NFL Check In: Trades, QBs, and More

We’re around the midpoint of the NFL season, and it hasn’t been too exciting a season. Maybe it’s because I’m a Giants fan and the Giants have been an absolute trainwreck this year. Maybe it’s because after all these years of following and watching, I’m finally getting sick of it. Maybe it’s because the NFL as a whole has just been in decline, which I think there are plenty of reasons for. But that’s another conversation. (And no, players kneeling during the anthem isn’t one of them. Seriously, if that bothers you, you need to get over yourself.) Nonetheless, there have been some things going on around the league that I think are worth going over. Let’s start with some surprising trades we’ve witnessed over the past week, starting with the Pats trading away their backup QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round pick.

Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual for the Pats. They’ve dealt good backups as well as good starters before without so much as a bat of an eye. It’s only surprising now because Tom Brady is near the end of his career (even if his play on the field doesn’t indicate it), and there were many indications throughout the offseason that Garoppolo would be the guy to succeed Brady. After filling in very admirably for Brady to start the season last year, it would have been a very Patriots-like thing to do to trade him. There were whispers about the Browns, and the Patriots would have likely been able to get decent value for him. The general understanding was that the Pats chose to stick with Garoppolo because they truly did believe that Brady was close to the end and that he could be the guy to succeed Brady. The Pats clearly thought very highly of him, as confirmed by how Belichick reacted to losing him this week. Judging based off that explanation that Belichick gave, which was unusually revealing for him, it seemed like the Pats wanted to keep Garoppolo, but with Brady playing at such a high level, they couldn’t afford to sign a backup to a long term contract, even if they did like him. Which makes sense on their part. It’s just puzzling at first because if that was the logic all along, then you would have figured they would have traded him during the offseason. But I think it was also a question mark as to whether Brady would play as well as he is. As Belichick said, they tried to keep Jimmy as long as they could but just couldn’t make it work, likely because of what they would have had to pay him.

As for the niners, it’s a bit puzzling on their part as well. They’re winless to start the season, but there have been signs of progress. 5 of their 8 losses have been by 3 points or less. At the end of the day, the logic behind giving Shanahan and John Lynch long term contracts seemed to be that this was going to be a long term rebuilding project that was going to take time. No one was really expecting results this year. It’s why Shanahan came into the season with Hoyer as the starter. The understanding was that he just needed someone to hold the ship down and run the offense and then next year, the niners would likely draft a QB. Hoyer hasn’t been that good, which is why he was benched for CJ Beathard, the niners 3rd round pick from this year’s draft. But with Hoyer’s release, it’s clear that Garoppolo will now be the starter.

What I’m wondering is, why now, and what does this mean for the niners long term? Certainly if Garoppolo stinks up the joint this year they have no obligation to keep him. Obviously as a coach your number 1 goal is to win games, but still, if this was going to be a rebuilding year without a QB, why bring in Garoppolo midseason? Are they just seeing if he has the potential to be a franchise guy, and if not they’ll cut and run (like the Bears did with Glennon)? Do they want him to be their starter long term? At this point you’re 0-8, so you’re already on the fast track for the number 1 pick in the draft. It just doesn’t make sense to me to change the course. If Garoppolo plays well enough, they could fall off that path. We already haven’t seen enough of Beathard to know who he is. He’s probably not the guy, but why not let him finish up the season just to see and then draft a guy next year?

And what if Garoppolo isn’t the guy long term? I guess it’s not a huge risk move, but I’m not entirely sold on Garoppolo yet. Obviously he’s played well with New England. And yes, he seems better than backups they’ve had in the past that haven’t gone on to do well. He’s more talented than Cassel and Hoyer, and he’s more disciplined than Mallett, who was never a great fit for the Pats. Still, you have to mention those guys. Cassel especially, but also Hoyer, both played well for New England, and they couldn’t keep it up elsewhere. In fact, the sample size overall for backup QBs that went on to be starters elsewhere because of good play in good systems with limited action isn’t great. Outside of Cassel and Hoyer in New England you have Kevin Kolb from Philly, Matt Flynn from Green Bay, and most recently Brock Osweiler from Denver. Now obviously the Pats thought highly of Garoppolo so that’s worth something, but it’s no given that he’s a starter in this league. The sample size is way too small. He’s had a game and a half of regular season action as a starter. So for the niners, it’s not a very high risk move, but I just don’t see the logic behind it. Why not see what Beathard has, ride out the rest of the season, and draft Darnold No 1 overall next year? Then again, as Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com suggested this morning, maybe the niners just don’t like the incoming college QB crop.

The other two big trades were even more headscratching. Let’s start in Carolina where the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin had a great rookie season and has been inconsistent since, although Cam Newton and the passing game have also been inconsistent and erratic and it’s always hard to separate receiver performance from the guy throwing to him. Benjamin was meant to be a big receiver with a big catch radius, a guy who can give Cam Newton margin for error. It’s the same profile as Devin Funchess, their other WR, which is why some on NFL Network last night suggested that the Panthers felt they could get rid of him. Funchess certainly has come on recent, but I don’t know about that theory either. Because the Panthers knew what they were getting in both Benjamin and Funchess. They purposely picked both those receivers with that profile because they knew it fit Cam Newton’s playing style. The Panthers GM recently said that this move was about making the offense faster. It’s a bit of a headscratcher, but at the end of the day, it’s likely that they felt good about Curtis Samuel (their 2nd round pick from this year) and Christian McCaffrey, and thought that they had other holes they needed to fill that they could with the draft resources they got from this trade. Maybe they also didn’t want to pay Benjamin once his contract was up. At the end of the day, a lot of these moves are about value relative to cost.

And then there’s Jay Ajayi from the Bears to the Eagles, another headscratcher. The Dolphins offense had been one of the worst in the league and their passing game with Jay Cutler is pretty much nonexistent. Ajayi can be somewhat of a week to week proposition, but there’s no doubt that he’s talented and one of the tougher grinders in this league. Their offensive line hadn’t been playing well, but without Ajayi they have basically nothing to hang their hat on on offense. Maybe Gase wants to go full on rebuild? Doesn’t seem like him. Maybe there were just off the field issues or philosophical differences. I’ve heard some whispers about that. Ajayi is somewhat inconsistent, but for an offense that’s been that bad and has had absolutely no passing game, it doesn’t entirely make sense.

In other news, the Broncos just benched Trevor Siemian for Brock Osweiler. It’s likely not a move they wanted to make, but Siemian just hasn’t been cutting it in recent weeks. It’s unfortunate, as I’ve liked Siemian. He has a decent foundation and wasn’t the main issue last year. I always thought with a good surrounding cast he can play well. He started the year off well but the Broncos are currently in a 3 game losing skid, and the Broncos likely felt that with a defense as good as theirs, they couldn’t have their Quarterback holding them back. It’s true that Siemian simply hasn’t been playing well enough. At his best he’s an Andy Dalton type player, a ball distributor who won’t wow you and won’t carry your offense by himself but can run your offense if you give him a team. But he’s made some very poor decisions in the past few weeks. I’ve also noticed that the ball isn’t coming out of his hands with quite as much zip as I’m used to seeing from him.

It’s unfortunate, because he really is their best option. Brock Osweiler did flash at times when Kubiak was head coach, but he was one of the worst Quarterbacks in the league last year, and he’s not going to do much for you. His flaws are tough to work around. It’s alarming that Paxton Lynch hasn’t been given an opportunity. They wanted him to win the job in the preseason and drafted him high enough to tell you that they thought he could be their guy in the future. That he couldn’t even beat out Siemian, a 7th rounder, and that they aren’t turning to him now, shows that they know something we don’t, and he hasn’t progressed the way they may have hoped.

Still… I’m extremely skeptical that Osweiler will provide them with anything. Maybe we’ll see Lynch in the future. Who knows. This should have been Siemian’s job to run with and I don’t see the switch helping them, but unfortunately he hasn’t been good enough, and when that happens in this league, you’re going to lose your job.

On the other end of the spectrum, how good has Deshaun Watson been in Houston? It’s really crazy to watch. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Of course, he’s far from a finished product. O’Brien is helping him a lot, and defenses will figure out ways to stop him. But still, the aggressiveness and playmaking prowess is refreshing in this age of checkdowns. And he’s passed so many really really hard tests. He was inches from beating New England in New England, Seattle at Seattle, and Kansas City. And he’s started the seasons with 19 touchdowns (breaking Kurt Warner’s record of most for the first 7 games of a career) and 8.3 yards per attempt. He’s escaping, throwing down the field, and making Andrew Luck type tight window throws down the field. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the arm Andrew Luck has. Physically, he’s not that different from where scouts had him. He’s just making the plays. Kudos to him. After years of QB purgatory post Schaub era, it seems like the Texans have their guy. It will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

Lastly, let’s wrap things up by looking at who the marquee teams are around the league right now. This year has been as we’re starting to see a shift in the guard of who’s good in the NFL. The Tom Brady wave of QBs will retire soon. Rodgers is hurt. The patriots defensive losses finally seem to have caught up to them. Brees is still great but on the tail end. The Chargers have been blowing leads and comebacks for 5+ years now. And the Steelers passing game hasn’t matriculated as we would have expected. Overall, it seems like a crappy year for the league. Cardinals, Panthers, Falcons, Giants, a lot of names that have been in it recently are not this year. But we’re also seeing some new teams rise up to take their place. The Eagles are looking very good with Carson Wentz. Obviously his development has been great but its the whole team that looks very complete right now. Then you have to love what the Chiefs are doing with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. And Alex Smith is playing differently than he ever has. It seems like the drafting of Pat Mahomes really lit a fire under him and he was sick of everyone saying he doesn’t throw down the field enough. They are the cream of the crop this year, and I would love to see them take out PIT and/or NE in the playoffs. And I don’t expect them to go too far with their QB and being in the same division in the Patriots, but the Bills have been quite the surprise under Sean McDermott this year. They are now 5-2 which is shocking, to be honest. Even the Jets, who looked about as close to committing to tank as any team could be, are 3-5 and fighting hard every week. I won’t say I’m excited for it, but this week’s Bills Jets matchup on Thursday night might even be worth watching a bit.

The league is always in flux and things have certainly been changing as of recent. But at midseason, the contenders and pretenders are starting to sort out, and it will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.

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Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

The Detroit Lions just made Matthew Stafford the highest paid QB in the NFL and in NFL history. And as is bound to happen just about every time another QB is given a massive contract, the “should they have done it, should they not have done it” debate starts once again, with your fair of share of pundits and fans blasting the deal. I wrote about the question of whether it’s worth it to give a Quarterback–often one that isn’t an “elite” (ie Brady, Rodgers, Brees) guy–a huge contract when Brock Osweiler went to Houston and when Adam Gase signed Jay Cutler. But every situation is different, and seeing as how this debate always seems to come up, it’s always worth revisiting, as I intend to do now with Stafford. People get very passionate and intense about this stuff, but as with most things, the answer is rarely as clear cut as people make it out to be, and as I often try to do, I’ll attempt to look at the situation from as many angles as I can.

People often get shocked by the raw numbers of these deals, and understandably so. Money is an emotional issue, and a lot of people who watch the NFL probably will never see that kind of money in their lives. That in and of itself is enough to cause a negative reaction. But I think there are always a few things we have to keep in mind when looking at these giant numbers in order to help keep things in perspective and evaluate these deals objectively:

    1. NFL Contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, and players hardly ever play out their entire deal. This fact makes NFL contracts look a lot bigger than they actually are. It’s important to not look at the total number, but instead look at the guaranteed money and how it’s spread out over the years.
    2. Even the respective salaries of the richest NFL Quarterbacks probably shouldn’t be viewed just back to back, as that paints somewhat of a skewed picture. They need to be viewed with respect to what the market and salary cap were like at the time they made the deal. For example, it may seem strange that Matt Stafford is being paid more than Aaron Rodgers, but Aaron Rodgers’s deal was likely the highest when he signed it. The market doesn’t exist in isolation, and all these deals are essentially being crafted in response to the others. (I don’t really speak economics, but this piece seemed to do a good job explaining how the raw numbers can be misleading.)
    3. Athletes get paid a lot of money. It might not seem fair, but it’s just the way things work in society.
    4. The money these players are making is chump change compared to what the NFL owners are making. If the owners are getting paid so much, why shouldn’t the players? They’re the ones that are doing the heavy lifting.
    5. The NFL’s attitude toward Quarterbacks is different than its attitude toward almost every other position. With most players, teams think strictly in terms of value and don’t hesitate to let good players go if they’re asking for what they view as too much money. With Quarterbacks, teams tend to be a lot more generous. That doesn’t mean it’s justified, but with the mostly hardball philosophy the NFL employs–I can’t speak for other sports, don’t know if they do it that way too–the Quarterback position tends to stand out because of how different it’s done compared to the other positions. If other positions were paid as much as QBs were, we wouldn’t notice it as much.

Anyway, none of this is to say these big contracts are (or aren’t) justified. I just think it’s important to keep this stuff in mind when thinking about these deals and all the money that’s being tossed around. Because a lot of the negative sentiment seems to stem from people just being upset at how much money these guys get paid. But there’s more to it than that.

Anyway, back to Stafford. He’s currently the highest paid QB and player in the NFL. Is he worth the money?

Again, it’s easy in theory to say that QBss should be paid relative to the value they provide a team–that is to say, the QB pay tree should look almost identical to a QB rankings list. But as I alluded to above (see bullet (2)), the market is reactive. These seemingly huge QB deals probably started when Joe Flacco–a slightly above average QB who was coming off a spectacular postseason hot streak (which he was unable to maintain into subsequent seasons)–signed his megadeal after winning Superbowl 47. That created somewhat of a domino effect, as it set a benchmark for what other players could point to when negotiating their deals.

I’ve talked about that before, so I won’t go into it too much again here. But the bottom line is that because of how the market is set up, QBs have a lot of leverage. So Stafford, just like Flacco and all those before him, was never going to sign a middle of the pack deal. So when we evaluate this deal, we have to understand that in reality, Detroit had two options: Either pay him, or let him go.

One of my favorite NFL analysts, Scott Kascmar of Football Outsiders, has never been one afraid to go against conventional wisdom, and he is often an outspoken critic of deals like the one Stafford signed. He’s an avid tweeter whom I follow a great deal, and his arguments are certainly compelling. He spoke out against the Stafford deal, and his argument is similar to the one I presented above, namely, that top money should be reserved for top QBs, and that if a QB is unwilling to accept a deal that is more in line with his relative value, then the team should move on from said QB. Paying a non-elite QB elite money means being stuck in 8-8 purgatory, as it does not allow a team enough money to build up the rest of the team sufficiently. And there only a few QBs who can consistently overcome roster deficiencies to reach the playoffs, and these are the elite guys for whom top dollar should be reserved for.

It’s an argument that I struggle with, both because I think that these guys deserve to get paid and make as much money as they can (no one should be knocked for trying to make money, especially in a profession that leaves you more often than not injured for life), and because it’s really hard for coaches and general managers whose jobs rely on winning games to move forward without anyone at QB. But pragmatically it makes a lot of sense.

I’ve explored this philosophical debate in depth in my previous articles, and I’m sympathetic to both sides. And we’re starting to see more scenarios in which teams are willing to pass up paying Quarterbacks who they view as replaceable. Denver passed up paying Osweiler to start Siemian. The Jets, last year, played hardball with Fitzpatrick after his anomalous 2015 season. And the Redskins continue to use the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins rather than give him a long term deal (although ironically, they seem to be costing themselves more money in doing so). We’ll see what happens there, but the previous two scenarios, in retrospect, were both the right moves. Siemian was not great, but his 2016 was much better than Osweiler’s, and his flaws are easier to work around than Osweiler’s. More importantly, the Broncos want to keep their top defense together, something they would struggle doing if they had paid Osweiler. The Jets were right in thinking that Fitzpatrick’s 2015 was an anomaly, and he’s off the team now. Then there were the Eagles with Nick Foles back when Chip Kelly was the head coach. Although their plan was to roll with Bradford (who only started one so-so season with them before Kelly was fired and Wentz was drafted), they didn’t hesitate to give up Foles. He’s no longer a starter, and the Eagles seem to have their QB of the future in Carson Wentz.

The counterargument is always, if you don’t pay this guy, then who’s the QB? Kacsmar on Twitter, when asked about the last example of a team moving on from a high level QB and being successful, gave the example of the Bengals moving on from Carson Palmer to Andy Dalton in 2011, and then proceeding to make the postseason for the next 5 years. It’s not strictly analogous because the Palmers dispute with the Bengals was not about money. Rather, Palmer just didn’t want to play for the Bengals anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still a good example of a team that was able to move on from a highly respected, high level Quarterback, and maintain success. QBs certainly are not a dime a dozen, but the thinking behind the “let him go” mindset seems to be that the difference between a slightly below average to average QB and an average to slightly above average QB is not worth the difference in money and wins that it will cost you, and if you don’t have an elite QB, focusing on team building is more important. The other part of that argument is that average QBs aren’t as hard to find as people may think:

rudock
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What Kacsmar wisely articulates here is that lots of people pay QBs (or defend QBs being paid) because they are afraid of the alternative (with regard to that first tweet, Jake Rudock is Stafford’s current backup). But letting your current guy go doesn’t mean going into QB purgatory. Kacsmar gave the example of the Bengals landing on Dalton in 2011. I already mentioned Siemian and Bradford filling in well for, if not playing being better than, Osweiler and Foles did in Denver and Philly, respectably. Then you have Houston who made the playoffs back to back years with Ryan Fitzpatrick one year and then Brian Hoyer the next. They didn’t have the best QB in the division, but they had the best defense, and that turned out to be more important.

These are all excellent arguments about team building and value, and I’ll come back to them later, but for now I’d like to focus specifically on Stafford and his specific value to Detroit as a player.

The Case Against Stafford

The best argument against paying Stafford this kind of money is that the Lions simply haven’t been that good since he joined. To be fair, they’ve been better than they were before he got there, but it hasn’t resulted in playoff appearances or wins. Here’s a listing of how well the Lions have done each year with Stafford <wikipedia>:

2009 (Started 10 games): 2-14 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2010 (Started 3 games): 6-10 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2011: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at New Orleans, 28-45)
2012: 4-12 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2013: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2014: 11-5 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Dallas, 20-24)
2015: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2016: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Seattle, 6-26)

Overall that’s 8 seasons, 0 first place finishes,  3 second place finishes, 3 third place finishes, 2 fourth place finishes, 3 playoff appearances, and 0 playoff wins.

Even more concerning, however, is Stafford’s 5-46 record against teams with a winning record. Wins and losses aren’t all on the Quarterback, but that’s an abysmal number, and I think is the best argument against Matthew Stafford being paid this much. (A few examples I dug up for comparison’s sake: Andrew Luck had 4 wins of the sort in 2013 alone, Carson Palmer had 4 in 2015 alone, and Matt Ryan had 4 in 2010 alone. (Those numbers could be wrong but I double checked and am pretty sure they’re correct.))

Despite Detroit’s relative lack of success with Stafford at the helm, I still think he’s worth the money for the following reasons:

Stafford is a Unique Talent

It’s important not to get swept away by and judge a Quarterback solely on his physical attributes. You can have a good arm and still not be a good Quarterback. Jay Cutler was a guy who was always given extra chances because of his immense arm talent yet was never really able to be anything more than average. Cam Newton is another guy who, outside of his 2015 season, has not been anything special compared to his peers, yet because of his immense physical gifts, people continue to mistakenly view him as a top 10 player at the position.

Having said that, arm strength does matter, as it allows you to make throws that others simply aren’t capable of making. It’s been evident that Stafford has had a big time arm ever since his college days. It’s the reason he was the No 1 overall pick in the draft, and it’s always evident on film. The ball just comes out of his hand differently than it does with other Quarterbacks. He also has relatively quick feet and a quick release and can throw from nearly any platform. This allows him to be a unique asset at the position with the throws he is able to make.

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

The Lions under Stafford always have thrown the ball a lot more than most teams. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes not so much, but there are few Quarterbacks that would be able to handle the type of workload he’s often given. With Stafford at QB, you’re never out of a game.

Furthermore, with the offense they currently run under Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is asked to do a lot before the snap. Jim Bob was an Offensive Assistant to the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, and the offense he runs with Stafford is somewhat similar to the one Peyton Manning used to run. It uses a lot of static formations (no pre-snap motion) from the shotgun, and Stafford is asked to identify the defense, adjust the play accordingly, and isolate the correct matchup. The Lions don’t have a ton of athletes on offense, and as a result, they rely on lots of quick, short passes to move the ball. Stafford making the right read and throw is imperative to that working successfully. It’s an offensive identity that relies on him as the centerpiece (they had to change to this after Calvin Johnson retired), and it’s not clear who would pick up the slack without him. His value to this offense was apparent last year, as evidenced by his 8 fourth quarter comebacks <pfref>.

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

There’s always been somewhat of a gap between Stafford’s talent level and his production. He’s always flashed, but he’s never really been able to produce on a consistent week-to-week basis. I maintain that 2011 was his best season by far (5038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 7.6 Y/A), and I was expecting big things after that year. It didn’t really happen. 2012 was a big step back with a lot of stats padded by garbage time and volume of pass attempts, and he’s been for the most part up and down ever since.

Early on in his career, Stafford started to show some problematic tendencies, mainly related to a lack of discipline. He would often get sloppy with his fundamentals. His footwork could be erratic, but most worrisome were his throwing mechanics and his tendency to sidearm throws that didn’t need to be sidearmed. I always got the sense that then head coach of the lions Jim Schwartz, as well as possibly offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, ended up exacerbating these issues by failing to address them early on when they should have, and even excusing them (if I’m correctly recalling comments made by Schwartz at the time).

The Lions hired Jim Schwartz in 2014, in part to help instill more discipline in Stafford. The Offensive Coordinator was Joe Lombardi, who had previously been on the offensive staff with the Saints. The Lions essentially ran the Saints offense, which I never saw as a great fit for Stafford considering the amount of nuance and precision it requires (think about how Drew Brees plays the position). But the hope was that it would help Stafford. The Lions made the playoffs that year and Stafford had some nice 4th quarter moments, but overall it was a step back for the offense, and it was the defense that help propelled the Lions to the playoffs (a defense that for every other year Stafford has been in Detroit, really hasn’t been anything more than average).

The next year, the 2015 season, the Lions started the season 1-7 with Stafford playing poorly. Joe Lombardi was fired and the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter, the Quarterbacks coach, to Offensive Coordinator. The results were excellent. Stafford finished the season on a hot streak, as did the Lions, who went 6-2 in their last 8 games mainly thanks to the improved play of Stafford. The following season (last), Stafford showed that his improved play was no anomaly. Stafford had his lowing interception percentage since 2010 (a year in which he played only three games).

Stafford was always similar to Jay Cutler in that he was a tremendous talent but had too little discipline in his game. People, like they did with Cutler, would always make a big deal about the interceptions. But with those two I would argue that the little things were even more problematic. Footwork. Mechanics. Playing within the timing of the offense. Dropping back and getting rid of the ball on time. They both would make the headscratching throws more than they should. But they also failed to keep the offense running the way it needed to in order to have consistent execution.

Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter were on the same page from the start, something Stafford has made abundantly clear. And that’s so important for a Quarterback. But even moreso, Jim Bob Cooter deserves credit for fundamentally transforming the way Stafford plays the game. He’s still a gunslinger at heart. But Jim Bob honed in those gunslinger tendencies. He did it mostly with a lot of quick throws. His offense demands that you get the ball out quickly within the timing of the play. He reined in Stafford just enough. Now Stafford does the little things right when he needs to, but is still capable of making tremendous throws when he has to. That skill doesn’t go away and never would. He’s just added to Stafford’s game so that he can be a more consistent player.

This, more than anything else, is why Stafford is deserving of his contract. Under Jim Bob Cooter, he’s been an incredibly efficient ball distributor, rather than an inconsistent, undisciplined gunslinger.

As I mentioned earlier, Stafford and the offense arguably had to change when Calvin Johnson retired. Stafford could always rely on Megatron to bail him out. He could force it to Megatron and toss it up into coverage, even if it was outside the timing of the play, and more often than not Megatron would come down with it. With Calvin Johnson, Stafford didn’t really have to play with timing.

Now, without one guy that causes matchup issues for the defense, the offense has to win through scheme, and the Quarterback has to be the centerpoint. He has to consistently execute with precision in order to create offense. This always would have helped Stafford and the offense, but without Calvin Johnson, it’s more urgent than ever that he plays this way.

Stafford’s improvement carried on through almost of his last season until a late season injury to his throwing hand seemed to diminish his play a little bit. But make no mistake, it’s evident watching the Lions that Stafford is a different player than he used to be, and in the context of that scheme, he’s incredibly valuable to that offense.

All Quarterbacks, Even Elite Ones, Play Better with a Good Team

Kacsmar makes the point that big time money should be reserved for the few elite Quarterbacks that can overcome a flawed roster and consistently carry poor defenses to the playoffs, often playing in shootouts to do so.

There is no doubt that there is a small class of elite Quarterbacks that can do this. But I’d like to counter Kacsmar’s point with the following: If the goal is to win a Superbowl, and devoting too much money to the Quarterback makes it harder to do that, then why even pay the elite guys big money?

Because as good as those elite Quarterbacks are, even they have trouble winning Superbowls on their own. No one can, really. Aaron Rodgers won his only ring when his defense didn’t suck. The same can be said for Drew Brees. Both of those guys have struggled to elevate their team’s play after signing huge contracts. Though they are still able to do so, it’s clear that they are both essentially running one man shows. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest Quarterback of all time, and even he was only able to win his 2 Superbowl rings when his teams stepped up in the Postseason. And then you have Tom Brady. He won 3 rings with an all time great defense in his first 5 years. He then didn’t win another one for 10 years. He’s been able to play at a transcendent level for his last 2 Superbowl wins and deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. But we still can’t neglect to mention that the Patriots are the best organizations in the NFL with arguably the best coach of all time. They are able to outscheme teams to oblivion, and are tremendous at getting cheap but talented players that fit their system. In short, they’ve essentially been able to beat the salary cap era and keep really good teams around Brady even while they are paying him. Has his play been spectacular during those two postseason runs? Of course. Was he still afforded help other elite QBs simply don’t get? Yes, he was. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers’ defenses wouldn’t hold during a 28-3 deficit. They wouldn’t pick off a pass at the 1 yard line with the game on the line. Even someone as transcendentally great as Brady, who will be the Greatest of All Time if he maintains this level of play deep into his 40s, would not be where he is without the help he gets from his team and organization.

Russell Wilson’s going to get paid, and it’s going to be much harder for his team to have the consistent postseason success it’s had with him living off of his cheap 3rd round pick deal. And what about Andrew Luck?? For everything that’s great about the Patriots, that’s how bad the Colts organization is. He’s the best QB in that division and arguably a top 6 QB in the NFL, and even that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs last year. They’re a 2 win team without him, but with all the money they’re paying him and the fact that the roster is barely any better than it was when he was a rookie, it’s hard to see them getting back into the playoffs, let alone winning a Superbowl.

I get that it’s hard to win a Superbowl. I get that for most teams, it starts with having a winning season and making the playoffs. And I get that the great QBs can do that consistently. All I’m saying is that if we’re talking about the ultimate goal–winning the Superbowl–Kacsmar’s argument that having too much money tied up into the QB makes it harder, if not impossible, to have success, even applies to the elite guys who Kacsmar believes are deserving of big money.

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

These are fascinating conversations to have from our armchair, but at the end of the day, I guarantee you that no one in the Detroit Lions organization for a second even considered letting Stafford go. When you find a good QB, you take care of him. That isn’t to say that everything an organization does is always right, but it is to say that moving forward without a QB is a lot bigger bullet to bite when your job depends on it.

In Conclusion

There’s no right answer and every situation is different. When it comes to paying or not paying the Quarterback, both sides make excellent points and its a discussion I’m sure will come up again and again. I’ve done my best to present both sides of the argument here, and while I am sympathetic to the strictly business side of things, I can’t get myself to endorse the notion that letting a QB as good as Stafford go is a good move.

We can’t generalize here because as I said, every QB is different. I’m not a business guy, so I don’t always see it from that cold, calculating side. However, I’m beginning to understand that there are situations where not always paying the QB is a good move. And I think teams are too. When you look at guys Tannehill, Kaepernick, Dalton, Cutler, and Newton, that all got big deals, I totally understand all of them, but I also get why those might be questionable and why you might be paying for a little more than they’re worth.

But I also think the idea that “we have to just give up if we don’t have an elite guy” is a tough pill to swallow for NFL organizations. Because there simply aren’t that many of those guys that can win in any situation no matter what. And I think when you have a guy that’s above average, you think that guy gives you the best chance to win. For most of Stafford’s career, he’s been around the line of average. He still has a lot to prove with this deal, but I do believe that his ascendance under Jim Bob Cooter has pushed him up from the Tannehill/Cutler tier and closer to where a guy like Matt Ryan is (probably just below the elite tier). He’s not there yet, but with guys that good, you trust in your chance to win with them.

Just to go back to team building quickly here. Kacsmar’s argument is also that the Lions are already at a disadvantage playing in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, and that they aren’t equipped to win shootouts with him, so it would be better to rely on defense. He points to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, who did a great job against Bill Belichik’s Patriots from 09-10.

This is an example I often think of when it comes to team building. Mark Sanchez was a bottom 15 Quarterback, but his team was so good that they were still able to win. In those two years, Rex Ryan beat Philip Rivers at home, Peyton Manning at home, Tom Brady at home, and was a 4th and Goal stop away from beating Ben Roethlisberger at home. That’s pretty incredible, and it shows that defense truly does win championships… or at least get you hella close.

However, we can’t neglect to mention that after 2010, Ryan’s Jets fell apart. The defense and run game sunk a little bit from their perch of best in the league, and Sanchez simply wasn’t good enough to carry the team by himself. So I think this comes back to the point that I was making just now. As Kacsmar articulates so well, it’s hard to win a shootout without a truly elite quarterback. But the counter to that is, it’s hard to win defensive battles without a truly elite defense. If you have just an average or below average Quarterback, your defense has to be phenomenal. Which is to say, while Kacsmar accurately articulates the dilemma of paying a non-elite QB and trying to win shootouts with him, I think he somewhat underestimates how hard it is to win without a QB, and overestimates how replaceable these guys really are.

Stafford’s not elite, but he’s been a really good Quarterback, and I think he’s worth the money. Even though it’s a tough pill to swallow, I think the Lions did the right thing in signing him.

So Matt Stafford, if you’re reading this, you better go out there and have a great season and make the playoffs. Don’t prove me wrong!!!!

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