Matthew Stafford: ‘Haven’t thought too much about’ why Detroit Lions never won in playoffs

Detroit Free Press

Was it ownership? The front office? The players in the locker room? A mix of all the above?

Matthew Stafford is one win from reaching the Super Bowl in his first season with the Los Angeles Rams, and the former Detroit Lions quarterback said Wednesday he has not had time to reflect yet on why he never approached this kind of success in his 12 seasons in Detroit.

“I haven’t thought too much about it, to be honest with you,” Stafford said in a video conference. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m in the present, being kind of where my feet are planted and taking care of business here. Had a great time, a great run there. Loved playing there for 12 years. But I’m in this place now and enjoying the opportunity to be a part of this team and see where we can take it, so that’s kind of where I’m at, at the moment.”

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Stafford, whose late-game heroics helped the Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a divisional-round playoff game last Sunday, is at a different stage in his career, and on a team with a different level of urgency to win a championship, than he was when he entered the NFL as the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft.

The Lions were coming off the NFL’s first ever 0-16 season at the time and made Stafford the focal point of what was a gradual rebuild.

They went 2-14 his first season, 6-10 his second, when he missed all but three games with shoulder injuries, and made the playoffs with a 10-6 record in Year 3.

But the Lions never were able to sustain success with Stafford as their quarterback; Stafford went to ownership after experiencing a third coaching change last winter and asked for a trade.

The Rams, now three years removed from their Super Bowl 53 loss to the New England Patriots and six years removed from having the first pick of the draft, saw Stafford as the final piece to their championship puzzle and moved aggressively to acquire him, sending quarterback Jared Goff (their No. 1 overall pick in 2016) and three draft picks the Lions’ way.

The one-year anniversary of the trade is Sunday, when the Rams host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.

In 12 seasons in Detroit, Stafford went 74-90-1 as a starter and made three playoff appearances without a victory. The Lions never won a division title during Stafford’s time in Detroit and had just four seasons with winning records.

Stafford, who will play in his third playoff game as a Ram on Sunday, played with first-ballot Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson for the first seven years of his career and had one of the NFL’s best defenses, anchored by All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, in 2014.

The Lions lost a controversial wild-card playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys that season, when officials waved off a pass interference penalty and Stafford lost two fumbles late in the fourth quarter, but never went all-in in the following seasons.

Suh left in free agency before the 2015 season, Johnson retired after that season, and the Lions changed front office personnel.

The Rams return just four starters from their previous Super Bowl team, including All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but have maintained one of the best rosters in the NFL. They traded for pass rusher Von Miller and signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in-season, and previously traded future draft picks for star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

On Sunday, the Rams will try and snap a six-game losing skid against their division rival 49ers, who are two years removed from their previous Super Bowl appearance, a 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Stafford said he is “excited about the opportunity” to play with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, but trying to approach it “kind of as a normal week.”

“I feel like the best thing for all of us to do is just go out there and attack it like we would every single week, with a heightened sense of urgency and a bunch of enjoyment at the same time,” he said. “Like, this is an unbelievable opportunity. It’s a whole lot of fun to be doing what we’re doing, playing football when we’re one of the last four teams left.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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