differently.
“When you have the quarterback that has the rapport with all the receivers, how different would it have been, some of those decisions have been?” Holmes said. “Would it have been, like, ‘All right, Matt’s telling us, hey look, you got to keep this guy,’ where, because he requested the trade and it went through, now it’s kind of like, ‘All right, we kind of set on our own journey.’”
But where would the extra money have come from? The Lions were already tight due to the lower salary cap, and even after they made over a dozen cap casualty cuts, they still had to be extremely frugal in free agency. If the team decided to spend $16.4 million on the franchise tag for Kenny Golladay and/or $6-7 million a year to keep Marvin Jones Jr., would they have been able to extend Romeo Okwara? Would they have been able to trade for Michael Brockers or bring in potential starters on defense like Alex Anzalone or Quinton Dunbar?
The answer to most of these scenarios is almost certainly no, which means Holmes would be working with an equation that we know doesn’t work: Matthew Stafford trying to carry the entire roster on his back. Then what? Move on from Stafford after his contract expires in two years? Extend a 35-year-old quarterback and desperately try to make a run before that clock runs out?
By asking for a trade, Stafford forced a rebuild in Detroit when it looked like Holmes was truly prepared to just “retool.” I understand where Holmes is coming from. A full rebuild is a tough pill to swallow and could be ugly early on. A couple years of losing risks alienating a fanbase, players, coaching staff, and, worst of all for Holmes, ownership.
But had the Lions kept Stafford and some of his weapons around, it only would have delayed the inevitable. This team did not need an adjustment here or there. There was no realistic way, given the team’s assets, this thing was going to get turned around in a year or two. It needed to be uprooted and reimagined wholly.
Stafford’s request for a trade could very well be the best thing that has happened to this franchise in years, and given that the franchise quarterback did it in a way that allowed the Lions to get maximum return for him—including several valuable draft picks perfect to kickstart a rebuild—it means Brad Holmes owes him a big thanks. The pressure is now off. Holmes can take his time to truly rebuild this team in his own image with little expectations for the present. Time and resources are the best assets for a general manager, and Brad Holmes now has both, thanks largely to Stafford.