Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece from MLive.com reporter Kyle Meinke.
ALLEN PARK — I covered the (likely) final 120 games of Matthew Stafford’s career in Detroit. I watched him throw for 32,302 yards and 202 touchdowns. I was there for all eight of his fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016, an NFL record. I watched him throw alley-oops to a triple-guarded Calvin Johnson, and thread touchdown passes through four defenders against the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Matthew Stafford has done a lot of unbelievable things on a football field. But I think the memory that stands out the most from eight years of following that guy all over the country went down away from the white lines, in the cramped visitor’s locker room at TCF Bank Stadium in 2015. The Vikings were still building U.S. Bank Stadium back then, so the game was played at the home of the University of Minnesota. And Stafford was hit that day, and hit, and hit a lot more.
Stafford was hit by eight different players, from seemingly eight different directions, while the Lions went down 26-16. I caught up with Stafford at his postgame news conference, and he was in obvious pain. He tried to put a strong face on another bad day for Detroit, and refused to talk about how his body was holding up. But he was stiff, grimacing with every move, and even the occasional breath. Then I watched him gingerly make his way toward the locker room and slump over at his stall in the far corner of the room, where the full scope of the physical toll it takes to play quarterback for this badly mismanaged team began to emerge.
There was a bandage soaked in blood on his left forearm, up near the elbow. There was another bandage soaked in more blood on his left wrist. He was so stiff that he had to get help from a trainer to take off his shirt. He couldn’t bend over, so a trainer took off his cleats and cut away the tape. The big toe on his left foot was blue. Two toes on his right foot were taped.
As players made their way toward the buses, Stafford just kept sitting there trying to figure out how to breathe through his battered ribs. He would have X-rays on those ribs before laboring toward the buses himself.
Then Stafford was back at practice on Wednesday like nothing had happened. He was back on the field the Sunday after that too.
Then the Lions lost again.
It says so much about Matthew Stafford that he was able to play through days like that, and after days like that. Of course, it also says so much that it still was never close to good enough either. He set at least 30 franchise passing records, and still never won a playoff game. He was the fastest quarterback in NFL history to 20,000 yards, and 25,000 passing yards, and 30,000 passing yards, and 35,000 passing yards, and still never won so much as a division title along the way.
He was an all-time tough guy who put up some all-time numbers. He was the greatest quarterback in the modern era of this franchise by any measure. And it just wasn’t enough. Now, it seems, it never will be.
Stafford and the Lions have mutually agreed to part ways, according to a league source. Stafford asked for a trade after the season, pitching it as beneficial to both parties. The Lions tabled the discussion until after hiring general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell — both of whom were informed during the search of a probable change at quarterback — and then everyone got together on a call this week and agreed it was time to move on.
Stafford will be traded if the Lions can find “fair market value,” according to a source, and here’s betting they do. I think people in this town still underestimate the esteem for that guy around the league. Good quarterbacks are awfully hard to come by, and he’s viewed as a really good one. His departure is only a matter of time.
You can understand why Stafford was ready for something new. No matter how well he played, no matter how much he played through, it was never enough. He played the week after that game in Minnesota in 2015, and they lost again. They went 1-7 to open that season, then fired their general manager. They brought in new people, lost a lot more games, then fired Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia too. With another regime coming in for yet another rebuild, Stafford was ready for something other than this merry-go-round of mediocrity.
You can also understand why the Lions would oblige his request, because even having their best ever player at the game’s most important position wasn’t enough for them to finish anywhere but dead-last each of the last three seasons. That speaks more to their dysfunction than anything else. They put the second-worst defense in team history on the field in 2019, then told Stafford to go make the playoffs without a running game. A year later, they put the very worst defense in team history on the field, and told Stafford to go make the playoffs with an even worse running game. Of course that didn’t happen either, and never even came close.
This split makes sense for everyone involved, which is why so many people saw it coming from so far away.
“If they don’t win this year, no matter how he plays, he’s gone,” former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky told me last summer. “I believe that. He has never said anything — we’re great friends — but we don’t really talk about that. But I can sit here and say I get it. I understand it from both perspectives. I can get it from his perspective — ‘I want to get out, I want my good play to result in more wins.’ But I can understand it from the franchise’s perspective too, that at some point you have to say, ‘It just didn’t work. We’ve done this for a dozen years, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t happen.’”
He’s right. It just didn’t work. They did this for a dozen years, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t happen. And now it won’t.
That puts a lot of pressure on Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell, a first-time general manager and first-time head coach who share control of the roster, and now have the difficult task of finding a new quarterback in their first months on the job. That is a tricky proposition for anyone, even with the seventh-overall pick in the draft. The quarterbacks taken with top-seven picks over the last decade: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffen III and Cam Newton.
How many of the 13 are you taking over Matthew Stafford? I’d take seven of them, which leaves you with a coin-flip shot of improving the position even if you throw your best resource at it. You could land on Andrew Luck. Or you could land on Jameis Winston. Which is part of the reason why the Lions should have no problem finding a good price for Stafford.
It also speaks to the unknown that lies ahead for an organization that has gotten so many of its biggest decisions wrong over the years, and watched great ones like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson walk away without winning anything because of it. Matthew Stafford is not the same caliber player as Barry or Calvin, but he’s a good player, and the best quarterback they’ve ever seen. Now he’s asked for his walking papers too, without winning anything either.
He was good. Like so many before him, he just wasn’t enough. And now it never will be.