LOS ANGELES — Matthew Stafford and “Super Bowl-winning quarterback” are not words many football fans and pundits would’ve put in the same sentence before this season. Stafford was the quintessential quarterback you wanted piling up points on your fantasy football team but not leading an NFL franchise in reality.
I always felt that way about Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Big arm, big-time talent, loads of stats, and highlight-reel throws, but a man lacking that je ne sais quoi that winning quarterbacks exude. Until now.
Recast as the leading man of the Los Angeles Rams, Stafford, 34, is one win away in Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium on Sunday from a script re-write worthy of this entertainment epicenter. It turns out that Stafford’s 12 seasons playing for the Detroit Lions were the culprit for being labeled as a loser. It wasn’t him. It was them. He was playing quarterback with an anchor of ineptitude strapped to his ankles, and it dragged down his reputation.
The institutionalized loserdom of the Lions, who have never advanced to a Super Bowl, was too much for both Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. It forced them into early retirement. It forced Stafford to request a trade last offseason.
In hindsight, it was unfair to expect Stafford to be able to lift the Lions out of despair and to place the onus on him for never winning a playoff game in a dozen seasons in Detroit. Stafford isn’t Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning. But he is a bona fide franchise quarterback. He just needed the right franchise.
Rams running back Sony Michel won Super Bowl LIII playing against the Rams and with Brady, capping the 2018 season. He said there are similarities between Stafford and Brady, whose career ended this postseason when Stafford connected with Cooper Kupp on a 44-yard strike that set up the game-winning field goal.
“Being alongside of a guy that leads this team very well like Matthew Stafford is a pleasure. It’s an honor. It’s always great to be around greatness,” said Michel. “He’s a guy that prepares well. He’s a competitor. He works hard and he has tremendous talent.
“I’m blessed to be around a guy like that, even though I was fortunate to play with Tom Brady with those same attributes. Two different guys, two different playing styles, but they’re both big competitors.”
Stafford, whose 41 touchdown passes were second only to Brady this season, has already altered the narrative of his career. After going 0-3 in the postseason in Detroit, he has won three games this postseason, sparkling like jewelry on an award show red carpet.
He’s completing 72 percent of his passes and tossing six touchdowns and just one interception for a 115.6 quarterback rating. His postseason fourth-quarter rating has been even better (123.1).
“When you put it in your leader’s hands good things happen,” said Rams coach Sean McVay. “I think Matthew has played his best ball as of late in those biggest moments, and I think guys are playing well around him.”
The Rams bet all of their chips on Stafford, surrendering a pair of future first-round picks and a 2021 third-rounder to swap QBs with the Lions, who took back fallen star Jared Goff. Where some saw a quarterback who perennially came up short, McVay and Rams general manager Les Snead saw their missing puzzle piece.
He could elevate them, and they had the pieces to elevate him.
Now, Stafford is on the precipice of joining Trent Dilfer (2000 season) and Brady last season as the only QBs to win a Super Bowl in their first season with a new team.
Stafford, who expressed a soft spot for Detroit all week, is savoring this moment and the broken road he traveled to reach it.
“I probably bring a little bit of a unique perspective to this team when it comes to that kind of stuff,” said Stafford. “It’s unbelievable what Sean has been able to do since he got here, taking the team to the Super Bowl and playoff runs every single year.
“I obviously didn’t have that at the beginning of my career, but at the same time, it has made me the player that I am, the teammate that I am. I’m definitely appreciative for the opportunity. I know that they are extremely few and far between and tough to come by.”
Stafford has some Drew Bledsoe vibes.
He’s the fastest QB in NFL history to 50,000 yards and will absorb big hits and throw it until his arm falls off. He can take your breath away with a throw one minute and then make you hold it the next with another.
His 19 turnovers this season tied for second in the league, only rookie Trevor Lawrence registered more. Stafford tied his career-high with those 41 TD tosses, fueled by sublime chemistry with Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, but he also tied Lawrence for the NFL lead in interceptions (17).
Since he entered the league, no quarterback has authored more game-winning drives than Stafford’s 43. No quarterback this season was statistically better against the blitz. The Texas native has thrown two touchdown passes in every game this postseason. He can join Brady, Joe Flacco, and Kurt Warner as the only QBs to toss two or more TD passes in four games in a single postseason.
Still, there remains the fear that under pressure Stafford could revert to his Lions-dom on the biggest stage of his career.
Before the game-winning drive against the Buccaneers, McVay looked petrified of Stafford as LA squandered a 27-3 lead.
The fourth-quarter comeback in the NFC title game never happens if San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt doesn’t drop an easy interception with 9:47 left on a deep pass from Stafford that looked like a punt waiting to be fair caught.
To borrow a line from another admired Detroit performer, Eminem, will the real Matthew Stafford please stand up.
Stafford’s offensive coordinator is former Patriots quarterback Kevin O’Connell. He gets the scrutiny that comes along with Stafford’s position. If the weight of the defining moment of Stafford’s career is burdening him, O’Connell hasn’t seen it.
“He’s so comfortable in his skin. He’s so comfortable being Matthew Stafford,” said O’Connell “I’m so excited for him to have this opportunity on Sunday. We wouldn’t want anybody else leading us out there.”
Stafford is one win away from getting his Hollywood ending and his due.