Detroit Lions, Matthew Stafford seek fresh start via trade: How it came to this

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Frustrated by another lost season and hoping not to be part of another rebuild, Matthew Stafford approached the Detroit Lions after the season and suggested a trade might be in the best interests of both him and the organization. 

Stafford brought his concerns to Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood, a league source said, and the group decided to table those discussions until this week.

When they reconvened on a phone call with new general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell, the Lions agreed to look into a trade.

Lions are about to set Stafford free. It may hurt, but makes sense for all ]

No deal is imminent, but it appears as if Stafford has played his final game for the team that made him the first pick of the 2009 NFL draft.

And frankly, this is the right move for both parties.

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Stafford holds nearly every franchise passing record imaginable and is the best Lions quarterback most fans of the team have ever seen. He has rare arm talent and unquestionable toughness, but also has won sparingly during his 12 seasons in Detroit.

That is not entirely Stafford’s fault, but the fact of the matter is wins and losses are associated with quarterbacks more than everyone in the NFL (except coaches), and Stafford has four winning seasons and three playoff appearances in his career.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford walks off the field after the 37-35 loss to the Vikings at Ford Field on Sunday, January 3, 2021.

By asking for a trade, Stafford, who turns 33 next month, has the chance to write a final chapter to his legacy that for now stands something short of being a Hall-of-Famer. He has the stats to make Canton, or should when he retires, but not enough trophies — individual or team — or big moments.

Trading Stafford makes sense from the Lions’ standpoint not because of where or what he is as a quarterback, but rather where and what they are as a team.

The Lions are in a state of rebuild, no matter how Holmes wants to term it, and the only way to do that properly is to tear the organization down to its studs.

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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady chat after the Lions' 47-7 loss at Ford Field, Dec. 26, 2020.

Hamp and Wood started that process in November by firing Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn. Stafford simply is next in line.

He seemed frustrated at times this season, and clearly wants no part of a rebuild. With injuries mounting and just two seasons left on his contract, the Lions should be thankful for that.

Rather than hand him another nine-figure contract in the summer of 2022 only to watch his skills fade, the Lions can use the seventh pick in a draft that appears to be strong at the quarterback position to find their signal-caller of the future. They have no chance at Trevor Lawrence, of course. The generational talent out of Clemson is headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he will team up with Stafford’s last play-caller, Darrell Bevell.

But there are other promising young quarterbacks.

Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance all are potential top-10 picks, and all add something of a mobile element to the position, which may be more attractive in today's game than ever before. 

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The Lions absolutely have to come from this year’s draft with a young quarterback, and they may need to use pieces acquired in a Stafford trade — he should net a first-round pick, and then some, in compensation — to help them get one.

By shopping Stafford now, the Lions should be able to maximize their return in a trade.

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Quarterback Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions drops back to pass against the defense of the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter of the game at Nissan Stadium on Dec. 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Several top NFL teams seem to be a quarterback away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and most have the assets to take part in any quarterback auction. 

The Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Washington all fit that bill, and the Chicago Bears might, though it seems extremely unlikely the Lions would trade Stafford to another NFC North team.

A league source said Stafford’s decision to request the trade had nothing to do with Holmes and Campbell, and that both men were aware of this possibility when they took the job.

Perhaps that explains Campbell’s six-year contract; would you settle for five years knowing you likely will be starting a rookie under center in 2021?

Campbell called Stafford a “stud” and lauded his toughness in his introductory news conference Thursday, and when asked about drafting a quarterback in Round 1 and starting him as a rookie said, “I believe that you let them go and you let them win until they can’t. And then if they can’t, they sit behind a veteran who can.”

Campbell insisted moments later he was joking.

“Listen, I’m open to anything right now,” he said.

But his words may have been more true than anyone realized.

Stafford is on his way out, a new quarterback is bound to arrive soon, and the Lions organization is getting the fresh start it needs.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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