Every time a quarterback lands a massive new contract, the general reaction—at least from those not screaming that said QB is overpaid and overrated—is sort of a shoulder shrug.
“Well, that’s what quarterbacks cost.”
True, but only to a point. Matthew Stafford’s new five-year, $135 million deal ($27 million per year) was, in part, a response to Derek Carr’s $25 million deal, just as Andrew Luck’s deal begot Carr’s and Drew Brees’s deal begot Luck’s and Joe Flacco’s begot Brees’s and on and on like the NFL QB Book of Genesis. For the Lions to keep Stafford around for the long haul, they had to top both Carr’s deal and climb over the starting point set by the potential $26.4 million cost of a franchise tag for Stafford in 2018. So, yes, the Lions paid what Stafford cost.
To place this all in a vacuum, though, would be to ignore the individual circumstances behind each of these contracts.
In the Lions’ case, Stafford arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, right after Detroit completed the first 0–16 season in NFL history. Under center in the years before his arrival were the likes of Dan Orlovsky, an out-of-shape Daunte Culpepper, Jon Kitna, Joey Harrington and a handful of others. After two seasons shortened by injury, Stafford threw for 5,000 yards and helped the Lions reach the playoffs.
Finally, mercifully, they had their quarterback. Was he the best in the league? No, and in fact for his entire career he’s been a distant second within his own division, behind Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. He was, however, better than most, and he still remains far more tolerable than the alternative.
“We do have a guy that continues to grow,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said at a press conference Tuesday, announcing Stafford’s extension. “We do have a guy that’s smart and tough and is a good leader. When your hardest worker is your best player, there’s a lot of things you can say about that in terms of leadership coming from that position. ... We have a guy that’s stable there for a long time.”
Every team hopes for greatness, of course. Yet, finding that stability is a tenuous process that can eat up years, even decades of a franchise’s time. Ask the Browns or Jets or any other number of downtrodden teams what it’s like to have a question mark at the quarterback position. There is little hope of winning in this league without a player there that you can trust. At a bare minimum, the Lions have that.
The Lions also found themselves in a different situation than most, initially, because Stafford landed in the league a short while before the NFL instituted its slotted rookie wage scale. He was one of the last bonus babies—players who cashed in on massive deals before even playing a game, because there was little aside from the salary cap itself to check such spending. Stafford’s $41.7 million, six-year rookie deal was the most expensive of its kind at the time.
What the Lions had to spend moving forward, then, snowballed from there, even as the two sides restructured Stafford’s contract on multiple occasions. He started with an elevated price tag, and it was almost impossible to bring it down once he did.
It can be easy to look at New England, where Tom Brady remains on a contract that’s an absolute steal relative to the league, or even to Green Bay, where Rodgers awaits his next big-money deal, and wonder how Stafford got to this point. He’s yet to win a playoff game; he’s below .500 for his career as a starter (51–58); the Lions have finished 7–9 or worse in three of the past five years.
Nothing in there would have improved with another quarterback in the fold. Detroit would have been measurably worse over much of the past six seasons without Stafford, and it would have a bleaker future had he been allowed, somehow, to leave as a free agent.
The Lions had to pay Stafford what he cost within the grand scheme of quarterback contracts, but they wouldn’t have done so without knowing full well what he’s worth to them.