When Jim Schwartz was hired as head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2009, he was asked about the first step in rebuilding the team from the depths of a winless record the season before.
“It’s probably about time we find a replacement for Bobby Layne,” Schwartz said, referring to the quarterback who led Detroit to its most recent — both then and now — championship … in 1957.
This must have been a disappointment to Dan Orlovsky, who had been the most prominent of a three-quarterback starting rotation the previous year, but not a huge surprise. Championship teams are constructed around franchise quarterbacks, and the Lions never had one. Schwartz, defense-oriented though he is, knew that had to change.
By any measure — except, notably, the one about championships — the fruit of Schwartz’s strategy has been excellent for the Lions. John Matthew Stafford, taken with the first pick of the 2009 draft, set the record for the fastest to 30,000 yards in NFL history and, if he stays on pace, sometime next month will become the fastest to 40,000. Later on this season, he will leapfrog John Unitas and Joe Montana for career passing yards, and place himself among the top 20 all-time. For a team that risks the top pick in the draft on a prospect, this is what is known as working out well.
Schwartz, now the Eagles defensive coordinator, will get his third opportunity to coach against Stafford on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. The two are 1-1 when on opposite sidelines. The Bills, with Schwartz as coordinator, beat the Lions in 2014. Stafford had a sharp, effective day against the Eagles in a 2016 Detroit win.
Stafford has been consistent and durable — Sunday will be his 131st consecutive start — but while the quarterback’s career statistics are a loud roar of approval, his national profile and overall reputation are as quiet as Ford Field during the NFL postseason.
Now in his 11th season, Stafford has appeared in just three playoff games, none at home, and hasn’t won any. The arid list of real accomplishments is not necessarily his fault, and certainly predates him. The Lions are 1-12 in the postseason since Layne and the boys won their 1957 title.
The rub is that franchise quarterbacks are supposed to be the difference-makers, the ones capable of producing more than just lines of impressive statistical type. Stafford, popular among his teammates and the possessor of a magnificent arm, even by NFL standards, should have been that guy.
That his successful career — he’s 31 now — has not translated into team success is a cautionary lesson for every franchise that drafts its elite quarterback and settles back to watch the trophies pile up in the lobby. Every team including the one that hosts the Lions on Sunday.
The Eagles organization is historically familiar with highly productive quarterbacks who led the team in everything except parades. Donovan McNabb, Ron Jaworski, and Randall Cunningham, the only quarterbacks to play more than 100 games for the Eagles, each dominated the scene for a decade or very nearly. They were entrenched and deserved to be, but the weight of expectation was never balanced by corresponding championships.
As we await the writing of the Carson Wentz legacy, a mystery that swings wildly with every ridiculously difficult pass he completes, and with every hit he absorbs, the presence of Stafford, an earlier edition of the Wentz storyline, is a handy comparison.
If Stafford’s career ended now, he would be more remembered for his career losing record than for his passing yards or completion percentage. That wasn’t what Schwartz had in mind when he drafted him, but after a decade, it is the case. The Eagles hope for a lot more from Wentz when he is 10 years into his career.
This is his fourth year already, and Wentz hasn’t been in a playoff game yet. He certainly would have aside from bad luck, but if his knee injury never happened in 2017, there’s no saying the season would have ended as it did. Put it this way: No one in the organization would take the bet to replay it and find out.
So, in a very real way, Wentz is still unproven, both as a dependable participant and as a winner of the biggest games. He’s far different from Stafford in the one regard — Stafford never gets hurt — and similar in that pin-pointing a signature win in his career is not that easy. Wentz has had very good games, but none that have defined a season.
That is expected to happen, and if he stays upright, it is actually expected to happen this season. If not, another year falls from the calendar, and the audience will begin to shift in its seats as the Carson Wentz payoff is delayed again.
Drafting a top quarterback is the only way to go. Everyone knows that. The Detroit Lions knew it in 2009, and they were exactly right with their selection. It has worked out perfectly, but Bobby Layne is still smiling across the black-and-white pages of team history, holding the trophy and waiting for someone else to claim it.