Matthew Stafford laid on the ground, getting the ball off milliseconds before being taken down by a Tennessee Titans defender. On television, you could see Stafford move his hand to his abdomen and the grimace on his face.
Stafford was in pain throughout the Detroit Lions' 46-25 loss to Tennessee on Sunday after barely practicing throughout the week. Earlier in the week, he admitted he had no expectation on whether he’d actually play against the Titans.
"I did not feel good enough at all on Wednesday or Thursday or Tuesday or any of those days," Stafford said. "Just glad it kind of turned the corner for me."
Friday in practice, he took a few reps. By Friday night, Stafford made the mental decision "something bad was going to have to happen between Friday night and Sunday" to keep him off the field. And it didn't -- even if he was still in pain. This was one of the closest times in his career where he thought he might not play and then ended up actually out there.
And yet Stafford did what he usually has since becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. In pain and without complaint, Stafford jogged out onto the field and played through it -- completing 22 of 32 passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
It was a day like you’ve seen so often from Stafford in the past when he hasn’t been in pain, hasn’t been hobbled. That he did it with injuries to his hand and ribs and who knows what else this late in the season all became another reminder of what Detroit has in its quarterback.
Lions coach Darrell Bevell said he took Stafford out at the end because the quarterback had given everything he could and with the game out of reach, he wanted to keep Stafford from exacerbating the injury.
Stafford’s future is unknown after the season. If the Lions’ new head coach and general manager decide they need to completely rebuild the franchise -- and the argument for a teardown is strong -- it would be reasonable for Detroit to look away from its 32-year-old quarterback as its long-term solution. Not because of questions around his talent but because of what his talent could provide in return to put together more pieces for the future.
It is possible, perhaps even probable, Stafford is back with the Lions in 2021. Detroit’s eventual new staff could decide, like so many before, Stafford is the quarterback they want to entrust with their present and future. His talent makes a case for it.
But it is no longer a guarantee. So savor what you saw from Stafford on Sunday and what you might see from him in the season’s final two games against Tampa Bay and Minnesota. If there’s one thing the Lions have learned throughout their history, from early retirements (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson), injuries (Jahvid Best, DeAndre Levy), free agency (Ndamukong Suh) or trades (Darius Slay), you rarely know when the end could come for a standout in a Lions jersey.
Describe the game in two words: Fair effort. With an injured quarterback and a completely undermanned defense, the Lions did about as well as could be expected against the playoff-caliber Titans.
Biggest hole in the game plan: The run defense -- but what else is new? Detroit was never going to stop Derrick Henry. Good run defenses can’t do it so the Lions’ subpar run defense held together by Elmer’s Glue, Scotch tape and tissue paper wasn’t going to be able to do anything meaningful. It’s no fault of the players on the field or the coaches on the sideline at this point. It’s a combination of the scheme put in place by former coach Matt Patricia and the roster cobbled together by former general manager Bob Quinn. Just not good enough to handle elite rushing offenses. And the attention on Henry let the Titans use the sellout to give Ryan Tannehill two rushing touchdowns, too.
DE Romeo Okwara leaps over a blocker for a sack and safetypic.twitter.com/3mDnfhy— Detroit Lions (@Lions) Dec. 20, 2020
Silver linings: Marvin Jones continues to have a late-season contract-year surge, catching 10 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets -- building on a string of second-half performances helping to carry the offense. And Romeo Okwara set a career-high in sacks with a safety in the second quarter by jumping over a Houston offensive lineman. Okwara -- also in a contract year -- is showing athleticism and versatility, giving himself a chance to make some real money from the Lions or another team this offseason.