At 4:40 PM Eastern time today the Detroit Lions will play the Dallas Cowboys in what will be only the second Lions playoff game I’ve seen in my entire lifetime. So needless to say this should be a pretty big deal for me. However, it isn’t. I don’t have much confidence in the Lions pulling this one out. Even in spite of the fact that Dallas in the Tony Romo era has earned a reputation as post season or late season chokers. Now, part of this is because I think that reputation is undeserved, and Tony Romo is underrated, but part of it is also that I lack faith in this particular Lions squad.
In spite of their 11-5 record, the Lions are somewhat of a paper tiger. The Lions played 5 regular season games against playoff teams this season (Green Bay twice, Carolina, New England, and Arizona). They are 1-4 in those games, with their only win coming in week 2 against the Packers, so its not like their exactly building momentum off that one. In fact, the Lions have only even played 6 games all year against teams which ended the season with a winning record. In those six games they are 2-4 (adding a win against 9-7 Miami to their week 2 Green Bay win).
So, the Lions haven’t exactly been world beaters this year, and in truth they’ve barely even been tested. And what few tests they took were mostly failures. I’m not saying all this to be critical, but am instead trying to temper my own expectations for the second Lions playoff game I have ever watched, since the first one (a 45-28 route against Saints in 2011) didn’t exactly end the way I wanted it to. Now, the Lions definitely can beat the Cowboys. Dallas is a spectacularly beatable team this year. Tony Romo has nursed various injuries (especially to his back) all year,and could easily be knocked out of the game by Detroit’s stellar defensive line. Moreover, Dallas’s stud running back Demarco Murray has been great all year, but Detroit has the #1 Rush Defense in the NFL, allowing only 69 yards per game, so it wouldn’t be a shock if Detroit shut Murray down. More importantly, Dallas’s defense has been put together with Elmer’s glue and bubble-gum so there is no reason to think that Calvin Johnson shouldn’t be able to eat them alive. However, with the way Detroit’s offense has been playing of late that is extremely unlikely. And heeeeere is where we get to the crux of the article.
Detroit’s offense has been a colossal disappointment all season long. Part of that was because Calvin was hurt most of the year and missed a substantial chunk of the season due to injury, but many sports fans and reporters alike have put the blame squarely on Matthew Stafford’s shoulders. They claim that Detroit has seen enough to know that their former #1 overall pick is not cut from the Championship cloth which swaddled Bart Starr in his infancy. They get really excited to bring up the fact that he is 0-17 on the road against teams with winning records. Stafford, they claim, will never be a clutch quarterback, and Detroit should cut ties with the Stafford experiment immediately and move on. I disagree.
Now, I don’t deny that the offense has disappointed this year. They average only 20 points per game, and were held to 20 points or fewer in 10 different games this year. That doesn’t exactly sound like a team that has the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game on it. Furthermore, its incredibly frustrating to have an offense letting the team down like that when we have one of the best defenses in the NFL this year. I also understand why it would makes sense for Stafford’s numbers to spike this year considering Detroit blew their entire free agency wad bringing in Golden Tate to be a #2 receiver behind Calvin, overpaid to keep TE Brandon Pettigrew, and wasted their first round pick on an offensively minded TE in Eric Ebron (all while they already had red zone threat Joseph Fauria on the roster). That sounds like a lot of weapons. That doesn’t sound like a team that scores 20 points per game. Seems like it should be more like 28-31ppg. And that isn’t what happened.
Maybe that means all these dissenters are right. Maybe that means I’m supposed to abandon ship on the USS Stafford, but I’m not sold.
To be completely honest, I couldn’t care less if Stafford is underperforming based on his contract right now. I couldn’t care less if the offense isn’t as explosive as it should or needs to be. And I assure you this is entirely irrational, and motivated by my own scarred sporting past. I started following the NFL in 1998 when I was 8 years old, but didn’t choose to adopt my Dad’s beloved Lions until the 2000 season. As it turns out this was the worst possible time I could have picked. I remember my dad trying to make me watch football with him years earlier because he wanted me to experience the Barry Sanders years before they were gone. Welp, I hopped on the bandwagon about 16 months late, and it was all downhill after that.
The Matt Millen Era was one of the worst attempts to run a sports franchise in history, and it was particularly hard on the quarterback position. When I first hopped on the Detroit bandwagon they rolled out the cavalcade of Charlie Batch, Gus Frerotte, Stoney Case (I’m gonna be honest I don’t even remember who this is) and Ty Detmer (6 years after he was already known as a universal bust). Not exactly a star studded cast. In 2002, however, 12 year old Rick had hope for the future because the Lions spent their first round draft pick on Oregon’s star quarterback… Joey Harrington.Now, I’m not sure if you know this but during my childhood Harrington was thought to be the biggest bust behind only Tim Couch… ouch…
So that didn’t work out. But its ok… Detroit had other… uhh… plans… they had the veritable ace up the sleeve that is Mike McMahon (I distinctly remember arguing with me dad that all Detroit needed to do in the 2004 season in order to start winning was start Mike McMahon and we could easily win 8 games. The funniest part of this story to me is not that I thought McMahon would be a success [laughable in its own right] but that I thought “successful” meant going 8-8).
In 2005 they rented 5 games of Jeff Garcia, they put the serviceable Jon Kitna out to pasture (I loved the Kitna years. Kitna won 10 total games for us in the 2 years he started, and I still believe that the reason we went win-less in 2008 is because we went away from him). Then all hell broke loose as we decided to move on to the Dan Orlovsky era which lasted 7 games before we decided to trot out Dante Culpepper AFTER he had that devastating knee injury…
In 2009 we finally drafted Stafford, but his career didn’t really start until 2011 because he was hurt so often. Instead we spiced things up with a little Drew Stanton / Shaun Hill combo [the two QBs responsible for that beautiful 12-6 field goal clinic on Thursday night football earlier this season] until finally in 2011 we were squarely planted in the Matthew Stafford era.
Stafford has started every game for Detroit the last 4 straight seasons *knockonwood* and if my little narrative showed you anything it should be that, regardless of his faults, he is very clearly a sight for sore eyes. In those 4 years Detroit has won 32 games and made the playoffs twice. That is 2 more playoff games than I had seen in the rest of my lifetime and only 5 less losses than Detroit had in the 9 seasons before that (starting with the drafting of Joey Harrington).
Stafford has clearly been the best quarterback I’ve ever watch on Detroit in my years as a Lions fan. As such I’m willing to give him absolute mountains of slack. We very well could lose this playoff game tonight. And the talking heads and armchair GM’s of the world will be gleefully calling for the Lions to move on from Stafford. But I for one am entirely unconvinced. Even if this is the best Stafford can do, who cares? This is the best era of Lions football I have ever seen. Why risk moving on from Stafford if only to wind up back in the death spiral of has been’s, never were’s, and never will be’s that I spend my formative years watching?
Instead I’d rather just treat this Stafford/Calvin Johnson era as a better version of the Barry Sanders years my dad remembers. The Lions made a couple playoff games out of Barry’s sheer will, and the guy solidified himself as the greatest running back of all time in my opinion,. With the way Stafford forces the ball to Calvin we’ll have the same scenario with Johnson now. Make a few playoff games. Have a few chances to do something, and watch one of the greatest football players ever born prove his worth among the games elite. Dumping Stafford is the kind of thing franchises with Superbowl aspirations might do, but that isn’t this Detroit team. We could definitely win a Superbowl with this group because the NFL playoffs are so random (Carolina beat Arizona last night for instance) but no-one will ever call this group the favorites. And that’s enough for me. It’s January. We’re still playing football. And Matthew Stafford got us there. Enough with the rest of it. I just want to enjoy the success that I’m fortunate enough to see right now.