The Detroit Lions are the only NFL franchise that existed before the Super Bowl came along and has never played in it.
They haven’t won an championship since 1957, when there were 48 states, Bill Belichick was 5 years old, and the Beatles were seven years away from invading America.
The Lions have not won a playoff game since 1991. In 2008, they were 0-16, lost in a quarterback wilderness into which Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte, Charlie Batch, Jon Kitna, Eric Hipple and others had led them.
At the 2009 draft, coach Jim Schwartz announced, “We probably should think about replacing Bobby Layne.” They had the first pick and the University of Georgia’s Matthew Stafford was the only candidate.
Like Layne, Stafford was from Highland Park High in Dallas. Layne had brought Detroit titles in 1952 and 1953 and was hurt when the Lions won in 1957. He was magnetic on the field, tireless off it. He said his goal in life was to run out of money and oxygen simultaneously. Stafford was supposed to be the next Layne, one who made curfew.
For the most part, he was. In his 10th game, he appeared to throw an incompletion at the buzzer, but Cleveland was whistled for pass interference. Stafford, his shoulder aching, threw to Brandon Pettigrew and won it, 38-37.
“His best play,” Schwartz said, “was eluding the four doctors that wanted to take him out.”
In Stafford’s third year, the Lions made the wild-card game. But the front office kept firing the right coaches and hiring the wrong ones, and by the end of 2020, Stafford’s personal won-loss record was 74-90-1. After 12 years of rehab and regret, it was time to move.
On Sept. 12, he will lead the Rams against the Chicago Bears in SoFi Stadium.
“I was working with the Falcons when he was at Georgia,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “He was 30 minutes from our facility. You could get a speeding ticket on the way. We knew we couldn’t get him, but I still watched his Pro Day and it was the best I’ve ever seen for a quarterback. It’s still stamped on my mind, the way you could feel that ball come out of his hand.”
Let’s be clear. This is not tennis or boxing, and the quarterback’s W-L record is a horribly overused barometer. The Lions’ running game, in terms of yards per carry, was ranked 26th or lower five times in Stafford’s tenure, and never higher than 14th with never more than 17 rushing touchdowns. Beginning in 2014, he was sacked 223 times over five seasons.
Yet from 2011 through 2018, he never missed a start, and he refused to shelter-in-place during futile Decembers. His alpha-ness protected him from widespread fan abuse.
Meanwhile, the Rams had no problem blaming Jared Goff, whom they traded to Detroit for Stafford. Goff ranks ahead of Stafford among active QBs in yards per attempt and QB rating. He also is 42-20 since his 0-7 rookie year, quarterbacked in a Super Bowl in his third season, and won a playoff game with a busted thumb in January.
Coach Sean McVay wanted a better arm and more composure under pressure. In any event, Stafford’s tenure with the Rams will be a test of just how instrumental a quarterback is.
“I think the world of both,” said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, who backed up Stafford in Detroit, “but Matthew’s an upgrade. His arm is indisputable. He’s never had a chance to do the play-action game like he’ll have now. He can drive balls into tighter windows, give you those 15- to 22-yard chunk plays. You’ll see third-and-eight conversions. He can make throws Jared can’t make. Looking this way, sidearming the other way? Most of us would get fired if we tried that.”
Nick Jones is a Rams assistant coach who was Georgia’s senior center when Stafford was a freshman.
“We didn’t know anything about him,” Jones said. “Then we saw him throw and we said, ‘Whoa. Damn.’ Then he went out there and beat Auburn as a freshman. He’d scramble for a first down and I’d go over and pick him up and he’d say, ‘Let’s go, let’s get it.’ I’d think, ‘This is not a typical freshman.’”
Stafford’s fastballs also left atypical marks on a receiver’s fingers and sternum.
“He was a gunslinger, but I remember that Auburn game, and a play-action opportunity in the red zone,” said Mike Bobo, Georgia’s offensive coordinator at the time. “Normally he’d rip that thing in there, but he saw he had nothing, and he fired it over the guy’s head. (Head coach) Mark Richt came over and said, ‘He’s starting to get it.’ There was no stopping him after that.”
What probably intrigued McVay is Stafford’s indefinable sense of assurance, the I-got-this factor. It showed one day in Dallas when he faked a spike on the 1-yard-line and then dived across the line for a touchdown and victory. It showed in October when Stafford got the ball with 1:04 to go in Atlanta and threw the winning TD to T.J. Hockenson as the clock went to zeroes. He has led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 38 game-winning drives.
As Aaron Rodgers smolders his way through an off season like a Shakespearean actress who doesn’t like her dressing room carpet, Stafford, 33, permitted himself only one faint complaint about the Motown years. He said he grew tired of the “one o’clock games” at the end of the season, the ones that signify irrelevance. With the Rams, prime time is a way of life.
Jim Plunkett and Carson Palmer could be Stafford’s antecedents. They were first-overall draft picks, beaten down and nearly out. Then they reached Super Bowls, with the Raiders and Cardinals, when they had teammates worth leading.
The fun of 2021 will be discovering whether Stafford can beat contemporaries of one season. It might be easier than staring down gargoyles of the past 64.