Matthew Stafford started his career with big expectations when he was taken by the Detroit Lions with first overall pick in the 2009 draft, the latter having earned the selection by being the first team to go 0-16 in the regular season the year prior. The franchise had high hopes for the quarterback out of Georgia, with eyes set on the playoffs and more. Now the Lions are preparing to host their first home playoff game since 1994, and like they pictured back in 2009, Stafford will be playing quarterback in the game. What they most-likely did not imagine, though, was that it would be for the opposing team.
On Wednesday, Stafford, now as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, spoke about his first return to his former team’s stadium and the love he has for his time in Detroit, while also acknowledging that it may not be the warmest of welcomes this time around.
“I’m not expecting anything, to be honest with you,” Stafford told reporters Wednesday. “I was asked this question a couple times just by friends and family, and I think the biggest thing for me is just to go and experience whatever that experience is gonna be. I understand what the people of Detroit and the city of Detroit meant to me in 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 understanding that I’m the bad guy coming to town.”
While held in high regard by most Lions fans in the past, Stafford has seemed to become public enemy number one in Detroit this week, sparking a ton of debate about what his reception will be like. A social media post about banning his Lions jersey from the stadium has been gaining some steam online, giving some insight on what the QB should expect, while some local bars in the area have already officially enforced the jersey ban.
Stafford helped turn around a Lions franchise that was 41-104 from 2000-2008 before his arrival. During his 12 years in the Motor City, Stafford compiled 45,109 passing yards, 282 touchdowns and an average of 273.4 yards per game - all of which are currently Lions franchise passing records. He also played in three playoff games with Detroit, who had not made the playoffs since 1999, but unfortunately was on the losing side of all of them.
Now three years into his Rams tenure, Stafford’s story is much different in LA. He has a perfect 4-0 record in the playoffs and a Super Bowl ring to show for it. He has also led Los Angeles to the post-season two out of his three years with the team, only one less than his entire time with the Lions.
This season, Stafford had a big hand in pulling the Rams out of a 3-6 start, leading the team to victory in five out of six games to close the season, while clinching a playoff position and posting a 15:2 touchdown to interception ratio in that same time span.
Given the rally that LA has put together to end of the season, as well as their low preseason expectations to start with, Stafford sounds like he is not taking the opportunity of post-season play for granted, no matter who the game is against.
“I’m excited to go play anybody, anywhere in the playoffs at this point,” Stafford said. “We were a team that at the beginning of the season nobody gave us a chance to be at the position that we’re in. I’m proud of the work that the players, the coaches, everybody that’s involved in getting this thing right, proud of the work we’ve put into it. It’s gotten us to this point, we’ve got to continue to work to try and get better, and we have an opportunity to go play a game on Sunday.”
There’s no way on a human level that Stafford does not feel some kind of emotion walking into Detroit, no matter what the reception is.
That said, if the veteran QB has proven anything during his time with the Rams, it’s that he’s taken head coach Sean McVay’s mantra to heart - “be your best when your best is required”. Whether it’s hitting a deep shot to Cooper Kupp in the NFC Championship game with :35 seconds left to set up the game-winning field goal or orchestrating the final 79 yard scoring drive in the Super Bowl, Stafford has proven he can be at his best when his best is required by Los Angeles.
His best will be required again on Sunday night at Ford Field.