Super Bowl run has ex-Detroit Lions teammates rooting for, living through Matthew Stafford

Detroit Free Press

Dominic Raiola was on the phone with a Grand Rapids-based moving company earlier this week, trying to coordinate his family’s relocation from Texas to Arizona, when the manager on the other end made small talk with the ex-Detroit Lions lineman about Super Bowl LVI.

“They were like, ‘Do you still talk to Stafford? Tell him the whole state of Michigan’s rooting for him,’” Raiola said. “And I was just like, ‘That’s crazy, man.’ But when you do things the right way that’s what happens. The guy did it the right way all these years, all his hard work, never was one of these guys that came in and did it the wrong way. Really just so happy for him and his family.”

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Former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will make his Super Bowl debut Sunday when the Los Angeles Rams host the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium.

Stafford enjoyed modest success in 12 seasons in Detroit, leading the Lions to four winning records and three playoff appearances without a postseason win.

He approached Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and asked for a trade to a contender last January, and 13 whirlwind months later has a chance to win a world championship and cement his legacy as something more than the best Lions quarterback of the Super Bowl era.

Raiola, who played with Stafford in 2009-14, is one of countless ex-Lions players, coaches and staff rooting for their former teammate today and, in some ways, living vicariously through him.

The Lions are one of four NFL teams that have never been to a Super Bowl, along with the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

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“You kind of feel like you’ve been on this journey with him and you’ve just got to root for the guy to win it,” Raiola said. “And hopefully he can win a couple and you can say that he got his start, we all started with him. We all started on this journey with him.”

Stafford’s NFL journey  started when the Lions took him with the first pick of the 2009 draft and made him the face of their franchise coming off the first 0-16 season.

Stafford started 10 games as a rookie, missing time with knee and shoulder injuries, and endeared himself to his new fanbase with a gutsy effort in one of the team’s two wins that season, when he stayed on the field to throw a game-winning touchdown pass against the Browns after separating his shoulder in a moment immortalized by NFL Films.

Shoulder injuries ended Stafford’s 2010 season prematurely, but a year later Stafford posted the best passing season (5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns) in franchise history while leading the Lions to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

Legions of fans and plenty of teammates thought that might be the start of something special in Detroit, but neither Stafford nor the Lions could sustain their success.

The Lions did not make the playoffs again for another three seasons, until 2014, when they had one of the best defenses in the NFL. They lost in controversial fashion that postseason to the Dallas Cowboys, and reached the playoffs just once more, in 2016, before Stafford, sick of losing and not wanting to navigate another rebuild, forced his way out of his Detroit.

He said this week he was “excited” when he first learned of his trade to the Rams and the chance to have “a new beginning, a new opportunity.” But after 12 years, he did not leave Detroit completely behind.

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“I think we all are playing for not only the guys in this locker room but the people that have helped us get to this position and there’s so many people in Detroit and important people in my life that have helped me get here,” Stafford said. “I do appreciate so much just everybody’s support and I know that when I’m out there playing, whether it’s this week in the Super Bowl or any other game, I’m a representation of those experiences that I’ve had with those people and I feel like every time I step out on the field I’m playing for not really myself but for everybody that’s helped get me there.”

Right place, right time

Stafford’s ex-teammates took to social media en masse after the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game last month to salute their quarterback.

“You know we’re living through him,” said former Lions running back Joique Bell, a teammate of Stafford’s in 2011-15. “The only thing I don’t like about Stafford going to the Super Bowl is that it’s hurting our draft stock with the Rams. It’s not nothing against Stafford, it’s just all about our draft pick. But other than that, it couldn’t happen to a better person.”

The Lions own the Rams’ first-round picks this year and next from the Stafford trade, and the position of those picks depends on how the Rams finish the season. The Lions will pick 31st if the Rams lose the Super Bowl or 32nd if they win, but the pick would have been in the low-20s had LA lost its first playoff game.

Bell said he was at a bar in his hometown of Benton Harbor earlier this postseason when he encountered a fan rooting for Stafford to lose.

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The man wanted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach the Super Bowl because the Bucs have several players with metro Detroit ties, and he said he didn’t like that Stafford never did anything for the city.

“That’s when I kind of got upset,” Bell said. “Like, ‘What are you talking about he never did anything for the city? Are you insane?’ So I kind of ran down all the different things he was doing for the community. The recreation center he built with the football field for the kids to be able to go use it at any point in time. And put a million dollars of his own money back into the community, and still coming back in the offseason to kind of support the community. I’m like, ‘You don’t know anything, just talking.’ But for the guys who played with Stafford and who know who he is as a man, who he is as a player (it’s different).”

Raiola, who never won a playoff game in his 14 seasons in Detroit, said that’s why he watches Stafford now and doesn’t conflate the Rams’ success with his own missed opportunities.

“No. I’ll tell you why,” Raiola said. “Because he did everything he could. There was never a point in time where it’s like, ‘Dang, why didn’t he do that with us?’ Well, he did. He took the reins, he took leadership roles. He did everything he could. Like I said, he’s very deserving of it. When this thing happened last year, I knew it was going to be special and you never like to say, ‘Oh, he better win the Super Bowl.’ But you knew it was going to be special just because of the mind of (Rams coach Sean) McVay and the kind of work that Matthew was going to put in. Definitely knew it was going to be special.”

Stafford played with good players and on good teams in Detroit. He spent seven seasons with Calvin Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Fame receiver, five with Ndamukong Suh, a three-time first-team All-Pro defensive tackle, and the Lions’ 2014 defense ranks as one of the best run-stopping units in NFL history.

But the Rams have taken their talent acquisition to another level, going all-in in their pursuit for a Super Bowl. They have the best defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) and cornerback (Jalen Ramsey) in the NFL, another future Hall of Fame pass rusher in Von Miller and two of the game’s most electric receivers in Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.

“It’s the right place at the right time more so than just saying, ‘Well, Detroit’s cursed,’ or anything like that,” said ex-Lions quarterback Drew Stanton, Stafford’s teammate in 2009-11. “Everything had to align.”

Bell said he has wondered why the Lions did not have the same success with Stafford as quarterback that the Rams are enjoying now. Ultimately, he came to a simple answer.

“It just wasn’t our time,” he said. “It’s his time now. I remember Nate Burleson said something about when Stafford came to Detroit he was the prince of Detroit and he’s about to finish this year up as the king of L.A. That was pretty dope. That was a pretty dope quote that he said that I was like, ‘You know what, that’s very much true.’ And for the most part, you have people around here who they’re straddling the fence. ‘Should we go for him? Should we not? He’s not a Detroit Lion anymore.’

“But I’m not going for Matthew Stafford the football player, I’m going for Matthew Stafford the man. And he deserves it. He put a lot into it and like I said, I’m happy for him.”

‘Finish the job’

Stafford said he has heard from several ex-teammates in the run up to the Super Bowl, including Johnson, who he called “the greatest at his craft at that position at that time.”

Bell said Stafford’s wife, Kelly, invited him to a game earlier this fall. And Raiola said he texted Stafford after beating the 49ers, “Finish the job,” but declined an invitation to join ex-Lions fullback Shaun Chapas, Stafford’s old teammate at Georgia, and others in a suite for Sunday’s game.

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“It’s going to be chaos in there,” Raiola said. “All you want is just to enjoy the game and watch him win it and shoot, I’ll see him maybe a month later or something in L.A.”

As for how it ends, Stanton, who won a Super Bowl last year as a backup to Tom Brady on the Buccaneers practice squad, envisions Stafford having a big day in the biggest game of his career.

Already this postseason, Stafford has six touchdown passes with one interception and has led the Rams to game-winning field goal drives against the Buccaneers and 49ers.

“For me and knowing how he is and how he’s wired, no moment’s going to be too big for him,” Stanton said. “Nothing is going to rattle him and he’ll go out there and he’ll play a good football game on Sunday. I’m completely confident in saying that.”

Bell has visions of something even grander in mind.

“It’d be funny if Stafford goes there, finishes out his contract, wins a Super Bowl. We’re done putting all the pieces here in Detroit and then he comes back and finishes the job later on in his career, about 36, 37,” Bell said. “Hey, you never know. Might come back here and pull a LeBron, bring a championship back home.”

Asked if that’s something he’s talked about with Stafford, Bell said he did not want to talk about conversations he’s had with his old quarterback.

“It’s just wishful thinking,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. If he’s still playing at a high level, we’ll see what happens.”

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

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