For the first 12 years of his professional football career, Matthew Stafford was a Detroit Lion. In those 12 years, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft earned just one Pro Bowl nomination, put together a 74-90-1 record, and never won a playoff game in three appearances. Then, last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster trade for Stafford, sending Detroit their own former first-overall pick, Jared Goff, and three draft picks. That trade completely altered the trajectory and legacy of Stafford’s career. The Georgia football product was always a good quarterback. Shoot, you wouldn’t have been wrong to call him a great quarterback, even during his time with the Lions. Stafford has always had a cannon arm and it was something he got to show off early in his career with the talented Calvin Johnson as his No. 1 receiver out wide. He also had a level of “clutch” that’s hard to measure tangibly outside of a couple of statistics: fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Stafford led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks twice and in game-winning drives three times. His best season-long clutch performance was in 2016, when he led eight fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Both marks were record-breaking and Stafford still holds both records today. As of the end of the 2021 regular season, the Tampa native is tied with Johnny Unitas for fifth all-time with 34 career fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s also tied with Matt Ryan for seventh with 42 career game-winning drives. Even still, Stafford never got the same level of appreciation or accolades many other starting quarterbacks around the league did. The fact he was only named to a single Pro Bowl makes that clear. The reason why is obvious too: results. No matter how many yards or touchdowns he threw, how accurate he was, how many game-winning drives he led in a season, the Lions always found ways to lose in crucial moments. In his third season in the NFL, Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns. The Lions went 10-6 that year. Stafford only had four winning seasons when he started in Detroit. He only led back-to-back winning seasons one time, and he barely managed to do that—in both years, the Lions went 9-7. He never won more than 11 games in a regular season. Well, it turns out that all Stafford needed to do was get traded to a team that was perfectly built at nearly every part of the roster. Or, in other words, a team that was the opposite of the Lions. The Rams had it all: a solid offensive line, an excellent receiving corps (even before they went out and got Odell Beckham Jr.), a good group of running backs, and—most importantly—a strong defense. All Los Angeles was truly missing was a quarterback that could stretch the field and make good throws into tight windows over the middle. Goff couldn’t do that, Stafford could. At the end of his first regular season with his new team, we saw the stats we knew Stafford was capable of all along. He threw for more than 4,800 yards and matched his career-high with 41 touchdowns. This time though, he led his team to a 12-5 finish and a division title. It was the most wins he’d ever tallied in a single season and the first time his team had won the division to make the playoffs. And so, for just the fourth time in his career, Stafford headed to the postseason. The path to the Super Bowl was never going to be easy, but the 13-year veteran handled every obstacle that came his way. Stafford handled the Arizona Cardinals—a team that had been in contention for the same division title until Week 18—easily. He survived a Tom Brady-led, 24-point comeback from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with his rocket arm setting up a game-winning field goal. He finally put the Rams’ demons to rest in the NFC Championship Game, leading Los Angeles to a victory over the San Francisco 49ers for the first time since 2018. And, most importantly, he led another one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks in a game-winning drive to win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t all pretty, as Stafford did have some bad turnovers in both the regular season and the playoffs. But a ring is a ring, and the former Lions quarterback won the city of Los Angeles their first Super Bowl championship since the Los Angeles Raiders brought home a title in 1983. That ring changes Stafford’s entire legacy. All of his strong years in Detroit weren’t a meaningless waste of talent on an otherwise talent-bare team, they were a preview of what Stafford could do with a good team around him. All of the critics saying he couldn’t perform in big games? They’ve been proved incorrect and their takes invalid. Stafford was already, at best, a fringe Hall of Fame candidate. Don’t buy it? How about the fact he was the fastest quarterback to reach 20,000, 30,000, and 40,000 career passing yards? Or that if he throws for at least five yards in next year’s season opener, he’ll also be the fastest to reach 50,000 yards? That’s an impressive list of feats, especially given the lack of star offensive weapons around him for most of his career. Now he’s got his ring—bringing Stafford even with Aaron Rodgers and past Dan Marino. Let’s say he strings together a few more winning seasons and playoff appearances with the same level of production he’s had nearly every season up to now. If that happens, it will be hard to argue he doesn’t deserve strong consideration for enshrinement in Canton. Stafford’s victory in Super Bowl LVI has given his legacy a huge boost. He joined a really good team, made them better, and won a championship. He continued being clutch in the regular season and added several clutch postseason performances to his resume. Stafford may not have a career full of awards and recognition (so far), but now he has a ring. Even if he doesn’t end up a Hall of Famer, we’ll always remember the path he took to win a championship.
- Nov 22, 2022
- Nov 03, 2022