So Calvin Johnson admitted to media in Italy he grew frustrated by the Lions’ direction, didn’t think they could win a Super Bowl and felt he was “stuck” in his contract. Beyond the initial narrative when he retired a year-and-a-half ago — it primarily was because of injuries — Johnson sounded mildly bitter, which is only mildly surprising.
Fine. Whatever. The timing and forum are a bit lame but you can’t rip athletes (or former athletes) for saying little, then rip them for saying more. The thing is, this isn’t all about Johnson, who offered no shocking revelations. What if, in some way, this also is about Matthew Stafford and his future?
I’m making no controversial claims here. I’m just wondering if there’s a connection that can’t be ignored. Stafford and Johnson played together seven seasons, shared experiences and surely had a relationship where they shared concerns. And Stafford hasn’t yet signed beyond this season, an extension most observers thought was a foregone conclusion. Lions officials have been mostly positive it would get done this summer, although general manager Bob Quinn repeatedly noted it takes two parties to make a deal.
No deal, not yet, with training camp two weeks away. It still could happen before then, obviously, and still should happen at some point.
What if any delay is not just about the Lions’ reluctance to hand him the richest contract in NFL history, but also about Stafford’s reluctance to accept it? The quarterback is about to enter his ninth season, and while he’s risen lately, he hasn’t won a playoff game. I think it’s a no-brainer to lock up a quarterback who would be gobbled up immediately if he ever hit the market, and the Lions likely agree.
No more roadblocks
But Quinn comes from New England, where the Patriots rarely overpay. And Stafford is a smart guy who reveals little about his true intentions, but knows a lot. He knows what Johnson went through, physically and emotionally, before leaving after nine seasons. He knows the history of Barry Sanders, who retired suddenly after his 10th season. He knows the case of Ndamukong Suh, who pretended he wanted to stay and then left as soon as he got the chance.
What if Stafford privately concurs with Johnson’s misgivings, and doesn’t want to harbor similar regrets? Understand this — there’s no tangible evidence the contract won’t get done, except that it isn’t done yet. And the alleged obstacles are pretty much gone.
The last top unsigned quarterback, Oakland’s Derek Carr, landed a five-year, $125-million contract last month, making him the league’s highest-paid player. Stafford’s agent, Tom Condon, likely wants to top Carr’s numbers by a wide margin, maybe wider than the Lions would like.
The other notable situation is with Kirk Cousins. For the second straight year, Washington slapped the franchise tag on Cousins, who will earn $23.9 million unless he agrees to a long-term contract by Monday. In the absence of an agreement, Washington will be roundly and rightly lampooned for paying Cousins a combined $44 million for two seasons, with no long-term commitment.
It’s preposterous, and something to consider if you gripe about Stafford’s haul. Cousins, 28, has thrown for 12,113 yards in five seasons. Stafford, 29, has thrown for 30,303 yards in eight seasons.
Perhaps Condon sees a benefit in forcing a team to use the franchise tag. Stafford’s cap hit this season is $22 million, and if he plays out the contract, the Lions could use the tag and up his salary to $26.4 million in 2018. If still no deal, they could use the tag again and raise it to $31.7 million.
Freedom over money
Logically, in a brutal sport, most players would take security over short-term riches. Unless you crave the possibility of freedom, the type of freedom Johnson apparently missed when he was “stuck” with the Lions, the type of freedom Suh gained.
I’m not trying to stir a (gold) pot here. Stafford has said he enjoys playing here and would love to finish his career as a Lion. He says he likes the direction under Quinn and enjoys playing for Jim Caldwell.
What Stafford doesn’t talk about is Caldwell’s future. The coach’s contract is up after this season too, and uncertainty in the staff creates uncertainty for the quarterback. Also, while the Lions did a good job beefing up their offensive line, they didn’t add anything significant at receiver and running back, meaning Stafford will carry a heavy load again.
Hey, if he’s paid the most, he should deliver the most, right? Sure. That’s always the argument with stars, and Johnson apparently bore the burden wearily.
The Lions’ all-time leading receiver retired shortly after a midseason upheaval in 2015, when Martin Mayhew was fired. Quinn didn’t get much of a chance to repair anything with Johnson, who revealed Jan. 6 he was contemplating retirement. Quinn was hired Jan. 8. Johnson officially retired without a news conference March 8, although he technically didn’t cite a reason. He didn’t mention injuries in his 11-paragraph statement, and also didn’t mention the lack of a Super Bowl direction.
Then earlier this summer, Johnson expressed disappointment the Lions asked him to repay a percentage of his bonus — which was their right, although hardly seemed worth the public-relations damage. In Italy last week, he went even deeper, saying, “It wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere. It’s the definition of insanity.”
You can argue Stafford has insanely beat his head against the same wall. But if he’s as good as his next contract will attest, he should be able to overcome it, right?
That’s what the Lions hope, and perhaps Stafford hopes the same thing, just as Johnson once hoped the same thing. I still think Stafford and the Lions will reach an agreement, but as the team and its fans have learned, spoken intentions don’t always match the actual deeds.