Should the Lions Move On From Stafford before the draft?
Let’s kick this hornet’s nest. I’ve been putting it off, frankly because I just don’t want to deal with the BS that pops up on both sides of any discussion regarding Matthew Stafford. If you think you know the answer, and there is nothing that can ever change the way you feel about the matter, well, just quit reading, thanks for the click. Either way that you fall on the matter there will be people who agree with you, disagree with you, and you guys can go fight about it to your heart’s content. This article is not for you, and you should probably go somewhere else, literally anywhere else, where an objective view on this situation is not the goal. This is not an “is Stafford elite?” article. Those articles are as pointless as that word is meaningless. What this is going to be is a look at the actual mechanics of getting rid of a starting NFL Quarterback, and finding a new one. People point to a few well known situations, look at the return teams got for the quarterback who had either asked to move on, or was told to pack his stuff, and how “easy” it was for the team to replace them. The major examples in the last decade or so who have been replaced before their career arc would have indicated they should be are Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and possibly Brett Favre. There is no shortage of fuel for this argument; those are all big names, and the team that replaced them saw success at some point in the immediate aftermath of moving on. That makes this a question worth looking at.
When to replace a Quarterback? in three parts.
If you don’t think Stafford is an NFL starter, you don’t understand the words. The answer to the above question is “When you have a better one on the roster, and not one single second before that.” In the first and second round of the 2011 draft there were 6 quarterbacks taken, the first overall pick Cam Newton, and Andy Dalton are the starting QB’s for their team in 2016. That’s a 33% hit rate in what was regarded as one of the better years for quarterbacks in recent memory at the time. That off-season, the quarterback class drew comparisons to the 1983 Draft in which six quarterbacks were selected in round one, three of which won Super Bowls and four of whom were Pro Bowlers back when players actually showed up for the Pro Bowl. The Bengals had their replacement in place, and pulled off one of the few mid-season trades of a big name player, to a team that was trying not to lose their season completely in the wake of an injury to Jason Campbell. The Broncos on the other hand spent first round and second round draft picks, and then bought the most expensive free agent in the history of football to find a replacement for Jay Cutler after trading him before finding a replacement in 2009. The San Francisco 49ers tried to do the same thing as the Bengals in 2011, in the same season, drafting Colin Kaepernick one pick after Dalton was selected by the Bengals, and while his career in the NFL is far from over, it seems highly unlikely at this point that we ever see Kaepernick in a 49ers jersey again. Even using the “Draft the replacement and make sure he can do the job before you move on” method; a single coaching shake up and the 49ers are looking again.
Quarterbacks are the hardest position in the NFL to find in the draft, almost every other position has around a 50% success rate in round one. At any given moment there are probably 25 human beings on planet earth that deserve to be starting quarterbacks in the NFL while seven others are there because someone has to stand in the spot the center flings the ball at every down, maybe 15-17 are “good” starting quarterbacks in the NFL consistently. In fact if you look at quarterbacks drafted in the first round alone, in the five years before Stafford was drafted and every year up until last year’s draft; and ask the question “Did they get a starting quarterback for their franchise?” This is what you find:
Hits: Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Aaron Rogers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater.
Misses: J.P. Losman, Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jemarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, E. J. Manuel, Johnny Manziel.
That is ten hits, and eighteen misses in the first round. If you want to argue that Smith is a legitimate starter; all I will say in rebuttal is that the team that drafted him disagreed which made their draft pick wasted, and that it’s a big enough sample that a single player doesn’t really skew the result all that much. So if you trade a quarterback for two first round picks and draft a quarterback with one of them you have a 33% chance of drafting a starting quarterback. That’s a terrible gamble because if you don’t have a quarterback in the NFL, you have nothing. You don’t need a great one, but you do need one of those fifteen “good” ones. Trading a quarterback for draft picks without a safety net is a bad move.
The Journeyman Replacement Route?
Well let’s look at the journeyman QBs in the play-offs last season, the last five seasons even, and see how far that theory goes. Peyton Manning is not a journeyman for less money, and neither was Drew Brees, that kind of free agent comes along once every five years or so (2006 and 2014 respectively with a Favre in between), and because of that I’m not counting them. It is not even a realistic option to consider picking up a player like that, so they don’t count here, and would add one to half of these years even if they were included. The Chiefs traded for Alex Smith, that takes him out of the equation, as it’s even less often that trading for a starting quarterback yields success.
That’s one out of 12 more often than not. So is that the way to build a franchise? Even if we were to include all three of the excluded players, the best year would be 4 out of 12 playoff teams having found a quarterback outside the draft. Looking at the free agent quarterbacks signed to deals that were not at or near the top of their position’s salary scale over the time period that ESPN has readily available, 2005-2015 this is what you find:
Hits: Kurt Warner (New York to Arizona), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tennessee to New York)
Misses: Jon Kitna (Seahawks to Lions), Matt Schaub (Atlanta to Houston), Matt Cassel (New England to Kansas City), Jason Campbell (Washington to Oakland), Jake Delhomme (Carolina to Cleveland), Donovan McNabb (Washington to Minnesota), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo to Tennessee), Josh McCown (Chicago to Tampa Bay), Matt Flynn (Green Bay to Seattle), Brian Hoyer (Cleveland to Houston), Josh McCown Tampa bay to Cleveland), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tennessee to Houston)
So that’s, and let me make sure I’ve counted this correctly……. two legitimate successes in ten years at bringing in a journeyman quarterback to be the starter. If you want to be generous, and include Kitna (because you are a homer, not because he was good while he was in Detroit), and Matt Schaub (because he was competent for a few seasons with a great supporting cast before teams figured him out and ended him), that’s four. Even if you’re being that generous, there are ten failures to go along with those four successes, putting the “Budget free agent QB brought in to be the starter success rate” at 30%, at best, and 15% in my opinion. Either of those is even worse than drafting in the first round……. That’s not a viable way to replace Matthew Stafford either. Budget free agent quarterback is an even less likely route to success than first round draft pick.
Wait…The Lions can’t win a Super Bowl with Matthew Stafford!
The season Eli Manning won his first Super Bowl, he completed 56.1% of his passes during the regular season. He got hot in the playoffs, and rode a beautifully crafted defense to a Super Bowl win. The NFC North is a strong but ageing division, with the Packers, and Vikings being one superstar injury away from replicating the 2015 Cowboys. Teams win Super Bowls not quarterbacks, as much as the NFL likes to publicize it to be otherwise; and the Broncos just proved that you can win a Super Bowl with a quarterback not even close to worthy of his massive cap hit if you draft well. He just has to get his crap together for three games. If you don’t think Stafford is capable of a three game hot streak, I don’t know what player you’ve been watching. The Broncos last season had 19 touchdowns and 23 interceptions during the regular season. The Lions have a lot of issues holding them back from being a Super Bowl contender, Matthew Stafford is not one of them. If you have a legitimate starter and build a team you will have a shot at the Super Bowl if everything goes right.
So in short, unless Matthew Stafford is not a starting caliber Quarterback in the NFL, and if you believe that then those words do not mean what you think they mean, the Lions absolutely should not move on from Stafford until a better option presents itself a la Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe. Should they draft a quarterback? Yes, every couple years they should be completely remaking the depth behind him and hoping to find a diamond in the rough. Whether it be a miracle like Brady, to ride for many seasons at a discounted price, or a player they can move for picks a couple good developmental seasons later the Lions need to invest in the quarterback position far more often than they have been. Should the Lions trade Matthew Stafford in the 2016 offseason? No, they definitively should not.
For feedback you can find me on Reddit as /u/A5hcrack and Twitter as @a5hcrack. I’d like to thank /u/stupidcooper33 for filling in as my muse on this one with his dad’s idea. I listed five reasons at the beginning that it was not a merit-less concept, but on balance, new quarterbacks outright fail far more often than they even moderately succeed in the NFL, even the same player can fail multiple times for every time they succeed. That is the case with the specific example used in the post, Ryan Fitzpatrick. This originally started as the intro to my next article regarding a possible extension of Stafford’s contract this off-season, but a 1800 word introduction seemed like a bit much.