INDIANAPOLIS – No sooner had the aging quarterback hit the free agent market than he became the favorite to provide short-term stability for the Indianapolis Colts.
That was 11 months ago. Everyone seemed to agree Philip Rivers, 38 at the time of his February 2020 divorce from the Chargers, was the cure for what ailed the offense.
General manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich agreed. The Colts doled out a one-year, $25 million deal that brought Rivers to town and added life to what was a pedestrian passing game (OK, that’s being generous) with Jacoby Brissett under center.
Now, another quarterback with tons of tread on his tires is available. And the early rumblings point to Matthew Stafford being the fix, short-term or otherwise, for Indy.
He turns 33 in February and could very well have another five or six quality of years in him.
Speculation linking Stafford to the Colts began as soon as Rivers announced his retirement last week. It intensified when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Lions had agreed to seek a trade for Stafford, who had informed management that was his wish.
Stafford apparently had no interest in being part of an organizational reboot with new folks at the top – general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell.
What must be noted is any team acquiring Stafford is getting a top-end QB with a team-friendly contract. He’s owed $43 million over the next two seasons, including a $10 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the 2021 league year. His salary cap hits moving forward: $21 million in ’21, $22 million in ’22.
The Colts are one of those teams that won’t have to do cap calisthenics to add Stafford to their roster. They’re projected to be roughly $64 million under the ’21 cap. That’s second-most space in the league.
Remember, they saved perhaps $25 by not re-investing in Rivers and carried Brissett at $21.3 million last season.
Stafford’s relocation undoubtedly comes down to which team is willing to come up with the most enticing trade package. The starting point likely is a first-round pick, and the Colts hold the 21st overall selection.
Other teams that might do more than just kick the tires on a Stafford trade include New England, Washington, San Francisco and Denver. The respective first-round picks: Broncos (9th), Niners (12th), Patriots (15th) and Washington (19th). That group starts with stronger first-round ammunition, which would require Ballard to be more aggressive with the total package.
Ballard generally covets draft picks but made it clear last offseason he’s willing to make an exception for an exceptional player. The cost of acquiring All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from San Francisco was the 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
If Ballard, Reich and owner Jim Irsay are in agreement Stafford is the best option for their QB1, parting with additional draft picks shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
The Colts have a promising roster teeming with young talent. They’re ready to win. Now. The last three drafts have added Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr., Nyheim Hines, Bobby Okereke, Khari Willis, Julian Blackmon, Isaiah Rodgers.
But four critical holes must be addressed in the coming months: quarterback, left tackle, edge pass rusher and cornerback.
Matthew Stafford, providing the trade compensation isn’t prohibitive because of multiple teams pursing him, crosses one of those needs off the list.
Stafford: the good
Did we mention he turns 33 in February? Ideally, the Colts find a long-term answer in the draft, but that’s highly unlikely. Ballard doesn’t believe a viable option will be there at 21, and moving up to get one of the top 4 QBs would excessive. And as history has shown us, there are no guarantees with lottery QBs.
Failing to get that long-term answer in the draft, we’re not the least bit opposed to restocking the most influential position with a QB1 who still might have a half-dozen good years in him. Of course, the Colts would face the prospects of what would be a huge contract after Stafford’s current deal expires following the 2022 season. Or, they could re-launch their pursuit through the draft or Jacob Eason would be ready to take over.
Stafford has all the numbers. He’s 16th all-time with 282 touchdowns and 45,109 yards and has led 38 game-winning drives, tied for 8th most. He’s got the big arm and probably brings a better deep passing game than Rivers.
A couple numbers are difficult to ignore. Stafford has averaged 273.4 passing yards per game during his 12-year career (fourth all-time behind Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck) and 37.7 attempts (2nd to Luck’s 38.3).
He’s also been durable despite taking a constant beating behind the Lions’ offensive line. He’s been sacked at least 37 times in six of his last seven seasons. Stafford has started all 16 games in nine of the last 10 seasons. He missed eight games in ’19 with a back injury. He was a 16-game starter last season despite dealing with injuries to his ribs and right ankle and a partially torn ligament in his right thumb.
Stafford: the bad
There’s no soft-pedaling the reality of Stafford’s career. His daunting numbers haven’t been able to lift the Lions to any meaningful success. They’re 79-112-1 (.414) since his arrival as the 1st overall pick in 2009; he’s 74-90-1. They’ve finished with four winning records: 10-6 in ’11, 11-5 in ’14 and 9-7 in ’16-’17. They’ve reached the playoffs just three times and were one-and-done on each occasion.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Stafford’s 45,109 passing yards and 282 TDs are the most by a player without a playoff win in NFL history. His 74 wins are tied for the 4th-most without a postseason win, trailing only Jim Hart (87), Steve Grogan (86) and Roman Gabriel (75).
How much of that was Stafford, and how much blame should be placed at the feet of the organization?
Here are a few tidbits to chew on.
During Stafford’s career, the Lions’ run game ranked 32nd, averaging just 95.1 yards per game. He leaned on just one 1,000-yard rusher (Reggie Bush in 2013). That contributed to him averaging a ridiculous 37.7 passes per game. The offense averaged a modest 22.6 points per game (16th) while the defense 30th in points allowed (24.9).
The Lions had 25 Pro Bowl representatives during Stafford’s 12-year career, but just 12 from the offense: wideout Calvin Johnson (six times), Stafford (once), wideouts Golden Tate (once) and Kenny Golloday (once), guard T.J. Lang (once), center Frank Ragnow (once) and tight end T.J. Hockenson (once).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.