Detroit Lions rumors: Team preparing to move off Matthew Stafford

With the search for a new head coach and general manager underway, Detroit Lions rumors are aplenty. Check in here for the latest buzz.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 13, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) looks to pass during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions are in the midst of a regime change, and it remains to be seen whether they promote from within for their vacant general manager position, or bring in a qualified candidate from outside the organization. It’s assumed that the new executive will be tasked with finding the successor to fired head coach Matt Patricia.

At least one established NFL personnel man with plentiful GM experience is reportedly in the running for the Lions job: Rick Smith, formerly of the Houston Texans. Now, buzz is surfacing that ESPN analyst Louis Riddick is in line for a shot at the gig, too. But what might the new man in charge of Detroit’s personnel do with quarterback Matthew Stafford?

Detroit Lions rumors: Matthew Stafford likely gone before 2021 season

Despite not hiring a coach or general manager as of yet, the buzz out of Detroit is that the Lions are “going to move on” from Stafford under center ahead of next year, according to Chad Brown of 104.3 The Fan.

The Colorado-based radio station has a strong following, so this rumor can’t be dismissed. Plus, it makes sense that no matter who takes the GM or coaching vacancies that the franchise would want to move in a different direction at the quarterback position.

Stafford hasn’t won a playoff game and has made only three postseason trips since being drafted first overall in 2009. It’s not so much to do with his individual performance as it is the perpetual incompetence that engulfs the organization. The Lions’ two best offensive playmakers in recent memory, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, both retired early, and Detroit has squandered the vast majority of its most talented passer’s prime.

Having had little overall success and facing the prospect of another rebuild and regime change, Stafford should frankly want to bail — especially if his fate is already being decided prior to the addition of a new GM and coaching staff. Plenty of teams would probably jump at the opportunity to swoop in for Stafford in a trade or, in a less likely scenario, if he’s cut loose and on the open market.

Detroit Lions rumors: ESPN’s Louis Riddick to interview Friday

Whispered about as a GM despite his current post on Monday Night Football, Riddick is slated to discuss leading up the Lions’ football operations later this week, according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport.

Riddick is a fascinating person to throw into the mix as part of Detroit’s GM search. The last front office gig he held was with the Philadelphia Eagles, when he worked his way up from a pro scout to director of pro personnel from 2010 through 2013. Prior to then, he spent time with Washington and held that same latter title from 2005 through 2007.

That first season of personnel director experience came when legendary coach Joe Gibbs returned to Washington. Thanks in part to Riddick’s work in roster building, the team proceeded to make the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. During Riddick’s Philadelphia tenure, the Eagles saw Michael Vick win Comeback Player of the Year and set up a roster for coach Chip Kelly to go 10-6 with in each of his first two years at the helm. From there, unfortunately, Kelly wanted more say in personnel, and it ultimately led to his ouster.

Given the circumstances and success with multiple organizations, despite not working directly for an NFL team of late, Riddick has the track record ideally suited to rebuild the Lions.

Detroit Lions rumors: Ex-Texans GM a lead candidate?

Detroit Lions rumors: Rick Smith to interview for GM post
Apr 28, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith (left) and first round draft pick Deshaun Watson (right) pose for a picture during a press conference at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Smith will interview at some point before Christmas. This isn’t an insignificant development, because although the search is expected to be thorough, the Lions kicked things off by interviewing three internal candidates, i.e. current members of their front office, for the vacant GM post. Two of them have been in Detroit for many years. Not much winning has happened in that span, right?

Smith oversaw the Texans’ football operations from 2006 to 2017, so that’s quite a tenure, especially since he was only 36 years old when hired. What’s more, the last defining move he made was drafting quarterback Deshaun Watson in the first round. That turned out to be a fantastic move.

One problem, though: the last head coach Smith hired, Bill O’Brien, wound up torpedoing the team’s future when he was placed in charge of personnel transactions. That included trading away Watson’s favorite target and another key Smith draft choice, All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Unfortunately, Smith had to leave football entirely to care for his wife, who eventually passed away from breast cancer in January 2019. Now that he’s had time away from the sport, Smith seems fully prepared to return, as is explored at length in a moving feature in The Athletic.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – Blockbuster trades shake up 2021 NFL Draft.

Detroit Lions rumors: Ownership reevaluating football operations

Detroit Lions rumors: Ownership evaluating operations
Oct 4, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions principle owner and chairman Sheila Ford Hamp before the game against the New Orleans Saints at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond what Smith brings to the table as an evidently gifted talent evaluator, there’s a deeper problem in Detroit, namely a “culture” issue. That term is in quotations because it’s thrown around a lot in sports, particularly in pro football. In this case, it translates to a general lack of winning. An ESPN.com report by Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler detailed how Lions principal owner and chairwoman Sheila Ford Hamp is trying to get to the bottom of it all by potentially shaking things up in the organization to reverse the negative perception.

“She’s evaluating the entire operation, hoping to provide synergy to a team saddled with the dreaded “culture problem” label. […] That includes evaluating structure and allocation of responsibilities.”

The optics on the Lions interviewing the three internal candidates right out of the gate aren’t great. So, the big question is: will Detroit actually take legitimate external candidates like Smith seriously, or keep that whole echo chamber environment going, which has netted zero playoff wins since the 1991 season?

Whomever takes over the GM gig has two big decisions to make: hiring the right coach, and whether or not to move on from quarterback Matthew Stafford. Already having wasted most of the signal-caller’s prime, perhaps the best way forward for both parties is to part ways. The question is, will there be any takers in a prospective Stafford trade? And this has to be at the front of questions for a new coaching candidate, who must be on the same page with the front office to move forward united.

It’s something of a mess in Detroit left by the fired coach Patricia and his former New England compatriot Bob Quinn. There are no real easy answers here, with a roster that needs an overhaul and a muddy quarterback situation. But hey, at least in Smith’s case, he took the Texans from a floundering expansion team to a consistent AFC South and playoff contender.