ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- This was the contract the Detroit Lions had to take care of. There was no real choice, not with the questionable development of quarterbacks at the college level and the importance of the position in an NFL offense.
Matthew Stafford has improved. He has turned into a top-10 quarterback, statistically, in the NFL, and boosted his efficiency every year under coach Jim Caldwell. And in a league where quarterbacks are going to make the most money and who ends up being paid the most is often based on timing, this was going to be the deal the Lions knew they were going to end up making.
It likely will make Stafford the highest-paid player in the game, according to a report by ESPN Insider Adam Schefter. The deal could allow him to keep that title until Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers get their next extensions or Kirk Cousins signs a deal next offseason. Because that’s how it works in the NFL. Stafford will be the highest paid in the league until the next guy is up.
That said, Stafford deserves it. He has done what Detroit has asked of him. And last season, he was playing at the level of an MVP candidate, until the middle finger on his throwing hand was injured in Week 13. He had Detroit headed toward a divisional title -- which would have been the Lions’ first since 1993 -- and a home playoff game that comes with it.
The injury, which he played through, affected him, however. Detroit lost its final four games, including a wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, but that just accentuated how important a healthy Stafford is to Detroit. So there was little reason to think about doing anything other than extending him.
The Lions couldn’t take a chance without him. Stafford is a known quantity. He understands the Lions. The Lions -- both in the front office and coaching staff -- understand him and what he can do, what he can’t do and the players he needs to be surrounded by to have success.
Detroit has done a better job of addressing that recently, by adding a versatile set of players who can produce at running back, receiver and tight end. This allows Stafford to play like a point guard in the offense, setting up his playmakers and getting them the ball -- which is a far cry from Stafford relying only on himself and Calvin Johnson, something all too common early in the quarterback's career when the since-retired All-Pro receiver was Stafford's only high-level option.
That Stafford-Johnson pairing led to some gaudy statistics -- including a 5,000-passing-yard season in 2011 -- but not much winning. The Lions under Stafford (or anyone else in the past 25 years, for that matter) have not won a playoff game. They haven’t won a divisional title. They’ve come close, but they haven’t been able to pull it off.
Not all of that was on Stafford, though, which is why this contract shouldn’t be judged based on those numbers. He took over a team that went 0-16 in 2008 and needed to be almost completely dismantled.
A rebuild like that -- something akin to what the Cleveland Browns are having to do now -- takes time. The Lions made progress, perhaps sooner than expected, due to how Stafford played in 2011, and now have put themselves into a spot where they should be contenders in the NFC North -- and the NFC as a whole -- just as the 29-year-old Stafford hits the prime of his career.
Stafford also is in a position where he could end up becoming one of the top quarterbacks in the league in the next two to three years. If he continues to show improvement, some of that will be his own ability to push himself into that conversation. The other piece of that equation is those who are ahead of him and how long they might play. Tom Brady is 40 and Drew Brees is pushing 40, and while both have indicated they want to keep playing for a while, that’s not a guarantee.
Ben Roethlisberger seems to be moving more toward a year-by-year decision-making process on whether he’ll still play. Philip Rivers is entering his mid-30s, and his franchise just moved from San Diego to Los Angeles. Rodgers will remain where he's at, and he’ll be ahead of Stafford.
Other than that, Stafford is likely to be in the conversation with most other quarterbacks toward the top of the league. Ryan is the reigning MVP, but before last season, he and Stafford often were viewed on the same level. Dak Prescott needs to show he can replicate his rookie success over multiple years. Andrew Luck has the talent, but he has dealt with injuries. Stafford had better statistics last season than Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Derek Carr and Jameis Winston, and he can be in the discussion with all of them.
So Detroit did what it had to -- make Matthew Stafford the highest-paid player in the league. He has been that valuable to Detroit and has shown little reason to think he won’t continue that trend as he starts playing under his third lucrative contract.