Matthew Stafford stood on the podium Tuesday looking like a poster child for Detroit.
He wore a Tigers cap and a nifty T-shirt with “DETROIT” in big, bold letters. The city’s birth date was surrounded by stars in a design that resembled a flag.
The only thing that would have branded Stafford as more of a Detroiter was a burp that smelled like a coney dog and Vernors.
Stafford’s ensemble was so over-the-top that he easily could have been taken for a tourist. And, in fact, that’s what he is. He’s a tourist who’s having a good time playing quarterback for the Lions, who are paying him ungodly sums to have a good time playing quarterback.
And if the Lions want to let Stafford continue to have a good time in their city and not flirt with skipping town in free agency, they’re going to have to pay up.
Stafford is in the final year of his second contract, and he’s expected to command a record $25 million or more annually on his next deal.
“I would love to (get a new deal done),” Stafford said. “I’ve had a really good time playing here, would like to be here long term. But that’s yet to be seen.”
Yet to be seen because the Lions have yet to show him the money.
Let’s be clear. I have nothing against Stafford wanting prime-beef, grade-A, top-shelf, Johnnie Walker Blue money. That’s his right. He should try to get what the market will bear. But paying Stafford that much money could be a franchise-crippling decision because it will affect general manager Bob Quinn’s ability to add other players.
Stafford was asked about this concern, about leaving enough money for the Lions to pursue and pay other good players, and he pointed to the ever-growing salary cap, which stands at $167 million and has gone up 35% since he signed his last deal in July 2013.
“I know every year teams find ways to put good teams around good quarterbacks,” he said. “You see it every year. So I’m not too worried about that. I know that salary caps and all that kind of stuff is as malleable as you want it to be. So I think you just go and try to make a good decision for not only the player but the team and go from there.”
Yes, it’s possible for organizations to overpay good quarterbacks and still put together good teams. It’s possible. But is it probable for the Lions to do this? It’s not, for several reasons.
The Lions have no track record of surrounding their stars with great, supporting casts. The team also has a largely unproven general manager in Quinn, whose job will only become more difficult if he has less money to pay other players.
The Lions struggle to attract elite free agents in the prime of their careers, and they can’t even keep their own stars. Anyone heard lately from Barry Sanders, Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril or Calvin Johnson, who literally danced his way out of Detroit?
There’s another reason: Stafford.
Giving him such an exorbitant contract extension — probably for five years, which would run through 2022, when Stafford would be 34 — is tantamount to making a declaration that the Lions believe Stafford is the guy who will lead them to a Super Bowl.
Look, we’ve all seen Stafford play for eight seasons. He has improved in many areas and sometimes he looks like the guy. But sometimes, and maybe most of the time, he hasn’t looked like the guy the Lions need him to be: that difference-maker who grabs a game by the throat and wills his team to victory.
The Lions will almost certainly pay Stafford whatever he wants because it’s easy to defend paying a popular player excessive money. But doing the right thing often isn’t the easy thing. In fact, doing the right thing often means doing the hard thing, making the tough and unpopular choice.
This is why the Lions’ decision-makers should come up with a reasonable contract number for Stafford. It should be a number that doesn’t make him the NFL’s highest-paid player and gives the Lions enough room to assemble a great team, instead of surrounding a good player with a merely adequate supporting cast. If Stafford can’t agree to this, the Lions should let him test free agency next year and see how many teams would love to overpay a 30-year-old quarterback who — at least for now — doesn’t have a playoff win.
That would mean starting over for the Lions. But, as the winning quarterbacks of four of the past five Super Bowls have proved, teams can be successful with the 18th overall pick, a third-rounder and even a sixth-rounder playing quarterback.
If nothing else, Quinn should think long and hard about what he’s willing to pay Stafford for his own sake. He would be — or at least he should be — tying his future to a quarterback who has helped get one head coach fired, an offensive coordinator fired and a general manager and team president fired.
And that was when the Lions had the money to pay Calvin Johnson.