By: Will Burchfield
“I got a little joke,” Ameer Abdullah said on Tuesday morning. “We got the richest huddle in the NFL now.”
The punch line is this: The offense better back it up.
The Lions made two of the biggest moves in free agency this winter with the signings of guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner. They made a similar splash last winter with the acquisition of Marvin Jones.
And they made NFL history on Monday with the $135 million extension they handed to Matthew Stafford.
That’s without mentioning Golden Tate and left tackle Greg Robinson, both of whom are in the upper echelon of income at their respective positions. (Tate more so than Robinson.)
In terms of average annual salary, the Lions now have the second highest-paid right tackle, the seventh highest-paid guard, two of the 25 highest-paid receivers and the highest-paid player in the game.
“That’s something you can rep — highest-paid player’s on our team,” said Abdullah. “We can take that and that can be motivation for us. Like, shoot, we got the highest-paid player, we gotta pick our crap up.”
Between Stafford, Jones, Tate, Wagner, Lang and Robinson, the Lions have an annual expense of about $68 million. Add in Theo Riddick ($3.85 million) Eric Ebron ($3.06 million) and Abdullah ($1.04 million) — “I’m not the reason why that huddle’s the richest,” Abdullah laughed — and the bill approaches $80 million.
The burden to deliver is most squarely on Stafford, but he’s certainly not alone.
“We got the talent, we got the guy there, so that serves as motivation for everybody. Obviously for him, because that’s dropping in his bank account, but for us too, man,” said Abdullah. “We got the highest-paid player, we should be ballin’. That’s the M.O. right there.”
It’s not entirely fair to judge a player’s performance based on his contract. (Would you turn down $27 million per year?) But it’s the nature of the beast in pro sports, where expectations are inextricably linked to salary.
Lang, who will earn $28.5 million over the next three years, is well aware of that. In fact, he discussed the very topic with Wagner after the two of them cashed in this offseason. Wagner secured $47.5 million over five years.
“I was telling Ricky, ‘We don’t have a grace period to build chemistry.’ We’ve gotta show up day one and be firing on all cylinders based on our contracts and why we came in here,” said Lang.
Tate put that onus on himself after he inked a five-year, $31 million deal in 2014.
“When I signed my contract I did feel a little bit of pressure. I felt pressure coming in the first few weeks, felt like I needed to come out and prove myself, prove that I’m worth the money that they’re giving out,” he said.
The Lions finished 20th in the league last year in points per game (21.6), 21st in yards per game (338.8). That didn’t cut it then, and it certainly won’t cut it now. There is too much money invested in this offense, with or without a healthy Taylor Decker, to finish anywhere near the bottom third of the league.
And after a full season under Jim Bob Cooter, the “grace period,” as Lang would say, is over. Long over.
There won’t be any moral victories for moving the ball well. Flashes of explosiveness won’t be taken for signs of progress. The only way the Lions’ offense can prove itself and please the masses this season is by putting up points.
Perhaps the only player who’s not feeling the pressure is the one who matters most.
“I think I’ve been around this league long enough to know what’s important and what’s not. And to me, my number one focus and concern is doing everything I can to help this team win,” said Stafford. “I can’t control what people are going to say, outside thoughts and ideas and all that kind of stuff.
“I know that wherever we play, whoever it’s in front of, whatever they have to say, we’re focused on one thing and that’s trying to win ball games.”
Stafford isn’t placing higher expectations on himself in the wake of his historic extension. And from his vantage point, that makes sense.
“I feel like I have about as high a level of expectations as you can have. Like I said earlier, it doesn’t matter what my salary is for that year,” he said. “It’s been all sorts of different numbers throughout the years. That doesn’t motivate me.”
But $27 million annually dramatically changes things from the outside. It’s a price tag that comes with a flashing red light, one that’s now highlighting the entire offense. Lang, Wagner, Jones and Tate enhance the glare themselves. Eyes will be fixed on the Lions’ offense this season, cynical eyes at that.
Big money has been dolled out. Bigger returns must be delivered.