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Did Lions give Stafford’s No. 9 jersey away too soon?

Something happened at the last Detroit Lions last game that shocked me. It was something that I never thought I would experience, or at least something I didn’t think I wouldn’t experience for a long time.

It was sympathy for Matthew Stafford.

During his time in Detroit, Stafford received way too much credit for his success and wasn’t held accountable enough for his failures, like a spoiled favorite child whose misdeeds are always forgiven. He was a good player, but he was treated, and paid, like a great player.

It always bothered me. And it bothered me the way he orchestrated his way out of Detroit in 2021.  (Golly gee, whatever happened to those trade rumors in 2020?).

So when he won the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams last season, I felt a sense of closure on Stafford’s time in Detroit.

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Then Sunday happened.

The Lions were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field and receiver Jameson Williams trotted out for his NFL debut wearing No. 9, Stafford’s longtime number. It was more than a number in Stafford’s 12 years in Detroit. It became a nickname. Teammates called him “Nine” as a term of endearment.

Williams received a strong ovation from fans giddy with excitement, watching the first steps in the promising young career of a first-round draft pick. But it felt wrong to see him in that number. It felt like it was happening too soon.

I was surprised I would even care, but the feeling was unmistakable. It was like going on a date too soon after a breakup.

I stood up from my seat in the press box on the seventh floor at Ford Field and peered out over the ledge to look at the crowd. Using binoculars, I scanned a couple minutes for No. 9 jerseys. I spotted just one Williams jersey, in the first row behind the Lions’ bench. I was surprised by how few Stafford jerseys I saw. There were some, but definitely not as many as I remembered last year, which is natural through attrition as fans shift their allegiance to new players.

I was also surprised by how sad that made me feel; Stafford’s time in Detroit was being slowly erased before my eyes, like Marty McFly disappearing from his family photos. A few years ago, the team decided to take down banners that only marked playoff appearances, which also was a form of erasing Stafford’s legacy, since he took the Lions to three wild-card appearances without a victory.

Trust me, it feels completely alien for me have any sense of loyalty to Stafford. We were never on bad terms, but I also wasn’t at the top of his invitation list to join him for a road trip in his Ferrari. Yet, it feels too soon to have given away his number.

To be clear, I’m not blaming anyone for Williams choosing to wear No. 9 back in training camp. I can only guess at who was involved in the decision, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it reached the highest levels of the organization. I’m sure approving Williams’ choice of No. 9 speaks to the current regime’s belief in a player who general manager Brad Holmes traded up to get in the draft.

Officially, the Lions don’t retire numbers. Instead, they’re taken “out of circulation.” Currently those number are 7 (Dutch Clark), 20 (Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders), 22 (Bobby Layne), 37 (Doak Walker), 56 (Joe Schmidt) and 81 (Calvin Johnson).

The strange thing about No. 9, or any other number worn by a notable player, is that it comes to represent him. Ironically, Stafford never even wanted No. 9. He wanted No. 7, which he wore at Georgia, but it was out of circulation because of Clark.

It makes me feel for Williams a bit when I think of him running around Lions headquarters trying to figure out what number he could wear.

And make no mistake. Numbers matter to players. I’ve heard the “look good, feel good, play good” aphorism so often in locker rooms, it may as well be gospel.

Linebacker Julian Peterson joined the Lions in 2009 as a free agent after being named to five Pro Bowls with San Francisco and Seattle while wearing mostly No. 98. But defensive lineman Landon Cohen already had No. 98 in Detroit. Cohen was happy to part with it — for $25,000.

I still remember an indignant Peterson turning down Cohen and telling reporters, “You can buy a car for that!” Peterson wore No. 59 that year, then switched to No. 98 when Cohen left the team the next year.

I suppose I assumed Stafford’s number would be quietly taken out of circulation and that at some point, when he returns to be inducted into the team’s ring of honor. I just didn’t expect to see it on the field so soon again, bounding around the field on the shoulders of one important player who wears it like a mantle passed down from another important player who also carried the Lions’ hopes on his shoulders not so long ago.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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