In March of 2021, the Los Angeles Rams’ trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford became official. When he toured SoFi Stadium for the first time, his eyes lit up and in a sense he felt like a fish out water. It was different. But it was also his new home. Answering questions from the media for the first time, Stafford said,
“Yeah, it definitely felt different. Going and seeing the locker room and then seeing the practice facility where I’m going to go to work most days is something that’s different, but it’s exciting at the same time. It’s something that I hope to make home really quick and hopefully for a long time...It's where home’s gonna be.”
For 12 years, the kid from Dallas, Texas knew just one thing. Sundays were for football and home games were at Ford Field in Detroit wearing Honolulu Blue. Drafted with the number one overall pick by the Detroit Lions in 2009, from that point forward the Motor City was home.
Stafford gave everything and then some to that city, making memories with the fans along the way. When he threw a game-winning touchdown pass with a separated shoulder during his rookie season against the Cleveland Browns, the city that had longed for a star quarterback fell in love. From all of the comeback wins to the heartbreaking losses, and there were a lot of them, the two were inseparable.
In some ways, the fans and the city knew he deserved better. The ownership, front offices, and coaching staffs had failed him. Yet, Stafford continued to choose and play for them even when he didn’t have to and nobody expected him to.
Fast forward to Week 15 of his final season in Detroit. The Lions were 5-8 and playing a meaningless matchup against the Tennessee Titans, Stafford fought threw an injury suffered in the fourth quarter the week before to be on the field. When asked why play for a 5-8 team that just fired their coach a few weeks earlier, the quarterback staid,
“Because I’m the quarterback of the Detroit Lions. And it was Sunday. I’ve got a bunch of teammates out there who are working their asses off...If there’s any way I can play, I’m never going to not. I feel like I owe it to those guys, I owe it to the game, I owe it to this organization...everybody.”
Stafford embraced the city and Detroit mentality and they embraced him in return. When the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2021 taking on the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit had his back. After the game, Stafford thanked the Detroit fans,
“It was amazing. Like you said, there’s no reason for them to cheer for me anymore. And the fact that they did was just a true testament to who they are as people and who they are as fans.”
The two sides had a special, unbreakable bond. On Sunday, for the first time since being traded to Los Angeles, Stafford will return to Detroit. However, this time, it won’t be home. This time, he won’t be playing at Ford Field trying to be the savior that Detroit hoped he would be when he was drafted first overall. On this occasion, Stafford will be wearing royal blue and looking to crush the dreams of every Lions fan in that building. He’s called the ‘soul snatcher’ for a reason.
It’s a franchise playing their first home playoff game in 30 years. In 2011, Stafford led the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999. Now, 12 years later, he’ll be leading the side looking to end the season of a promising Lions team.
Head coach Sean McVay said on Wednesday,
“I think there’s a lot of appreciation on both ends. I know he feels that way. I know they do about him. It’s pretty unique to get an opportunity to go back there and play them in the playoffs. I would imagine the appreciation that that city has for football and for the human being that he is...It’s a real credit to just what a special person and player Matthew has been over the course of his career.”
There’s no knowing exactly what emotions Stafford will feel when he walks into the tunnel to enter the stadium and has to turn to enter the visitor’s locker room. It’s something that will almost certainly feel foreign to him. It’s defying muscle memory that he developed for 12 years. Stafford will do what he always does and try and block out the noise. However, there will certainly be a multitude of different emotions going through his mind.
Detroit is where Stafford grew up and it’s still a big part of him. It’s like leaving home and then returning after a period of time. You spend so many years in one place. When you return, it feels the same, but also different. You’re back at a place you once called home, but feel out of place. Said Stafford,
“I think the biggest thing for me is just go experience whatever that experience is going to be. I understand what the people of Detroit and what the city of Detroit meant to me and my time and my career, what they meant to my family. I hope they feel that back. But at the same time, I’m not a stranger to the situation and understand that I’m the bad guy coming to town. I’m on the other team...Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to go experience it, play the game. Once the ball is snapped, man, let’s go.”
For years, Stafford was seen as the quarterback with all of the talent, but couldn’t win the big game or get the Lions over the top. In his first year in Los Angeles, he had one of the best playoff runs for a quarterback in NFL history and capped it off with a Super Bowl title.
After being the quarterback that couldn’t win, Stafford has been building his legacy up in Los Angeles in a better situation with a coach that finally played to his strengths. Stafford has always had the Hall of Fame numbers and talent. He’s 11th all-time in passing yards and touchdowns. His 272.1 passing yards per game ranks fifth. Stafford has been the quarterback for arguably three of the greatest wide receiver seasons ever in Calvin Johnson, Cooper Kupp, and Pula Nacua. The volume numbers have always been there, but with quarterbacks, fair or not, wins in big moments matter. Queue up the, “Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer” debate.
There’s a reason why Stafford chose to go to Los Angeles. Detroit easily could have accepted an offer from the Carolina Panthers that included the eighth overall pick. He could have held out for the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, he chose the Rams and the Lions granted him that wish.
Stafford went to a team that was ready to win.
Heading into the 2021 postseason, Stafford was the quarterback that had never won a playoff game. That first playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, a team that the Rams had lost to at home earlier in the year was huge for the future of Stafford’s legacy. And he delivered. While he only threw 17 passes, he was a very efficient 13-of-17 for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Stafford showed up in a spot many thought he couldn’t.
The following week, Stafford went into Tampa Bay and outperformed Tom Brady. It was Stafford’s pass in the final minute that set up the game-winning field goal. In the Super Bowl, Stafford led the Rams on a game-winning drive that featured a ‘no-look’ pass to Cooper Kupp. After losing his first three playoff games with the Lions, Stafford earned four playoff wins in his first season in Los Angeles.
For the first time since that run, Stafford is back in the postseason. This time, he goes up against a team that’s so very familiar at a place he once called home. It’ll be a chance to exorcise 12 years of playoff demons and show the people that once loved him that he made it.
Not to be hyperbolic, but outside of the 2021 Wild Card game against Arizona and the Super Bowl, this playoff game on Sunday might be the biggest game for Matthew Stafford’s legacy.
Stafford showed that he can win in the playoffs in 2021. However, if he can help lead this Rams team that wasn’t even supposed to be in this position to a victory over this Lions team that has been seen as a true threat in the NFC, it would be one of those monumental victories that legends of the game come out victorious in. That’s not to mention that the team on the other side is the same one that he was part of for 12 years.
Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis for the first time as a member of the Denver Broncos during the regular season of 2013 and lost, 39-33. Manning met his old team in the playoffs in 2015 at home and lost, 24-13. Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Brett Favre never met their former teams in the postseason. However, Brady and Favre both won in their returns to Foxboro and Lambeau.
A quarterback of Stafford’s stature has never returned to their previous team in the postseason. The NFL scriptwriters couldn’t have written it any better. A win in Detroit when the stakes are highest would be one more thing that Stafford can add to his career resumé.
Like it or not, this is a legacy game for Stafford. The question is, does it matter after the postseason that Stafford had in 2021 and, if so, how much? It’s the first time in NFL history that two quarterbacks are going up against their former team in the playoffs. Stafford is returning to a place that he once called home and it will be up to him to show that he’s better off because he left.