July 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Matthew Stafford's big deal a price the Lions had to pay

Now that Matthew Stafford has proven he can stay healthy, his next goal is to lead the Lions back to the playoffs. (Daniel Mears/ Detroit News)

Allen Park — It was never really about leverage, this renewal of vows between the Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford, who agreed to a three-year contract extension Tuesday.

The team coughed up any semblance of control there even before they’d made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, signing him to the richest rookie contract in NFL history.

Those nuptials came a few months after Jim Schwartz, just before his hiring as the Lions coach, had quipped, “It’s probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne.” And the engagement came after decades of a mostly futile search for a franchise quarterback in Detroit.

So, no, this new deal was about as inevitable as it gets in pro football. Stafford was going to get paid —again. And the question wasn’t so much a matter of when, frankly — both sides had ample reason to get this out of the way now — but rather how much.

The answer: A three-year, $53 million extension that reportedly includes another $41.5 million in guaranteed money. That’s on top of the $50 million Stafford earned in his first four seasons. And with $23 million and change left on his original deal, it means Stafford’s annual average compensation rises slightly above $15 million through 2017, at which point he’ll still be in his 20s and the Lions can only hope they’re not still looking for their second playoff win in 60 years.

Paying the price

Shake your head at those numbers if you want. But understand this goes beyond simply the price of doing business in today’s NFL.

It’s the price the Lions are still paying for their own ineptitude, thanks to the old rookie salary scale that still hangs like a millstone around the Lions’ neck.

Consider that the Colts are going to pay about 40 cents on the dollar for last year’s top pick, quarterback Andrew Luck, compared to what the Lions paid Stafford for his first four NFL seasons, two of which were effectively lost to injuries.

Stafford’s annual average ranks him sixth among NFL quarterbacks at the moment, though he figures to drop another rung when Matt Ryan — another of Tom Condon’s clients — gets his extension in the coming weeks or months, with others sure to follow in the next year or two.

But it’s a fair price, so long as Stafford makes good on his promise, one he reiterated last month when he said, “I want to be a great quarterback.”

Much to prove

Stafford’s certainly capable. He’s one of only three quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for 10,000 yards or more in a two-year span, joining Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

He’s also 1-22 in his career as a starter against teams that finished the season with winning records.

So the critics certainly have reasons to doubt.

Truth is, neither stat is a fair assessment of his value, or his potential.

What’s clear from Tuesday’s news, though, is that the both sides are banking on the former even as they hedge their bets on the latter.

Stafford gets the immediate security of a lucrative extension — not to mention the end of incessant questions from us about contract negotations — as well as a chance to break the bank again with a third megadeal in his prime, likely at age 28 or 29, whether that’s in Detroit or elsewhere.

The Lions avoided doling out more up-front cash to their franchise quarterback — Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo all got $50 million-$55 million guaranteed this offseason — while still finding the salary-cap relief they sought next summer.

That gives them a chance, at least, to lock up one of their other cornerstone pieces in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whose cap number becomes unbearable even before his contract voids after the 2014 season.

But as with everything else the Lions have done since the end of the Matt Millen era and the 0-16 season in 2008, it begins with Stafford.

He’s the franchise, and the money only confirms what everyone already knew.

“I don’t play this game to get contracts,” Stafford insisted last month.

“I play this game to win games.”

Once he signs this latest deal, that’s really all that’s left for him to do.


More John Niyo