Rogers: 2019 should be make-or-break year for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Allen Park — Matthew Stafford is the most prolific quarterback in Detroit Lions history. He owns nearly every meaningful franchise passing record, is one of the most durable, and by extension toughest players to ever play the position in NFL history and quietly performs a wealth of charity work away from the public eye.
And despite all of that, Stafford needs to validate, beyond doubt, he deserves to continue in the role of franchise quarterback during the upcoming season, his 11th with the Lions. Otherwise, it's fair to suggest the organization to consider an alternative.
Stafford remains a good quarterback, and at times during his career, he's bordered on great — like when he threw for 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011, or during the 2016 campaign, when he played a pivotal role in a record eight fourth-quarter comebacks, working his way into the MVP conversation before a finger injury sabotaged his chances down the stretch.
But Stafford's best never has been good enough, while his supporters have provided a revolving door of excuses for the team's lack of success during his time at the helm.
We've heard them all: He doesn't have adequate time to throw, he has no running game, his receivers drop too many passes, he can't help that he has a terrible defense or bad play-calling.
But even if we acknowledge that the quarterback receives more than his deserved share of credit or blame for the fortunes of a team, it's time to admit Stafford never has been the type to throw the roster on his shoulders and carry them across the finish line. At least not when it's mattered the most.
Last season's performance was particularly troubling, both from a production standpoint and due to mounting injuries. That includes an especially worrisome issue with his back. The deep-ball accuracy vanished, his yards per attempt plummeted and Stafford finished with fewer than 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career when playing a full season.
Maybe it's an aberration, a combination of the personal injuries as well as a decimated receiving corps down the stretch. After all, Stafford was averaging 7.6 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions prior to Golden Tate being traded and Marvin Jones going down with a knee injury. Those numbers are more in line with career figures.
But those same excuses weren't good enough to save Jim Bob Cooter, who had been lauded for taking Stafford's performance to the next level a couple years earlier.
That means Stafford is embarking on a season with his fourth offensive coordinator. This go-around it's Darrell Bevell. And the interesting thing about the Bevell hire is how much he and the Lions are emphasizing being a balanced offense committed to the run.
Maybe those words don't mean much, since many coaches will inevitably utter some variation of them during season, but there's little question the Lions have invested significant resources in their ground game in recent years — from backs to the offensive line to the tight ends.
Coach Matt Patricia touted the run-game improvements at the end of last season, and has, on a number of occasions, shared his belief that teams that run the ball and stop the run are the teams that win in the postseason.
Yet Stafford's salary doesn't mesh with that philosophy, and his 2018 production certainly doesn't. He's not the NFL's highest-paid quarterback anymore, at least by average annual salary, but he currently carries the league's largest cap hit in 2019.
Something here doesn't add up.
The reality becomes, or at least it should become, if Stafford can't rebound from last year's dismal showing, the team needs to look into adding legit competition in the form of an heir apparent.
Despite constantly promoting a culture of competition, the Lions never have brought in a legitimate threat to Stafford's job. To this point, it's been a steady string of marginal veteran talent and an occasional late-round developmental rookie. And this year is no different, with journeyman backup Josh Johnson playing on his 13th team and David Blough, an undrafted rookie out of Purdue, in a third-string role.
The franchise quarterback replacement blueprint has been established, both in Kansas City and Baltimore. In recent years, those teams used an early draft pick on the position, developed them for a year and parted way with their established starter.
If Baltimore can do that with Joe Flacco, who won a Super Bowl for the franchise, there's no reason Stafford should be held to a lesser standard.
With his focus on the 2019 season, Stafford hasn't even considered the possibility of the Lions doing the same.
"I’m just trying to win games," Stafford said. "That’s clouding your mind with all sorts of stuff. You go down that road, I just don’t know. I’m going out there trying to prove myself every day, making sure I play at an extremely high level. If I do that, it will help our team win."
Just to be clear, the Lions' public support of Stafford remains unwavering. Both Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn have made it consistently clear Stafford is their guy.
The closest the organization has come to suggest anything to the contrary was Quinn acknowledging he'd consider drafting a quarterback in the first round this past offseason, and the Lions actually working out several top prospects.
Yet did anyone really believe they'd pull the trigger?
Maybe it was too early. Maybe 2018 was an aberration. Instead, Quinn plugged other holes, both in the draft and free agency, giving Stafford some new weapons — namely tight end T.J. Hockenson — to make another run at winning the division and finally finding some postseason success.
But in the spirit of evaluating everything, every year, for the betterment of the franchise, the Lions need to be prepared to make an honest assessment of Stafford at the end of this season to determine if he's still the right man for the job.
Stafford may be the best quarterback this franchise has ever seen, but the hard truth might be that's not good enough.