Niyo: Absolving Stafford a trade-off Lions fans won't accept

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park – Bob Quinn, the Lions’ general manager, finally talked Friday, breaking eight months of radio silence. And he had plenty to say in a 45-minute session dissecting Matt Patricia’s first go-around as a head coach, a season that produced a 6-10 record described by Quinn as both a “disappointing” one overall and, in some ways, a lesson learned.

But the most important message from Quinn -- and the most infuriating one for some in this city, I'm sure -- is the one he delivered when asked about the Lions’ highest-paid player.

"Matthew Stafford is our quarterback," the GM said. "He will be our quarterback here."

So if you’re still holding out hope the Lions might bite the bullet financially – foolishly, I’d add – and consider trading their franchise quarterback, think again. Because on Friday, Quinn didn’t just second his head coach's motion from earlier in the week, suggesting a shuffling of the deck like that simply isn’t in the cards. Instead, he doubled down on No. 9, when asked directly if the Lions would even entertain the idea.

"No," he reiterated, "Matthew Stafford is our quarterback.”

More: Lions never considered dismissing Patricia after assault allegations surfaced

Now then, Quinn has said something similar in the past about polarizing players such as Eric Ebron or DeAndre Levy, only to turn around and cut ties with both. But Stafford’s a different case. Always has been, in stature and in salary. And from the sound of things Friday, that’ll continue for the foreseeable future.

Asked whether he felt the Lions could win a Super Bowl with Stafford as their quarterback, Quinn didn’t hesitate, either, replying, “I do. I do, yes.”

“Listen, this guy’s a really talented player,” Quinn added. “And myself, the coaches, we need to put him in better situations to allow him to use his skill set."

Listen, that’s not exactly what many long-suffering fans were hoping to hear at the end of another lost season in Detroit. It’s not him, it’s us. That’s been a recurring theme from Lions decision-makers for a full decade now, through two general managers, three head coaches and, soon, a fourth offensive coordinator.

And with Stafford coming off one of the worst seasons statistically in his 10-year NFL career, it would’ve been nice to hear something more than plaudits from the front-office executive who signed him to a record-breaking $135-million contract extension 16 months ago.

Who is to blame

Still, trading Stafford doesn’t make dollars or sense right now. The $30 million cap hit alone would make it an act of sheer folly.

Same goes for anyone suggesting Stafford was the primary culprit for the Lions’ 6-10 finish this season. Truth is, the blame starts with Quinn, and then falls to Patricia, both of whom felt it was necessary to break the mold before reshaping this roster in their own image of what they think a Super Bowl contender looks like, or acts like. Both of them also overestimated their own ability to do so in a rookie head coach’s first year on the job.

And that, I suppose, is what Quinn was trying to do Friday, taking responsibility for the results – his second sub-.500 finish in 19 NFL seasons, going back to his first year with Bill Belichick in New England in 2000 – while refusing to pass the buck to his quarterback.

“It’s not just Matthew Stafford -- that’s not what this is,” Quinn said. “We have 53 players on the team every week. We have 46 that dress. So, just because he’s the quarterback and he touches that ball every play on offense doesn’t mean he gets all the blame. The blame can be passed around. It starts with me, it starts with the coaches, and it starts with everybody on the team. It’s not his fault.”

Again, we’ve heard that before, and the no-fault insurance policy Stafford has carried since the Lions drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009 clearly has cost people their jobs along the way. Some might argue it cost Jim Bob Cooter as well, though his struggles to adapt and adjust as a play-caller probably sealed his fate as much as anything Stafford didn’t do or Patricia forced him to do. Quinn sure hinted at that Friday in his comments.

Stafford’s shortcomings

But to go through 45 minutes with barely any criticism of Stafford’s play? That was telling, too. Galling to some, no doubt. While others pointed to Stafford’s shortcomings this season, statistically or otherwise – from his disastrous opener against the Jets to the late-game flops against Seattle and Chicago as the Lions’ playoff hopes disintegrated – Quinn went out of his way to point in a different direction.

He talked about his own decisions that hurt the team in 2018, whether it was whiffing on tight ends in free agency or trading away Golden Tate at the late-October deadline. And Quinn acknowledged this roster needs more playmakers “on both sides of the ball,” which is something we heard from his predecessor, Martin Mayhew, most notably after 2012 – the last time the Lions endured double-digit losses in a season.

But Quinn also talked about Stafford’s work ethic behind the scenes, his determination to play through injuries, and his effort to coach up players around him, be it free-agent pickups like Bruce Ellington or practice-squad call-ups like Andy Jones.

Much of that gets overlooked by armchair quarterbacks, sure. But none of it has done enough to alter this franchise’s fortunes on the field, with Stafford winless in three playoff appearances, one with each offensive coordinator he’s had in Detroit. He has started 131 consecutive games at quarterback, and the Lions are 63-68 in those games over the last eight seasons. So how can it not be him, but everyone else instead?

“I understand what you’re saying, I really do,” Quinn said. “But when you live in this building, when you live with this guy, there’s things that go very unnoticed with him that are very, very valuable.”

Yet when you’ve lived with this team for as long as the fans in Detroit have, an abusive marriage that predates Quinn or Patricia or even Stafford’s star-crossed time here, there’s things that can’t be overlooked. Namely, excuses.

For now, the value of one still outweighs the rest. And at this point, regardless of the reality of the situation, you can't blame the fans if that's a trade they're not willing to accept.