If you’ve had access to a scrap of Detroit sports media (or know someone who has, or know someone who knows someone… ) over the past two weeks, you may be aware that longtime Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will be starting Super Bowl 56 for a team that is … <gasp> not the Lions.
Yes, Stafford will take the field in an entirely different shade of blue Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, as his Los Angeles Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals. Did his path to the Super Bowl begin in Detroit in 2009, after the Lions made him the No. 1 overall selection that year? Or did it not truly begin until the January 2021 trade that sent him to Los Angeles, freeing him from decades of the Lions’ all-too-frequent franchise ineptitude?
Setting that version of the “nature or nurture” debate aside, we turned to the cold, hard numbers to try and put Stafford’s Super Bowl debut in some kind of statistical perspective.
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Let’s start with this: Stafford and his Ohioan opponent, Joe Burrow, will be the 65th and 66th quarterbacks to make their Super Bowl debuts. (We’ll have to wait till the coin toss results to find out which one is No. 65, of course.) And of those 64 previous QBs, none had more regular-season starts entering the big game than Stafford’s 182 with the Lions (165) and Rams (17). In fact, Stafford has eight more starts — half a season! — than No. 2 on the list, Fran Tarkenton. Stafford’s starts are nearly triple the average of the previous 64 QBs making their debuts, at 62.2.
Essentially, no quarterback has ever been more prepared for the Super Bowl than John Matthew Stafford, at least in terms of the regular season. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to the playoffs, too.) So … he’s gonna win, right? Let’s take a deeper look.
The 100 club
Just eight other QBs have made their Super Bowl debuts with at least 100 regular-season starts: the Green Bay Packers’ Bart Starr (111 through 1966), the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees (126 through 2009), the Oakland Raiders’ Rich Gannon (131 through 2002), the Bengals’ Ken Anderson (143 through 1981), the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan (149 through 2016), the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning (156 through 2006), the Baltimore Colts’ Johnny Unitas (171 through 1970) and the Minnesota Vikings’ Tarkenton (174 through 1973). So how’d they fare as a group?
Well … 4-4? Though it’s worth noting that Ryan got his Falcons to a 28-3 lead partway through the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, while completing 12 of 16 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns — a 154.4 passer rating that would have had an MVP feel if not for his defense’s failure to get a stop in the fourth quarter.
Still, so much for regular-season preparedness, eh? Then again, there are seven QBs who made their Super Bowl debuts with 17 regular-season starts or fewer — a season’s worth in 2021, and a bit more before 1978, when the league went to a 16-game schedule. Those seven went 4-3; again, hardly a convincing margin.
We’ll spare you all the names and numbers this time, but the group of winners features Roger Staubach, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady — three Hall of Famers — and Jeff Hostetler, who had four career regular-season starts when he led the New York Giants past the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 25. So maybe Burrow, with a relatively seasoned 26 regular-season starts — more than Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Montana had in their wins — is ready already.
Age is just a number
Ah, but as we noted earlier, today’s QB’s play nearly a third more games per season than those over the first decade of the Super Bowl. So let’s look at pure age.
By that measure, Stafford — who turned 34 on Monday — will be just the sixth-oldest QB to make his Super Bowl debut, behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Brad Johnson (34 years, 135 days in 2003), the Colts’ Earl Morrall (34, 240 days in 1969), the Dallas Cowboys’ Craig Morton (34, 344 days in 1978), Gannon (37, 37days in 2003) and Unitas (37, 255 days in 1971). OK, slightly fewer Hall of Famers in this list. Still, that quintet combined to go … 2-3.
Burrow, meanwhile, will be 25 years, 65 days — the eighth-youngest QB to make his Super Bowl debut, thanks to an extended stay in college that included a season at Ohio State before transferring to LSU. The seven younger QBs? They went … 3-4. (The winners: Brady, Roethlisberger and Patrick Mahomes two years ago.) Though Burrow will be the same age as Russell Wilson was when his Seattle Seahawks took down the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2, 2014. If you want to include him in our sample group, we get a 4-4 record; again, not definitive, but not bad if you’re itching to put some bucks down on Burrow.
Advantage: Burrow (barely).
Of course, how can regular-season experience compare to the true test of a Super Bowl QB: The playoffs. And there, naturally, Stafford falls back to the middle of the pack. His six playoff appearances — three losses with the Lions, three wins this year with the Rams — is tied with six other debut-making QBs for 11th.
Those other six, though, went 5-1 in their first Super Bowls. And the 10 with more starts — a group that peaks with the trio of Manning, Joe Flacco and Steve Young at 12 apiece — combined to go … 5-5. Flacco, Manning and Young all won, but then you have Ryan, who we already brought up for any Patriots fans reading this, at seven playoff starts. The lone loser in the group with six starts is Pittsburgh’s Neil O’Donnell, who just threw another interception to Larry Brown as we typed this.
Burrow has three playoff starts, all this year, all wins, of course. That’s tied with 15 other QBs for the largest grouping in our sample of 66. It’s also the losingest, at 3-12 — only Jim Plunkett in 1981, Troy Aikman in 1992 and Nick Foles in 2018 won with three prior playoff appearances. (The group with only two playoff starts, by the way, went 5-6 — probably because most QBs who make the Super Bowl after only two playoff games are already playing with a stacked roster which earned a bye.)
Advantage: Stafford (by a lot).
Noob vs. noob
Then again, we’re reminded of the old joke about not needing to be the fastest in outrunning a bear, just needing to be faster than the other guy. Which is to say, Stafford doesn’t need to be the most experiences … he just needs to have enough more experience than Burrow. And so, our final category: How did the older QB fare in matchups between two QBs making their Super Bowl debut?
There have been 19 Super Bowls in which both QBs were making their debuts. It happened a lot in the early years, naturally, then not much in the 70s as the Steelers, Dolphins and Cowboys kept returning., then a lot again in the 1980s and ’90s before fading out this century, thanks to a certain just-retired QB.
But we digress. Of those 19 “noob-on-noob” Super Bowls, the QB with more regular-season starts is 12-7, including 3-0 (Manning, Flacco, Mahomes) in the three most recent. And, of course, Stafford’s 156-game edge on Burrow — almost 10 full seasons! — is the most since Manning had a 120-game edge on Rex Grossman in Super Bowl 41. (The other differences of at least 100 games? Unitas, with a 142-game edge, beating Morton in Super Bowl 5 and Anderson, with a 115-game edge, losing to Montana in Super Bowl 16, at the Silverdome in Pontiac.)
So, really, how much does experience matter?
Obviously, it matters some … but it won’t help Stafford if his defense turns porous and his playbook goes conservative, like Ryan’s did against the Patriots, or if Burrow turns out to be a Hall of Famer in the making, like Montana was in winning his first Super Bowl with just 26 regular-season and playoff starts under his belt.
Then again, that could be where Stafford’s experience comes in handy again. After all, 12 seasons as a Lions quarterback should have taught him everything there is to know … about dealing with a loss.
Contact Ryan Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @theford.