She wasn’t married to Matthew Stafford at the time. But they were a couple, even several years after they had been college sweethearts at the University of Georgia. She sat near me in the Sunday calm of a quiet terminal while we waited for our flight back to Detroit.
I introduced myself and we chatted a little. The Lions had gotten stomped, 45-28, in their first playoff game in 12 years. It felt like such a waste. The Lions actually led at halftime, 14-10. Hall was clearly disappointed, but our conversation was pleasant. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard “Halftime,” the Ying Yang Twins’ song the Saints played after they scored.
We talked about the game and I offered a little consolation, telling her I thought “your boy” played well. She smiled.
Even in the immediate aftermath of that loss, it felt like the start of something. Stafford had been hurt for most of his first two seasons, but in his third season he took a huge leap with MVP-level numbers — 5,038 passing yards with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions — as he led the Lions to the playoff with a 10-6 record, their first season with double-digit wins in 16 years.
That’s when I thought Stafford and Hall would be worth rooting for. The young, talented quarterback this miserable franchise had been waiting for since Bobby Layne, with his college-cheerleader girlfriend at his side. Right out of central casting.
And then, nothing.
$3 million per win
Stafford never approached those heights again over a full season. He had some good seasons but no great seasons. Three years later, when the Lions were 8½ minutes away from beating the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card game, Stafford didn’t get the pass-interference call he wanted when Anthony Hitchens face-guarded Brandon Pettigrew on third-and-1.
What I remember about that play was that it defined Stafford’s style. He was looking for the P.I. and the free play instead of trying to make a play — and that led him to not seeing that Calvin Johnson was wide open in the middle of the field with at least three steps on Brandon Carr.
Stafford makes that pass to Johnson, and the Lions win that game and possibly change the trajectory of the franchise.
The Lions kept rewarding him with huge contracts: a $53 million extension in 2013 and a whopping then-record $135 million deal in 2017 that included the rare distinction of “no offset” language, meaning if the Lions cut him he could keep all the money he was owed and still sign with another team.
In 12 seasons with the Lions, the team showered him with money and love. He made $226,506,037 in base salary, according to Spotrac, and went 74-90-1 without a playoff win. That means the Lions paid Stafford $3 million for each win with nearly a quarter of $1 billion for no division titles or even a playoff win.
And when Stafford decided he’d wanted out because the Lions were about to embark on a rebuild, well, the Lions were happy to grant him that, too.
When Johnson retired a year later than he intended to, the Lions asked him to empty out his pockets to make sure he wasn’t stealing any stationary on the way out. When Stafford wanted out, the Lions let him pick his team and gave him a cloying sendoff video that probably would have been too saccharine to air on the Hallmark Channel.
True cost of Stafford’s money
The problem with those extensions and all those contracts is that it cost the Lions a lot more than money. It cost them the opportunity to even consider drafting other quarterbacks, like Patrick Mahomes — whom the Chiefs drafted by trading up and leapfrogging the Lions to take him 10th overall in 2017 — or Lamar Jackson in 2018 or Justin Herbert in 2020.
MORE FROM MONARREZ: Matthew Stafford is 4 quarters away from the Hall of Fame. Here’s why
I’m not blaming the entirety of the Lions’ poor drafting history on Stafford. But he was complicit in those poor choices because he constructed the perfect image of a tough, hard-working player who did the right things, didn’t complain and contributed to charitable causes… while losing game after game.
And when Stafford saw the writing on the wall, he managed that situation just as expertly, asking for a teary-eyed release and pouring his heart out over the agonizing decision.
It’s funny. I don’t remember Johnson or Barry Sanders being treated this way on their way out. Did you know Johnson’s wife worked for the Lions for nearly a decade? Did you know his father-in-law, Bruce McNorton, was a Lions draft pick who played for the team for nine seasons?
Can you imagine if Stafford had that kind of family connection to the Lions? The Fords probably would have made him an honorary owner. Instead, they treated him like an adopted son.
And while Stafford was managing his image, so was his wife, who became the stereotype of a star athlete’s entitled and tone deaf spouse.
She tried to sell game tickets she wasn’t using on Stubhub, she regularly clapped back at those who dared to criticize Stafford’s poor play and told fans and media to “sthu,” Internet parlance for shut the hell up, in 2018 after a touchdown-less 24-9 loss at Minnesota.
In 2020, she posted on Instagram that she was “over living in a dictatorship we call Michigan,” then went to her private cardio kickboxing class followed by some shopping. This season, she took it to a new level (as in basement level) and threw a soft pretzel at a 49ers fan in San Francisco.
What do we really know about him?
As for Stafford himself, he became his own stereotype of a star athlete, a say-nothing spewer of cliched soundbites, even when reporters knew him to be a funny and engaging person in the locker room.
He was so intent on being boring and guarded that he lied to me when he was a rookie. He didn’t know I grew up a Dodgers fan in Los Angeles. When I asked him about his friendship with Clayton Kershaw he told me they were only acquaintances. (Editors, please insert the eye-roll emoji here).
The Staffords aren’t bad people. Stafford and I had a cordial, professional relationship for 12 years, and I liked him. Most reporters who covered him regularly liked him and we all wished he would open up more on the record.
Just keep all that in mind whenever you read, watch or hear about the Staffords talking about their undying, eternal love for Lions fans and Detroit and how they feel all that love has been equally reciprocated. If you’re a football fan in Michigan (OK, the Lower Peninsula) you have an opinion about Stafford. I know a lot of Lions fans who loved him, albeit often with the verbal asterisk of “best Lions quarterback of my lifetime” as a silent nod to Layne.
Of course, if you’re a football fan in Michigan you’ve also heard plenty of Stafford hate.
Before this season, the easiest way to have started a fight in a Detroit sports bar would have been to walk in and yell, “Matthew Stafford is a great quarterback!” After 12 years, he became the Rorschach test for the sanity level of Lions fans: “When I show you this picture of Stafford, what do you see?” He was the blue dress/gold dress conundrum. Even Escher wouldn’t have been able to depict the dizzying trajectory of Stafford sentiment that went everywhere over his Lions career.
From referendum to coronation
But now, what started as a referendum season on Stafford turned into his coronation. He threw 41 touchdowns, second only to Tom Brady’s 43. But he also threw 17 interceptions, tied for the most with rookie Trevor Lawrence. Stafford played well enough to win a division title and three playoff games with the Rams on the verge of winning their first Super Bowl in LA.
Stafford went 0-3 in the playoffs with the Lions, but in one season he has taken the carpetbagging Cleveland/LA/St. Louis/LA Rams to a championship game. Stafford deserves full credit for doing his part, playing especially well in the postseason.
But if the Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 56 on Sunday, history will forget that Stafford joined a loaded, going-for-broke team with two or maybe three Hall of Famers on defense and remember only that it was the Lions who held him back all those years.
And this is why I can’t root for Stafford to win this Super Bowl. Because if you forget everything else about Stafford, remember that it simply isn’t fair for Lions fans to watch the guy who was built up for so long as their team’s greatest hope for success go and find that success so quickly with another team.
CONFLICTED FEELINGS AND CONFETTI: Matthew Stafford leads Los Angeles Rams to Super Bowl LVI
Nothing has worked out for the Lions over the past 65 years. But suddenly everything is working out for Stafford. After taking the Lions for a fortune the size of the Marshall Islands’ national economy, Stafford has had every break go his way this season.
The Arizona Cardinals imploded and let the Rams back into winning the NFC West. Two mistakes on special teams ended the Packers’ playoffs and switched the Rams NFC title game venue from Lambeau Field to SoFi Stadium against San Francisco. In that game, Jaquiski Tartt dropped what should have been the easiest interception of his life, and probably the game-clinching play, against Stafford in the fourth quarter.
So, based on this Faustian-level trajectory for Stafford this season, there’s only one logical conclusion for how the Super Bowl will play out. The Rams will win. And not by a little. Stafford will be the MVP and become a lock for the Hall of Fame.
It won’t be fair. But then what is? Was it fair Johnson never got to win a playoff game? Or that Sanders only won once in the playoffs? Or that the Bears scored 46 points in their Super Bowl win but Walter Payton didn’t score?
Every Lions fan stands in a different place with Stafford. Some bought into the crazy stats and the façade of his public image and will cheer for him in the Super Bowl and forever after because they somehow see his success as their success, a vicarious replacement for what they never got out of him in Detroit.
Others watched Stafford with a jaundiced eye and saw through the carefully constructed and curated image. They scrutinized his play more closely and realized what they were getting: a talented player who was overvalued and overpaid and who needed a lot of help around him to have success. These are the people who cut the cord the minute he walked out the door of Allen Park, letting him go freely like a piece of driftwood.
I’m actually grateful to Stafford because he provided a fascinating storyline this season. He’s also the reason I got to go home in October and spend a week in L.A., where I attended my first Dodgers playoff game and thoroughly enjoyed meeting the Rams’ coaches, players, staff and media while getting a glimpse of how a winning organization operates (more on that another time).
Every time I think about Stafford, I think about Kelly in that terminal on a quiet Sunday morning and all the promise her husband never fulfilled in Detroit. The football failures weren’t all his fault, but his time here still felt like such a waste. I don’t understand how anyone could root for the byproduct of all that waste over all those years.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.