Two days before the 2009 NFL draft, Matthew Stafford sat in the back of a league courtesy truck that drove him through Manhattan.
He was about to become the No. 1 pick, about to agree to a contract worth $41.7 million guaranteed, about to head to the Detroit Lions where he was confident he’d reverse the supposed “Curse of Bobby Lane” and lead the woebegone franchise to some playoff victories, if not a lot more.
As the truck drove through Midtown, Stafford spotted a storefront fortune-teller – Hannah’s Psychic Readings – and joked that he wanted to go inside, just for the absurdity of it. After all, at that very moment, he was still, technically, a broke, unemployed college kid.
“I should go in dressed as a bum, ‘Is there any hope for me?’” Stafford said with a laugh. “If she said no, I’d be like, ‘Busted!’”
Stafford was headed to a winless team (0-16 in 2008) and a near winless franchise – just one playoff victory since 1957, when Layne supposedly hexed Detroit.
Stafford was unconcerned, of course. The confidence of youth can do that. Besides, curses aren’t real. Even if they were, Layne’s was leveled in 1958 and was supposed to last for only 50 years. The 2009 season was out of the range. Plus, Stafford had gone to Layne’s high school in suburban Dallas. It all seemed poetic.
Mostly though, he had a cannon of an arm, a work ethic to match and all the leadership skills a team could want. How couldn’t this work out?
“I’ll do what it takes,” he said that day. “I’m one of those guys that just wants to win, I don’t care how. It doesn’t have to be pretty.”
Well, it wasn’t. It's wasn't pretty at all. Not Sunday, in a 37-35 loss to Minnesota that dropped the Lions to 5-11. Not very often across the 12 seasons Stafford was the franchise quarterback. Including three postseason games, he racked up over 46,000 passing yards and 300 touchdowns (passing and rushing) but is 74-93-1 as a starter.
Most notably, there were no playoff wins, no NFC North titles, nothing of substance.
It’s why Sunday represented not just the end of another lost season or another gutty Stafford performance, it might have been the 32-year-old’s last appearance with the franchise.
Somehow it seemed fitting that Stafford might exit in a near-silent, pandemic-empty Ford Field following a defeat that saw horrific officiating, porous defense and assorted Same Old Lions calamities override 293 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Detroit is in search of a general manager and a coach, which means it’s about to embark on a fourth reboot since Stafford arrived. Maybe the Lions keep him to be a part of it, or maybe they trade him for assets to help what needs to be a roster-wide overhaul.
“Obviously, can't speak into the future,” Stafford said. “... All those kinds of things will work itself out … I’m just going to look back on the season, hang out with my wife and my kids, cool out for a little bit and figure all of that out later.”
Stafford has two years left on his deal, but if he wants out he could also likely force it. He has made about all the money a guy can make ($226.5 million, per Spotrac.com). He has remained popular due to numerous comeback performances and his willingness to play hurt.
For a guy who wants to win, the idea of never doing it has to burn. He may be used to these lost cause season-ending games, but he said the disappointment never wanes.
“It’s hard every time,” Stafford said. “Difficult, disappointing all those things. I want to win. I want to be in those games more than anything. But it starts with me. I can play better and help us win more games. I want to win more than anybody, if not more. But what I can control is how I play.”
He's correct he could have been better, but he’s still a top 15 quarterback, maybe better if he’s surrounded by talent. There will be buyers if the Lions become sellers.
In Detroit, all that promise has been wasted. Nick Foles was named Super Bowl MVP. Blake Bortles started an AFC championship game. T.J. Yates won a playoff game. Somehow Stafford has done none of that.
He has been surrounded by bad coaching and bad defenses and bad draft picks and bad management. The best teammate he ever had, Calvin Johnson, simply up and retired rather than play for the Lions anymore, a franchise tradition started by Barry Sanders. At one point Detroit worked a deal to bring Rob Gronkowski in, but Gronk nixed it by threatening to quit football.
All along, Stafford never complained. He has always been team-first in interviews. He has always been pumping up his players around him. He never posts on social media. Interim coach Darrell Bevell praised a speech Stafford gave to the team Saturday about why competing, even in a pointless game, is important.
“We’re lucky to get to do what we get to do,” Stafford said. “We’re part of history. We’re part of this group that gets to call themselves NFL players and coaches. Every time I come to work, I bear that responsibility and I want to uphold my end of the bargain.”
He once expected that his end of the bargain would include playoff triumphs and championship banners, not merely dutifully playing hard and hurt when many others would have packed it in on the season.
NFL careers are like that, though. Nothing promised. Nothing guaranteed. Everything as uncertain as a fortune-teller's vision, the kind of stuff that makes curses seem real and a dozen years fly by.
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