LOS ANGELES – You know those movies where the couple splits up and next time you see them, the guy has a hot wife, a new sports car and a big job — while the woman has three screaming kids and a broken-down Ford Escape?
That’s pretty much the Detroit Lions-Los Angeles Rams game today. Matthew Stafford, who spent 12 years laboring fruitlessly in Detroit, is suddenly the toast of LA, with a 5-1 record and dazzling stats.
Meanwhile, the Lions are still the Lions, winless since Stafford left. Their current quarterback is the Rams’ old quarterback, Jared Goff, whose play so far this season could be labeled “This Is Why They Traded Me.”
The Rams are dreaming of a Super Bowl in their home stadium next February. The Lions, at 0-6, are just dreaming of February, because that would mean the season is over.
And now comes reunion day, the awkward movie moment where the exes must come together because there’s an event neither one can get out of (in the movies, it’s their oldest child’s wedding; in real life it’s the NFL schedule.)
The thing is, in the movies, there’s clearly one sympathetic party and one self-absorbed jerk. So you know who to root for.
In the Lions-Rams matchup, I’m not so sure.
Can you blame him for wanting out?
The fact is, most Detroit fans are not rooting for Stafford to lose. They’re not mad. They’re not bitter. He gave his heart, soul, elbows, shoulders, spinal cord, knees and fingers to the Lions. He played through games where a bigger ego would have asked to be excused. He never caused a lick of trouble, spoke about the Lions as if it were his dream franchise, and lit up the community with various charitable acts and appearances.
Sure, he had a cadre of detractors, fans who said he had a limit on his upside, wasn’t mobile enough, missed certain throws, and couldn’t lift the Lions to championship heights.
But now that Stafford has led Rams to five wins in six tries, while Goff, a former Super Bowl quarterback, has come to Detroit and had his wings cut off, even those critics are starting to realize that when it comes to the Lions, all imports must pay a tax.
That tax is a losing culture, an endless series of bad management choices, an ownership that’s adrift, and loss after loss after loss.
Escape is your only salvation.
So why be mad at Stafford? Lions fans are many things — weary, cynical, strangely resilient — but they’re not dumb. They know there’s no reason to hate a guy for asking to get out of jail — after his fourth coach and GM in a dozen years. In some ways, rooting for Stafford and seeing him do well confirms what Lions fans have long suspected: it wasn’t him, it was us.
“I could see how it could be very easy for people to feel the other way,” Stafford told the media last week. “For people to take some happiness in any kind of success that any former player is having away from their building is really just a testament to them. …That’s the kind of people they are in Detroit.”
Yep. That’s us. Cinderella, locked in the house, wishing her stepsisters a great time at the ball.
It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t fix this mess
Now, sure. There have been other Lions who have left town and gone on to glory. Lomas Brown, Cliff Avril, Eddie Murray and Ndamukong Suh are just some of the former Detroiters who won Super Bowls with other teams. For the most part, we were happy for them. (Well, maybe not Suh.)
But a quarterback is different. He’s the face of your franchise. The straw that stirs the drink. And seeing Stafford with LA, upright, barely rushed, delivering laser passes to guys who can actually run routes and catch them, leaves Lions fans wistful. Why couldn’t he do that here? Why couldn’t that happen at Ford Field?
Why? Because Stafford fell into the Lions’ laps at in 2009. They had the first pick. They couldn’t blow it. Other decisions, like who to draft third (Jeff Okudah, 2019) or 10th (Eric Ebron, 2014) or 13th (Nick Fairley, 2011), who to hire as coach and coordinators, who to hire as GM — those decisions require football savvy, something in woefully short supply with our wearisome franchise.
And make no mistake. It’s the franchises facing off today. Not the quarterbacks.
“This should come as no surprise; Matthew’s got an ego (and) so does his head coach Sean McVay,” Dan Orlovsky, a former backup to Stafford in Detroit and now an ESPN analyst, said last week on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “Those guys will try to make sure this is a one-sided affair for sure. Not in a disrespectful way. But they will make sure the narrative is ‘We told you so.’ ”
They told us what? That a trade for Stafford would upgrade the Rams? That losing Goff, who had fallen from grace with Rams management, would free LA from his contract, even if it cost a load of draft picks?
We could have told you that first. Stafford has been low-key all week, refusing to do one-on-one interviews (trust us, we asked) likely to avoid being repeatedly baited into saying something derogatory about his old team, something the Lions might use for extra motivation. That’s smart on his part. I remember the Sunday night football game, after the Rams beat Tom Brady and the Bucs, and Stafford gushed to a postgame reporter something like “This is what I always dreamed the NFL was like.”
Ouch. Who wants to hear more of that?
One ex is looking good, tanned and fit and all smiles. And here comes the other, frumpy and frowning and exhausted from the long trip. It would be great theater if somehow the Lions pulled off an upset today, overcame a 15.5 point spread, and spoiled the showoff party.
But that only happens in movies.
And isn’t it LA who makes the movies?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.