Allen Park — Not sure if you’ve noticed, but the Red Wings aren’t playing right now. Neither are the Pistons. Only occasionally are the Tigers.
None of those teams has made the playoffs the past two years. None is poised for a quick leap. Stars are fading or not yet rising. This is where you sit in Detroit’s dark, damp sports world, and this is where you’re now compelled to focus.
On the Lions — that’s right — winners of one playoff game in 60 years. On Matt Patricia, a rookie head coach. And more than ever, on Matthew Stafford, in his prime at 30, and in some ways, at a crossroad.
Stafford is in that tricky spot on the athletic arc — still seemingly on the verge of something better. He’s a star by several measures, although no longer the highest-paid player in the NFL, passed by Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s not a transcendent star and he’s not a championship star, 0-3 in the playoffs, but he’s both a benefactor and a victim of circumstance.
Nine years ago, the Lions drafted him No. 1 overall after posting the first 0-16 season in NFL history. Next week, the Cleveland Browns likely will draft a quarterback No. 1 — possibly Wyoming’s Josh Allen or USC’s Sam Darnold — after posting the second 0-16 season in NFL history.
It’s a long way from there to here, and Stafford has labored admirably under some awful regimes. That’s why it’s as critical as ever that the Lions got this regime right, with GM Bob Quinn tabbing his former Patriots compatriot in Patricia.
Saying all the right things
Stafford spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time since Patricia was hired, and naturally, said all the right things, just as Patricia has said all the right things about his quarterback.
“We’re bringing in a guy from a team that has a lot of wins under his belt,” Stafford said. “He’s bringing great energy, great passion for the game. It’s on us to match that and exceed it, and as leaders of this team, filter that message down and make sure everybody is pulling in the same direction.”
Patricia is getting to know his players as the Lions conduct their offseason conditioning program, and a common theme has emerged. Linebacker Jarrad Davis said the new coach brings “pure excitement,” and lauded his approachability.
Beyond energizing the building, Patricia made an important move, retaining offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, although Stafford insisted his endorsement of Cooter was merely an opinion, not a request. The Lions might be starting over with a first-time head coach, but they’re not starting over with Stafford. Uh-uh, can’t do it. Not with the clock ticking, entering his 10th season and coming off one of his most efficient performances — third in the league in passing yards (4,446), sixth in QB rating with a career-best 99.3.
“Some of that continuity will be helpful,” Stafford said. “Obviously change happens in the NFL, it’s almost inevitable. The goal is to play well enough to not have those changes, and obviously we didn’t.”
The NFL is the one league where long-term rebuilds aren’t readily acceptable. The Lions actually declared 9-7 unacceptable, and fired Jim Caldwell. By doing so, Quinn confirmed — without saying it — that the Lions are going for it. And frankly, they’re the only team in town in position to go for it, with Stafford the biggest name in his prime.
The Tigers just launched a lengthy rebuild, and Miguel Cabrera won’t be a star when the team has a chance to win again. The Wings finally committed to a complete overhaul, touting youngsters and precious draft picks. The Pistons are stuck in limbo, trying to squeeze a couple big seasons out of Blake Griffin.
The Lions are committed to Stafford, and he committed to them with his five-year, $135-million contract extension. They’re still hovering on the cusp of contention, projected in the middle of the pack in the NFC. Quinn made modest free-agent signings, loading up on linebackers and concentrating mostly on defense and depth. But it was vital (and way overdue) he landed big running back LeGarrette Blount, and he should look for another in the draft to address the worst rushing offense in the NFL.
But Stafford remains the one who can make the difference, and in a way, he already did. By agreeing to the extension, he allowed the Lions to preserve their franchise tag, and they used it on defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who officially signed Tuesday.
Stafford can be a polarizing figure around here because stellar numbers haven’t translated to stellar seasons. No, he’s not a top-five quarterback. But yes, he’s better than his critics suggest, considering he’s never, ever had a consistent running game, or a dominant offensive line. He’s also played in 112 consecutive regular-season games, third-longest streak among active quarterbacks.
Do you know how coveted Stafford would be if he hit the open market? My goodness, look what the 49ers paid Garoppolo, after he started five games. Look at all the jostling before the draft, where four quarterbacks — Allen, Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield — could be among the top five picks.
Protecting your most important investment, your quarterback, is more than signing offensive linemen and receivers. The Lions currently have the same pass-catching corps as a year ago — Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones and multi-purpose back Theo Riddick — minus tight end Eric Ebron, who wasn’t worth the salary-cap hit.
It’s also putting together a staunch defense, so wild fourth-quarter comebacks aren’t the primary way your quarterback is judged. Patricia is billed as a defensive mastermind, and he’d better be. Because while Stafford has shown he can’t do it alone, he certainly can do more, and more people than ever will be counting on it.