Matthew Stafford is a throwback in a world where Russell Wilson made a trade demand without making a trade demand, and Deshaun Watson pushed to leave the Houston Texans until he ran into legal trouble. Stafford harkens back to a different era, when players stuck it out with their teams to elevate the organization that drafted them.
He showed loyalty to a hapless franchise in a sports-crazy market. Usually, a great quarterback can patch over a mismanaged roster, making his coach or general manager look more competent than they are. Think of the Indianapolis Colts after Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck left, or how much Mike McCarthy has benefitted from coaching Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott.
Some teams are well-built and in need of a great quarterback, like the Denver Broncos. And there are organizations in such disarray that we all worry they will squander generational talent, like the Jacksonville Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence. But taking a great quarterback in the draft tends to be enough to turn your franchise into a winner.
We loved Stafford, but is it possible we never fully appreciated Stafford until he joined Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams? We certainly knew he was better than his 74-90-1 record, or his 0-3 mark in the postseason. But still, he seemed more capable of surviving than thriving — a Volvo, not a Porsche.
He went first-overall in 2009, and only three other first-rounders from that draft are still in the league. The two other quarterbacks taken were Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman. Sanchez is known for the Butt Fumble, Freeman for overthrowing his receivers when forced into action with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. Two of the three players taken directly after Stafford were out of the league by 2012. His current team was then based in St. Louis.
Pro Football Reference has a “similarity score” that uses a player’s career numbers to decide which players they are most akin to. According to their formula, he’s in the same class as quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Mark Brunell, and Alex Smith, but also Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Theismann. It’s based on objective data but reads like a report from a confused scout who’s not sure if he sees a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Stafford or simply one that hung around in the league long enough to become a household name.
Had Stafford not pushed his way out of Detroit, who knows if he’d be remembered by more than Lions fans? This is nothing against the Motor City, specifically. He would have become a legend if he turned the Lions into Super Bowl contenders, a quixotic task. But only if he becomes a winner will we appreciate him for being the fastest player in NFL history to throw for 40,000 yards and holding the league record for comeback wins in a season with eight.
The Lions rewarded him monetarily but never put him in a position to succeed. In 2017, he signed a $135 million extension, which made him the highest-paid player in the league at the time. But by then, the best receiver he ever played with was gone. Calvin Johnson chose to retire instead of playing out his contract, much like Barry Sanders had in 1998.
Detroit was never known for stout defenses like the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, nor did Stafford have the array of weapons Rodgers has with the Green Bay Packers. His best coach was Jim Caldwell, who had a 36-28 record when he was fired in 2017. His first coach, Jim Schwartz, went 29-51 from 2009-13. His latest, Matt Patricia, is barely worth mentioning.
Detroit’s Caldwell decision remains flummoxing. He was on the Indianapolis Colts’ coaching staff when they won the Super Bowl in 2006, and he took over for Tony Dungy in 2009. The Colts won the first 14 games he coached, but he was fired after they went 2-14 after Manning got hurt. A year later, he was the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens.
Caldwell left Detroit as the first non-interim head coach with a winning record since Joe Schmidt, who coached the Lions from 1967-72. His .563 winning percentage was topped only by Buddy Parker, who coached from 1951-56.
He was never going to be McVay, though. And the wunderkind has brought out the best in Stafford. The Rams are out to a 5-1 start and are early Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. It’s easy to conclude that it’s because they’re in sunny LA instead of the Rust Belt. But, really, they’re just better run than the Lions ever were. He chose to spend his prime years trying to turn around a moribund franchise, and he should be commended for that. He deserves everything that he has now.