LOS ANGELES — Matthew Stafford sat alone on a bench on the Los Angeles Rams sideline, unable or unwilling to watch the biggest drive of his football career.
Stafford, the long-suffering Detroit Lions quarterback who found new life in L.A. this season, had just given the Rams their first lead over the San Francisco 49ers since early in the second quarter of Sunday’s NFC championship game, at 20-17. Now, Captain Comeback could do nothing but sit nervously by with the game in the hands of his defense.
He put his helmet down and his baseball cap on. He grabbed a nearby tablet and flipped through some plays.
And after Aaron Donald, in the midst of an uncharacteristically quiet game, rag-dolled 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the ground, and Garoppolo errantly flipped a ball off running back JaMychal Hasty’s hands for a game-clinching interception, Stafford slowly stood to his feet then squatted quickly back to the ground as if in a moment of prayer.
He tapped his helmet on the turf in front of him, mumbled something to himself, then walked calmly onto the field, where he slapped high-fives with a few teammates before taking three kneel-down snaps to end the game.
“I wasn’t thinking I was going to do that, it just happened,” Stafford said. “Long time coming, you know. Spent a lot of years in this league, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I feel blessed to be able to play in this league for as long as I have, but I sure am happy for this opportunity, for not only myself but really so many guys in that locker room that deserve this, too. And that’s what it is. It’s an opportunity to go out there and win another one.”
The best quarterback in modern Lions history is headed to the Super Bowl, but in a different shade of blue — and, fittingly, on the one-year anniversary of his trade from Detroit.
Stafford asked out of the only organization he knew last January, not wanting to be a part of the Lions’ uncertain future at 33 years old.
The Lions accommodated his wish to send him to a contender, consummating a trade with the Rams on Jan. 30, 2021. Exactly 12 months later, he was one win from making history in Super Bowl 56 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “Those things don’t come around often. What he’s done, he’s elevated everybody around him. He’s made me a better coach, he’s made his teammates better. He’s such a great person. I think you guys know from getting a chance to interact with him, if you don’t root for this guy, something’s wrong with you. And he’s a great competitor. I think we saw that each of the last – we’ve seen that really throughout the whole season but think it’s really been on display these last couple weeks. We talk about competitive greatness all the time. Being your best when your best is required. He embodied competitive greatness today.”
For Lions fans, for the organization, watching Stafford not just reach the Super Bowl but lead the Rams to their second NFC championship in four seasons has to bring about conflicted feelings.
Stafford is, without question, the best Lions quarterback of the Super Bowl era. He holds every franchise passing record imaginable, was beloved by his teammates, coaches and ownership and did wonders in the community.
It’s hard not to be happy for him and his success.
But Stafford never won in Detroit. Or maybe, history will show, the Lions never won with him. And the sense of missed opportunity is enormous.
THE TEAM HE LEFT BEHIND: Stafford: ‘Haven’t thought too much about’ why Lions never won in playoffs
In 12 seasons with the Lions, Stafford went 74-90-1 and made three playoff appearances without a postseason win. In his first season with the Rams, he won 12 games, a division title and three playoff games so far — two more than the Lions have won in 64 years.
Stafford was part of the Lions’ struggles, and nothing he has done during this playoff run or will do Feb. 13 can change that.
But he has proven to be the most precious commodity in the NFL, a quarterback who can take his team to the Super Bowl, and it’s clear now the Lions squandered that gift.
On Sunday, Stafford completed 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards. He threw an interception in the first quarter on a deflected pass in the end zone and nearly tossed another in the second half. But he made two perfect throws on touchdown passes to Cooper Kupp and delivered as he so often does with the game on the line.
One week after sending Tom Brady into retirement with a last-second field goal drive, Stafford led three fourth quarter scoring drives after falling behind 17-7. On the go-ahead field goal drive, he converted two third downs with passes to Kendall Blanton and Kupp and chewed nearly five minutes off the clock.
“Obviously, had to make some plays to get down there and then now you’re trying to make sure they don’t have a whole lot of time,” Stafford said. “Second-down play, took a sack. Wish I could have gotten that ball, maybe made them burn a timeout, but at the same time, wish we would have put seven up there. I would have felt a whole lot better sitting on the sideline, but I got so much trust in our defense and so much faith in those guys, they went out there and did their thing and got the win.”
‘Happy I’m here’
As the final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday, Stafford disappeared into a swarm of teammates.
He re-emerged for the obligatory postgame interview on Fox, which Donald interrupted with a massive bear hug, and after a Rams employee handed him an NFC championship hat, Stafford wandered around the field like a lost child at the mall looking for his parent.
He offered congratulatory hugs and handshakes to every coach and teammate he came across, clung to the football from his final kneel-down snap like a life raft, and eventually enjoyed a big embrace from his wife, Kelly.
“She’s fired up,” Stafford said. “And I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s an unbelievable part of my life. I’m so lucky to be with her and have the children that I have and the family that I have. It’s the best part of my life. This is great, but that’s so much better and to share that moment with her was so cool.”
As music blared from the Rams’ locker room and fans pressed their faces against the frosted glass separating the postgame interview area from the Sofi Social Club, Stafford recounted once more his trade from the Lions, what it meant to start his football career anew in Year 13 and with an organization so committed to winning.
“I was honestly excited,” he said. “It was a lot of change was about to happen for me and my family, so that was probably my biggest thought at the moment was excitement to come and play with this group of players and this coaching staff and all these guys that worked so hard, but at the same time knowing that it’s going to be a big move and a lot of change but it’s been a great thing for us. Just happy that I’m here and happy to be a part of it.”
For years in Detroit, Stafford watched as friends, peers and some former teammates enjoyed playoff success.
He wondered what it would be like to do the same, not realizing that all he needed was a new team.
“I don’t know that I ever thought about what I would be feeling at this moment,” he said. “Probably just sat there and just wished I could be in those games, and I’m so happy that I’ve got the opportunity to be in them, and I’m going to have an opportunity to be in another one that I’ve always wanted to play in. I don’t know, I just, I’m excited for these guys and looking forward for the opportunity.”