By Jason Keidel
NFL fans are more cynical than you might think. Case in point came this week, when the Detroit Lions signed Matthew Stafford to the richest contract in NFL history, which included $92 million in guaranteed cash. Those of us, or most of us, well beyond the city limits of Ford, Eminem or 8 Mile saw this as a prudent move, placating a franchise player on arguably the most forlorn franchise in the sport.
We’ve heard the stats, how Stafford has not won the big game, or a big game, how the club has one playoff win since 1957, and hasn’t been really relevant since Alex Karras and Bobby Lane were still stiff competition for Vince Lombardi.
Perhaps you heard another stat. Stafford has three seasons in which he reached the playoffs, and two seasons with at least 10 wins. The other Lions QB to win 10 games multiple times is…
If we concede that the Lions are biblically inept and haven’t properly filled out an NFL roster in over 50 years, then that makes Stafford all the more valuable, and amazing. Detroit was a most solemn city after another icon retired in his prime. As if Barry Sanders kissing the crowd goodbye weren’t enough, WR Calvin Johnson saw the same writing on the football wall and did the same.
Yet rather than fold or feel sorry for himself, Stafford still shouldered the load, the burden, and led the team to the playoffs, even though it was widely felt they couldn’t recover from losing Johnson’s epic production. Folks also forget Stafford was an MVP candidate the first half of last season, leading the Lions to a number of improbable comebacks, including an NFL-record eight come-from-behind wins in 2016.
In a league built on parity, the Lions have been a parody. Except when Matthew Stafford is under center. Yet the local cynics asserted that it would have been better to let Stafford go and indulge in a full rebuild. It would be laughable if some smart, prominent people didn’t agree with this. Rob Parker, a very capable TV anchor and sports reporter from Detroit, said Stafford’s comical handle was “Pad Stat-Ford” because he posted sublime numbers to no real effect.
Would Mr. Parker prefer Chuck Long? Eric Hipple? Charlie Batch? Gary Danielson? It was the conga line of failed quarterbacks that was comical, not Stafford. (Joey Harrington, anyone?) As someone viewing this from the Big Apple, perhaps Lions fans would like to swap situations with the New York Jets. Send us Stafford, and you may take your pick from the most unholy trinity of Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. In fact, take all three.
The Jets would give up way more than money for Matt Stafford. As would the Cleveland Browns. So would the Los Angeles Rams (though they wouldn’t say so publicly), San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. Ask two of your division rivals — the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings — if they’d take Stafford. When asked if Stafford deserved the robust dollars, the most gifted QB on the planet, Aaron Rodgers, didn’t blink while answering in the affirmative.
It would make more sense if Detroit’s denizens were a pampered lot, accustomed to making the Super Bowl, who couldn’t adjust to a new, solemn reality. In other words, if they were Yankees fans. But no fanbase is more beleaguered than Lions fans. No team has abused its town the way the Lions have battered Detroit every autumn. No city has known its NFL season ends well before January better than the Motor City.
And yet if we hear the reports properly, Detroit — the city — is on the rebound, getting some money and mojo back after a disastrous decade of lost jobs, fleeing citizens and decaying auto plants. If they are indeed winning again in town, they should recognize a winner inside Ford Field. And while the Lions haven’t won a Super Bowl, their best chance to get there, or even close to there, is with Matthew Stafford throwing the football.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.