By: Will Burchfield
“You can’t jump in with two feet until you date for a little while,” said Bob Quinn on Tuesday afternoon.
Quinn was reflecting on how much his relationship with Matthew Stafford has grown in the past year and a half. When Quinn was introduced as the Lions’ general manager in January of 2016, he gave a lukewarm endorsement of Stafford as Detroit’s franchise quarterback.
In essence: He could be our guy, I think he’s our guy — but I’m not certain.
“I didn’t know Matthew, Matthew didn’t know me,” Quinn said. “So that was a feeling-out process.”
Quinn already had a firm appreciation for Stafford’s talent, his arm strength, his vision, his toughness. He needed little confirmation in that regard.
“I could watch tape on Matthew until I was blue in the face in Foxboro. But to see him work, lead, practice, to see the time that he puts in preparing for each week and each season, that’s the big thing for me,” said Quinn.
He began watching Stafford closely last summer. He wanted to see how seriously he trained during the offseason, how well he connected with his teammates. He wanted to get a sense for the guy behind the quarterback.
“It didn’t take long,” Quinn said.
“To see Matt work last year, into the offseason program and the start of training camp, he embodies what we want in a Lion. He’s a great teammate. He’s tough. He’s competitive. He has a tremendous work ethic. He’s one of the first guys in the building every day, and I think he’s a great example for our young players,” Quinn added.
Then Stafford went out and put together one of the best seasons of his career, highlighted by an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks. No, the campaign didn’t end with a flourish for either the team or the quarterback, but Stafford was an MVP candidate prior to injuring his finger in Week 13. If 2016 was his audition for a long, lucrative extension, he passed with flying colors.
“Obviously, he’s proven that he can perform in tough situations, which is tremendously important at that position,” said Quinn.
The five-year, $135 million extension Stafford signed on Monday makes him the highest-paid player in the NFL. If such a title carries additional pressure, the easy-going Stafford isn’t feeling it.
(It’s a title he won’t hold for long, of course. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins are all in line behind him.)
“It’s not much different than I feel yesterday. I work extremely hard no matter what my salary is for the year,” Stafford said.
Plus, money isn’t the main motivator.
“The main motivator for me is getting respect from guys in the locker room, people around the league — coaches, players — and winning football games. You do that with hard work, dedication and a bunch of toughness,” he said.
Stafford, 29, began facing questions about his contract at least a year ago. From the start, he said he wanted to stay in Detroit long term. His representatives began discussing an extension with the Lions in February, and both sides were clear on their desire to consummate a deal as soon as possible.
“I wanted to get it done the first time we talked about it,” said Quinn.
Said Stafford, “I’ve always wanted to be here. From the first day I met with our representatives after I talked with Bob in February, I (told them), “Absolutely, I wanna be in Detroit.’ That was my wish and intention all the way back then.”
But a deal of this magnitude takes time to come together. There are phone calls, texts and emails to be exchanged. There are concessions to be made. Fortunately, negotiations never turned sour. Neither Stafford nor Quinn ever felt like an agreement was in jeopardy.
“Sometimes these negotiations don’t go real smooth and you get frustrated about it, but I don’t think there was any sense of frustration on our level,” said Quinn. “I always thought that eventually we’d come to an agreement.”
Stafford was grateful it was a civil process from start to finish.
“It was as cordial as I feel like it could be. I talked to Bob a couple days ago and just said, ‘Whatever happens, happens,’ but I wanted to let him know that I appreciated the way everyone treated me and we treated each other during this whole thing,” Stafford said.
He was aware it could have turned ugly. He understood some of his peers around the league have been in a similar situation and found it difficult to come into work. That was never the case for Stafford.
“They allowed me just to be the quarterback and play football and get this team as ready to play as I possibly can,” he said. “That was awesome for me.”
Both Stafford and Quinn said there was never a deadline by which a deal needed to be done. Quinn, for his part, was open to holding negotiations during the season. But Stafford felt the clock beginning to tick in training camp, concerned that questions about his contract might become a distraction for the team.
“It was important,” he said, to finalize the extension before the season began.
“For us to be worrying — anybody, even myself — about my contract situation was going to be a disservice to the organization, to our team, to the players in the locker room. So I wanted to get this thing done, and kind of realized that during training camp,” Stafford said.
The deal, which includes a $50 million signing bonus and $92 million guaranteed, was put into ink on Monday night. Stafford, who had sat out practice for the first time since 2012 earlier in the day (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), got the news at the dinner table, sitting across from his wife Kelly.
“I just smiled and said, ‘We’re gonna be here for six more,'” Stafford recalled. “No big story, nothing too crazy. Shot a text out to my family just so they weren’t gonna be caught off guard. But it was an awesome moment.”
(Kelly gave birth to twin girls, Chandler and Sawyer, in April. All three were on hand for Stafford’s press conference on Tuesday. Asked how he might treat himself with his spoils, what he might buy, Stafford smiled and said, “A bunch of diapers.”)
Stafford has seen the Lions organization come a long way since they drafted him first overall in 2009. He has driven that progress more than anyone else. At the same time, he’s aware of how much lies ahead.
It could be said the Lions paid him for both what he’s done and what he’s yet to do.
“When I was drafted here we were coming off an 0-16 season, and in a lot of ways needed some new breath and some direction. I was happy and honored to be a part of getting it from where it was then to where it is now,” said Stafford. “Hopefully, that exponential of a jump can happen again.
“We can go from where we are now to where we really wanna be, and that’s hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.”