When Matthew Stafford decided to seek a trade from the only NFL team he knew last winter, he called two of his offensive linemen, Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow, to let them in on the news.
Their message to Stafford: Go get yourself a gold jacket.
The Hall of Fame-worthiness of Stafford’s career will be debated many years from now, but after a marvelous performance Sunday against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the former Detroit Lions quarterback is two wins from something even better — Super Bowl immortality.
Stafford led a game-winning field goal drive that covered the final 42 seconds Sunday as the Los Angeles Rams beat the Buccaneers to advance to this week’s NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.
For Stafford, it was the kind of defining moment his career had lacked during his 12 seasons in Detroit, even if Lions fans had seen him author those type of comebacks before.
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With the Lions, Stafford led game-winning drives in 38 of his 74 wins as starter. He had eight come-from-behind victories in 2016 alone, and led game-winning fourth-quarter scoring drives in each of his final three wins as a Lion last season against the Chicago Bears, Washington Football Team and Atlanta Falcons.
Not all come-from-behind wins are created equal. The Lions beat the Bears last December, scoring two plays — both Adrian Peterson rushes — after Mitchell Trubisky fumbled deep in his own territory.
But Sunday’s rally was one for the ages, the cherry on top of a fantastic overall performance no matter who you want to give the bulk of the credit to for the Rams’ victory, Stafford, Aaron Donald or Cooper Kupp.
The Rams started their final possession at their own 25 with 42 seconds on the clock and had to spend their final timeout after Stafford was sacked on the first play of the drive.
Stafford followed with a 20-yard pass to Kupp; the Rams may have caught a break on the play when officials ruled Kupp was tackled out of bounds, stopping the clock. Then he beat a zero-blitz with a 44-yard pass to Kupp and raced his team to the line to spike the ball with 4 seconds left, giving Matt Gay enough time to hit the game-winning field goal.
“In my mind, I live for those kind of moments,” Stafford told reporters after the game. “I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores, but it’s a whole lot more fun when you’ve got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody’s soul. That’s what it feels like sometimes where they’re sitting going, ‘Man, we just had this great comeback,’ and you get to reach in there and take it from them. That’s a whole lot of fun.”
Stafford now has more playoff wins in his one season with the Rams (two) than the Lions have in the Super Bowl era (one), and this week he’ll play his third playoff game in LA, matching the total he had from 2009-20 in Detroit.
The Lions made Stafford the first pick of the 2009 draft in hopes he would resurrect the franchise after the NFL’s first ever 0-16 season. He returned the Lions to respectability, but never could lift the organization to greatness for myriad reasons.
Coaching was a problem at times. Ownership, too. The Lions never went all in to win like the Rams did this year, including after their 11-5 season in 2014, when they let Ndamukong Suh walk in free agency. And Stafford, for all his talents, never played as well in the most meaningful moments as he did Sunday. He had two fumbles in the final 2:10 of a playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, when he did not see Calvin Johnson streaking open across the field on the game’s seminal play, and he could not lead the Lions to late-season victories in 2014 and 2016 with the division title on the line.
The Rams traded for Stafford last Jan. 30 — a year ago from the date of this week’s NFC title game — expecting him to be the piece that puts them over the top for a Super Bowl.
Fair or not, that means Stafford is staring down the most important weeks when it comes to his legacy as a football player.
If the Rams fall short of Super Bowl glory with their talent-laden roster — Donald and Von Miller are future first-ballot Hall of Famers, and Kupp is the NFL’s most prolific receiver — Stafford will remain on the long list of good but not great quarterbacks who never quite achieved the ultimate goal.
If the Rams win it all, Stafford may be in line for the gold jacket Ragnow and Decker believe he is destined for.
I wrote about Stafford’s Hall of Fame candidacy five years ago while he was in the midst of that amazing comeback season, and as a Hall of Fame voter I can safely say no two people have the same criteria for induction.
At the quarterback position in particular, though, playoff success stands above everything else as a deciding factor.
Of the 21 modern-era quarterbacks in Canton, 15 started and won Super Bowls. Of the six who did not win a ring, two (Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino) were league MVPs and one (Jim Kelly) played in four Super Bowl games.
The others: Sonny Jurgensen won a title as a backup and played most of his career in the pre-Super Bowl era, and Warren Moon (nine times) and Dan Fouts (six) were perennial Pro Bowlers and prolific passers in an era when those things meant something.
Stafford will finish his career with some of the best passing numbers in NFL history; this season, he passed Moon and Tarkenton on the NFL’s all-time passing list. Statistically, there is no doubt he belongs.
But his Hall of Fame resume remains lacking. He has never received an MVP vote, was never considered for the NFL’s last all-decade team and has never been named first- or second-team All-Pro (the most meaningful designation for many voters).
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger were considered the best quarterbacks in the early part of Stafford’s career, and Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen (with Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert coming) are wearing that title now.
If you’re never considered the best at your position in the NFL, or in the very short conversation to be that guy, your best arguments for the Hall are statistical and team success, which is why the next three weeks will mean so much to Stafford’s legacy.
Important test cases will come before Hall of Fame voters that could legitimize Stafford’s candidacy well before his playing career is done. Eli Manning was never in the “best quarterback” discussion, but he does have two Super Bowl rings that I believe will eventually earn him a gold jacket. Matt Ryan, who won an MVP award and took his team to a Super Bowl, and Philip Rivers, an eight-time Pro Bowler (seven more than Stafford) who led his teams to seven playoff appearances, are on less solid ground.
If any or all of those players is enshrined in Canton, it will help define the parameters Stafford must fit into to get in the Hall.
But if Stafford takes care of business on the field this week against the 49ers and Feb. 13 in the Super Bowl, and if he does so with anything that approaches the performance he had Sunday, he might just end up Canton-bound five-plus years after his career is done.
Three more thoughts from playoff weekend:
• Watching 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel in action Saturday, it was hard not to think of Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Samuel is one of the most unique talents in the NFL, and St. Brown isn’t in his class yet. But the Lions used St. Brown in a variety of roles this season, much like the 49ers do Samuel, and he proved capable of contributing as a backfield weapon when he does not line up at wide receiver.
Samuel caught three passes for 44 yards and had 10 carries for 39 yards in the 49ers’ upset of the Green Bay Packers on Saturday, including a key third-and-7 rush for 9 yards on the game-winning field goal drive.
Asked about having a Samuel-like role after the Lions’ Week 17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when he scored on a 26-yard touchdown run and caught eight passes for 111 yards and another TD, St. Brown beamed at the thought.
“I love watching Deebo,” he said. “He’s a beast. I mean, he does it all. You watch his tape, running back, receiver, YAC, everything. He’s a beast, so yeah, I would love to do everything that I can. Like you said, versatility I think helps play-callers, helps our team. I mean, you can get favorable matchups lined up like on the play that I had. It was a nickel in the box. Linemen, they lick their chops when there’s a nickel in the box. Things like that, you dream for as an offensive coordinator.”
• All eyes in the NFC North the next few weeks will be on Green Bay and Rodgers’ pending decision about his future. If the soon-to-be four-time NFL MVP wants to play another season, the Packers will remain the prohibitive favorites in the division. If he decides to retire or forces Green Bay’s hand with a trade, the North all of a sudden becomes up for grabs.
The Lions have made many organizational missteps over the past 60-plus seasons that have left them perennial losers, but the reality is it’s hard to contend with a team that starts a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback for 30 straight years.
That’s what the Packers have had with Rodgers and Brett Favre, and that’s why they’ve won 15 of the past 27 division titles. If Rodgers is done in Green Bay, the North will be up for grabs for the foreseeable future — or until the next Hall of Fame QB enters the division.
• Widening that scope even more, good luck to all the AFC teams trying to win the next decade without a superstar quarterback. Mahomes, Allen, Burrow and Herbert are stars who could dominate the conference for the next decade like Brady, Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger did in the 2000s.
The AFC has a slew of other promising young quarterbacks, too, like Lamar Jackson (25), Trevor Lawrence (22) and Mac Jones (23).
The NFC’s best signal callers, meanwhile – if Rodgers and Brady retire — are Kyler Murray (24), Dak Prescott (28), Russell Wilson (33) and Stafford (turns 34 next month), and there’s no telling where Wilson ends up playing next fall.
There’s power and youth in the AFC, and a bunch of question marks in the NFC. Never have things been so aligned for the Lions to try and capitalize.