Wojo: Golden Tate trade painful for Lions, but necessary

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Golden Tate

One thing is abundantly clear in this fledgling Lions regime – they’re realists, not romantics.

Golden Tate was as productive and popular as any Lion, and played with engaging passion for four-and-a-half-seasons here. Yet from a business and team-building standpoint, it made sense for GM Bob Quinn to trade him to the Eagles for a third-round pick Tuesday. From an in-the-moment competitive standpoint, it stinks.

I suspect it stinks for a lot of Lions fans, and probably stings for some Lions players. Tate was Matthew Stafford’s most consistent target, a marvel scooting for yards after the catch.

His reception totals the past four seasons: 99, 90, 91, 92. This year, he was leading the team with 44 catches for 517 yards.

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The move downgrades the Lions’ playoff chances, whether they were realistic or not. For Quinn and Matt Patricia, it comes with the risk of losing more games with a team that was supposed to be better than 9-7. It comes with the risk of damaging credibility among fans and players.

It also comes with a healthy dose of shrewdness and prudence. Teams were dealing all across the NFL Tuesday, and not many got the type of return the Lions landed for Tate. Denver sent star receiver Demaryius Thomas, also 30 and on an expiring contract, to Houston for a fourth-round pick and a flip of seventh-rounders.

If the Lions truly harbored playoff hopes at 3-4, I bet they’d have kept Tate, even though he’s a pending free agent. If they’d beaten the Seahawks Sunday to climb near the top of the wide-open NFC North, they should’ve kept him. But this is the realistic, unemotional side of the Quinn-Patricia regime. Of course it’s rooted in the Patriot Way, making raw, unflinching assessments of players. They do it on their own terms, early if necessary, one step before they’re forced to do it.

Not throwing in the towel

No, I don’t believe the Lions are simply throwing away the season, with back-to-back road games looming against division rivals Minnesota and Chicago. If that was the case, they wouldn’t have traded a fifth-round pick to the Giants last week for run-stuffing stalwart Damon “Snacks” Harrison. Do the two moves send contradictory messages? For this season, yes, and that’s unfortunate. For the long term, no.

Tate’s five-year contract is expiring, and true to his professional manner, he never threatened to hold out, never loudly demanded an extension. He’s 30 and still fun to watch, whether high-stepping into the end zone or shaking multiple tacklers. He played with a tough flair, was active in the community and certainly fulfilled his $31-million deal.

Golden Tate had 22 TD catches in his Lions career.

But Quinn is determined to stay ahead of the curve, and a new contract for Tate was going to be pricey, at a position the Lions are adequately stocked with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, whose roles should expand. Instead of letting Tate walk for nothing — except a late compensatory pick a year later — Quinn got a solid dividend in a third-rounder.

The Harrison acquisition was different. He’s also about to turn 30 but fills an enormous need as one of the NFL’s premier run-stoppers. More important, he’s under contract for two more years, not a rental.

If you love the concept of the Harrison pickup — who doesn’t? — you at least have to acknowledge the reasoning behind the Tate trade. Again, it stinks from a competitive standpoint, unless you think (as many do) the Lions aren’t legitimate contenders this season. Since the trade deadline struck Tuesday, they couldn’t wait to see if they were.

Receiver was a position of strength, and still can be with Jones, Golladay, TJ Jones and rookie Brandon Powell. If Theo Riddick gets healthy, the Lions will have another pass-catching threat. But passing can’t always be the primary focus, especially with rookie back Kerryon Johnson looking like a star. The plan is for the Lions to transition to a tougher, balanced team, not as reliant on Stafford, and this was another indication of it.

Ebron chimes in

It’s a calculated assessment, and I guarantee when Tate is catching passes for the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, it’ll look bad for the Lions. Just like Eric Ebron’s production — 36 receptions, seven touchdowns for the Colts — looks bad, even though he was inconsistent and expensive here. Right on cue, Ebron fired a shot at the Lions via his Instagram account, calling them “horrible people” for trading Tate.

Horrible? Probably not. Trained to be ruthless? Yep. The days of the Lions hoarding fancy, pricey pieces are fading, and management will depend on drafting well. In that regard, Quinn’s early efforts have been alternately spotty and encouraging. The Lions never won anything with a wide-open passing attack and a non-existent running game, and now Tate can go back to being a complementary slot receiver on a championship team, as he was in Seattle before signing here.

If you were still romanticizing about a playoff run and were a fan of Tate’s, it’s not a happy day. If you’re realistic and believe in the value of mid-to-high draft picks, it’s a new day and a necessary day, painful as it may be.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski