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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matt Stafford is at a fulcrum in his career. In his twelve seasons in Detroit, you never really knew what you were getting from him, except a big arm and a chance to win. In many ways, that’s the best you can ask for in the NFL, which explains the Rams’ palpable excitement about landing the 33-year-old. Conversely, though, that chance to win often failed to materialize in Detroit; Stafford currently sits 16 games under .500 for his career in games he started. He led the Lions to three postseason appearances, but zero postseason wins. Quietly, he is approaching ‘talented but title-less’ status, or something even worse.
And yet, despite his decade plus of mediocrity in a quarterback-driven, highly critical league, Stafford has emerged as the belle of the ball in Los Angeles. Reports from camp surface daily detailing the “peer to peer” relationship he enjoys with 35-year-old head coach Sean McVay (as opposed to the teacher-student relationship that McVay shared with Jared Goff). Defensive stars like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald are on record gushing about Stafford and his professional approach to the game, as if the years prior were secretly much more a mess internally than media realized. McVay is even likening the acquisition to an industry secret coming to the surface, suggesting that anyone who really knows football knows how elite Stafford has always been.
“When the pros are saying ‘Ooh, holy blank,’ you know it’s a pretty good play,” said McVay of Stafford’s playmaking in camp. “Those who know, know.”
Has Stafford somehow tricked everyone into thinking he’s a top quarterback, despite mountains of evidence suggesting otherwise? Or has he truly been a generational talent stuck in a dysfunctional situation, top to bottom? The media rarely, if ever, forgives the sin of losing, especially in the NFL where annual parity reigns supreme. But Stafford has always occupied this little nook of consistency and media grace: not a winner on paper, but a champion of the eye test.
Has Stafford ever even faced a quarterback competition in camp before? My entire adult life he’s been a professional athlete, a highly-paid starter no less, without anyone really batting an eye. Like a winter storm in Michigan, Stafford has been a fixture in the NFL season after season, but is he really good enough to rattle off a twenty year career without even a playoff win? Is Detroit really this pitiful of a franchise?
Personality fit is the most important behind-the-scenes factor in determining success in any professional sport, and yet it is the least reported. Nobody can read minds, and journalism isn’t supposed to veer into conjecture, so we avoid diving into the gray areas of interpersonal relationships. What we often label as ‘busts’ are just as often a product of poor environments and personality clashes; the assumed agreement being that the true legends of sport can rise above anything.
And that may be true, some people can rise above the muck, but bad situations exist nonetheless—we’ve all dealt with a tough coworker, boss, or project at work. Under the hot lights of professional sports, though, where labels stick forever and careers are just a few years long, everything good or bad gets exacerbated to a higher degree. Too much is at stake for doubt or passivity. Oftentimes, the players who learn to play the ‘game within the game’ are the ones who last beyond their typical expiration date, despite bumps in the road.
Stafford, undoubtedly, has mastered the art of NFL diplomacy, which may be why we give him so much slack each season. When asked about his former team—a franchise, as we established, that probably handicapped its QB in many ways for over a decade—Stafford took the highest road possible, basically apologizing to the fans for all the years of losing.
“I sit there and go, ‘Man, I wish I could’ve gotten it done.’ I mean, it would’ve been amazing to have a Super Bowl parade down Woodward Avenue in Detroit,” Stafford said. “Didn’t happen. Tough pill to swallow as a competitor and somebody who touches the ball on every single offensive play. You definitely look back and wish you’d done a few things different here or there in some games, that maybe change the outcomes of seasons, but I’m focused completely forward now.”
When given the chance to pile on Detroit for its losing culture, Stafford again took the high road, humbly spinning his exit into a new opportunity instead of recognizing the emergency evacuation it appeared to be from the outside looking in.
“It’s tough to lose. Everybody knows that. For me, it wasn’t so much that as it was just kind of knowing where the organization was going. It was going through a big change with new head coach, new general manager. Gonna be a lot of new players as well. I just felt like the timing was right. It was well within their rights to tell me that it wasn’t, and I would’ve understood. Just really appreciate them for at least entertaining the idea and then obviously going through and together making that happen. It’s something that as a player, you want to have chances at it. Luckily, they were great and sent me to a place that’s got a bunch of great players and a bunch of recent success.”
So now Stafford arrives in Los Angeles a new man with seemingly unlimited potential and a personality/management/coaching situation that seems to be the quarterback’s dream. His decade of losing has been washed away with a few puff pieces and some slick interviews. If he experiences big success in Los Angeles, his time in Detroit will be remembered as a prison sentence. If the Rams fall short on his watch, perhaps he finally shoulders the blame of mediocrity. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that much of his legacy rides on the upcoming seasons.