One week after Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell elevated Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator, dispatching former OC Joe Lombardi in the process, team owner Martha Ford brought the real thunder yesterday, terminating general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand. Other front-office employees may have been fired as well, but available reports have been unclear on further details.
This is precisely the move the Lions needed to make, and while it probably should have happened years ago, Martha Ford has signaled that, under her watch, her family no longer is willing to accept losing and will take an active approach to building a winner. The biggest question now is how the team will go about hiring its new GM, and the experts already are suggesting possible successors.
A more concerning question arose amidst the breaking Mayhew/Lewand news, however, when a reporter covering that story stated that Matthew Stafford’s future with the Lions after the current season “is very much in doubt.” That reporter attempted to elaborate later in the day with remarks that seemed to lack internal logic, claiming, on one hand, that Stafford wasn’t smart enough to understand Lombardi’s offense, while observing, on the other, that he would be one of the top free-agent quarterbacks ever if Detroit released him. Is Stafford good or bad, Mr. Rapoport? Stafford’s teammates have aggressively bitten back against this new narrative, but the initial report gives credence to some recent rumblings about the quarterback’s future in Detroit. Would the Lions really trade or release Stafford? Should they?
This at least appears to be the dawning of a new era for the Lions, so it’s too early to know what options actually will be on the table for the team’s new GM. It is clear, though, that trading or releasing Stafford should not be one of them.
It should be obvious to the decreasing number of increasingly intoxicated people who watch or listen to Lions games on a regular basis that Stafford is not the source of the team’s problems, and his track record repeatedly has proven that he can be one of the team’s greatest assets. Moreover, it’s impossible to evaluate Stafford’s performance without accounting for the fact that he’s playing behind an offensive line that has ranked overall worst in the NFL, and worst in pass blocking in particular. With insufficient run blocking to allow the running game take the pressure off the passing game, and no protection against that pass rush, it’s difficult to imagine any quarterback succeeding in Stafford’s shoes. Identifying Stafford as a significant problem here simply identifies you as a poor identifier of significant problems.
Related, identifying the Lions’ best chance of future success as a strategy involving replacing Stafford with a top draft pick identifies you as a poor identifier of successful NFL strategies. As many have marveled at the enduring successes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, people have realized how difficult it is for younger quarterbacks to succeed in the NFL. Detroit already has that exceedingly rare commodity: a fairly successful (in spite of contextual challenges) quarterback whose play provides a reasonable basis to believe that, surrounded by better supporting pieces, he could be even better. Assuming that a rookie quarterback would do better than Stafford under the same conditions makes no sense (no sense!). The next Robert Griffin might have both legs literally torn off at his knees if he played for the Lions. The next Andrew Luck might grow a neckbeard because he hopes it might help him hide from defensive linemen. Would anyone consider Sam Bradford or Ryan Tannehill improvements over Stafford? Of course not. There’s little reason to expect the next crop of QB draftees to be significantly different from their recently drafted counterparts.
This graph charts NFL quarterbacks for each season from 2012 through the present (numbers through yesterday for 2015, in red) according to their age in the given season and their Total Quarterback Rating for that season. (ESPN has this information going back to 2006.)
There’s a slight trend indicating that older quarterbacks are better than younger ones. There are some obvious explanations for this. An older guy wouldn’t continue to receive NFL job offers if he was not performing well. He’d also have more experience, which, one would presume, allows him to play better than a less-experienced, younger QB.
It generally is understood that athletic performance follows a fairly uniform pattern, rising in youth, peaking at some point, and then declining thereafter. The timing of that peak relative to a player’s age appears to be different in different sports, but there seems to be some internal consistency within a given sport. Most quarterbacks are about twenty-one or twenty-two years old when drafted, and the above graph suggests that it takes them a few years in the NFL to develop into good NFL quarterbacks.
(Another lesson from this data is that there are some old quarterbacks who are clunkers too, but the reasonable assumption is that the younger players they’re ahead of on the depth chart are even worse. The pressure to win in the short term is so great in the NFL, and the quarterback position is so central to a team’s success, that very few quarterbacks drafted in the early rounds spend much time, if any, maturing behind an older mentor before making their first NFL start.)
At a minimum, trading or releasing Stafford and orienting the team around a rookie QB would reset this developmental clock, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that the quarterback the Lions could or do draft will possess an equal or better developmental trajectory as Stafford.
Finally, moving on from Stafford at this juncture rightly would be considered rebuilding, and, for Lions fans, the notion of rebuilding where nothing has been built would be extremely difficult to stomach, and watching Stafford enter his quarterbacking prime and succeed in another uniform for another team that provided him sufficient protection and support might be too much to bear.