I owe Matthew Stafford an apology after ex-Detroit Lions QB finally won a playoff game

Detroit Free Press

He finally did it. Matthew Stafford finally won a playoff game.

In his lucky 13th NFL season, but his first with a new team, the longtime Detroit Lions quarterback has gotten off the schneid.

On Monday night, Stafford led a 34-11 dismantling of the visiting Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game with an effort that was literally almost perfect. The NFL’s metric for a perfect passer rating is 158.3 (don’t ask) and he posted a 154.5, completing 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, and that doesn’t count a goal-line rushing TD.

It was simply one of the best games I’ve seen Stafford play. He was effective, efficient and impressive. He showed toughness and touch, power and poise. He ran the offense flawlessly while the Rams’ defense turned in an exceptional effort, special teams won the field-position battle and the Cardinals continued their late-season implosion.

So Stafford did it. He finally won his first playoff game after a record 182 regular season starts without one,  going 0-for-3 with the Lions.

But what he didn’t want to do was talk about it, even after he had judo-flipped that monkey off his back.

[ Matthew Stafford joins select club of ex-Lions quarterbacks in playoffs ]

“I think it means a lot more to you guys and all that,” he told reporters after the game. “I just want to be a part of this team and help us win. I trust in myself, trust in my abilities, trust in my teammates. I’ll go out there and play and let the chips fall where they may.”

Classic say-nothing quote from Stafford. Don’t ever change, Matt.

So now it’s my turn to say something. It’s my turn to apologize to Stafford. On behalf of myself and anyone else in Detroit who doubted you had what it took to win in the postseason, I’m sorry.

After watching Stafford struggle in three playoff games with the Lions, I wasn’t sure he would ever win in the postseason, with any team. Two interceptions against New Orleans in 2012. Throwing to a tight end and hoping for a pass-interference call instead of hitting a wide open — and I mean wide open — Calvin Johnson in the middle of the field at Dallas in 2015. Failing to reach the end zone in a blowout loss at Seattle in 2017.

But the Rams’ victory Monday was so resounding, and Stafford’s performance so thorough and masterful within it, that it’s clear the Lions had quite a bit to do with holding him back in the postseason.

Of course the Lions held Stafford back! He never had any weapons other than Calvin! He never had a run game or a defense!

Yep. Clearly Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Glover Quinn, Darius Slay, DeAndre Levy, Reggie Bush, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Jason Hanson and Matt Prater never existed.

Of course the Lions had good players. Yet something was obviously missing. Was it the coaching? The offensive scheme? The play calling? Nothing seemed to work.

Scott Linehan was Stafford’s first coordinator. After failing to help Stafford win a playoff game, he led Dak Prescott to playoff success in Dallas.

[ Matthew Stafford feels like he let down Lions fans ]

Quarterback whisperer Jim Caldwell and his ladder cam weren’t the answer. Neither was Caldwell’s tough-love benching of Stafford in a 42-17 loss to Arizona in 2015.

The Lions tried exhuming greatness from the pantheon of legendary NFL bloodlines by hiring Vince Lombardi’s grandson. When that didn’t work, they went with a guy named Jim Bob.

Nothing caught fire with Stafford and the Lions. Instead, it just went down in flames year after year. Stafford had the strong arm and the smarts but something wasn’t connecting.

After the Rams’ victory Monday, it’s clear what was missing for Stafford all those years in Detroit: The right support system. And boy does he have support in LA with Sean McVay’s offensive genius and the organization’s willingness to spend big this year and possibly mortgage its future.

Stafford is at the center of all that spending, with the Rams willing to trade two first-round picks and a third-rounder to acquire their domestic import from Detroit, betting he’s been the missing piece to their championship puzzle. It’s a gamble and experiment worth watch because it might have finally revealed the truth about him.

Stafford was a good, and sometimes very good, quarterback with the Lions. But he was treated and paid like he was a great quarterback, earning organizational deference usually accorded a Hall of Famer, not a one-time Pro Bowl alternate.

LA is a different story. McVay is more than Stafford’s coach. He’s his sponsor and his champion. His fate will be tied in some way to Stafford’s success, or failure. There,  Monday’s win means very little because the Rams have championship aspirations in a city that’s regularly full of those aspirations.

If Stafford had led the Lions to a division title and then beaten an NFC North rival in a home playoff game on Monday night, Detroit would still be partying as you read this. In LA, road-weary Angelenos vacated SoFi Stadium with about 5 minutes left in the game, probably so they could race their Teslas home, drink their vegan smoothies and watch Lakers highlights.

In October, I got of sense of LA’s view of Stafford while spending a week with the Rams the week they hosted the Lions. Stafford seemed uncomfortable the whole week, understandably anxious about revisiting some difficult history. When it was over, he admitted he was glad.

When I spoke with Stafford that week, I asked him about the new pressure of winning with the Rams, because the bar was now suddenly very high. Not only did he have to win, but he had to win big, and that meant success deep into the playoffs. He said he understood “there’s quote-unquote ‘pressure’ coming from the outside world,” but that he put a lot pressure on himself every week.

“So is there more outside talk about our team than maybe there was when we were in Detroit?” he said. “Sure, maybe. Do I hear that? Not really, to be honest.”

I didn’t believe that then, the same way I don’t believe Stafford isn’t feeling enormous pressure this week to beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a short week on the road. Outside of a spectacular defensive collapse by the Rams’ defense, I think if the Rams don’t make it to the NFC title game, Stafford’s season likely will be considered a failure if they lose Saturday because of the high cost it took to acquire him as a difference maker.

But if the Rams lose to the Bucs and Stafford’s season is judged a failure, that would be a shame, because Stafford finally has proved something to everyone who watched him closely for 12 years in Detroit, where he was expected to be the savior. The role of hero never fit him, even if everyone wanted him to wear that mantle.

Monday’s victory proved the formula that suits Stafford best: a quarterback who doesn’t get in his own way and understands the benefits of complementary football. He has proved in his career that he is sometimes capable of great things that require singular achievement. But beating Arizona and beating back a longstanding narrative about his postseason failure has earned him something I didn’t think he would ever get: my apologies and a better understanding of why he wasn’t more successful in Detroit.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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