Stuck in Purgatory: The Career of Matthew Stafford


When NFL fans tune in on game-day, our eyes are drawn to stars. It might be a dynamic receiver, or a game-breaking runningback, or even a standout defender. However, much of the fascination begins where the ball does: at the quarterback position. That’s where we shine the spotlight today.

In 2020, quarterbacks are viewed in each and every conceivable way. Some are viewed as irreplaceable by their given clubs, while others are seen as holding their franchise back. Fair or not, they are often held responsible for the team’s win-loss record as well as the general direction the team is trending. Regardless of the situation, every quarterback develops a reputation amongst media, fans and most importantly, their own organization.

Only, there are a few quarterbacks that are quite difficult to judge or comprehend in this manner, causing debate around the status of the player’s career with the given team. We have Derek Carr, who is still the starter of the Raiders despite there being constant leaks about the club’s interest in finding an upgrade. Also fitting this odd grey-area is a player like the Viking’s Kirk Cousins, who has garnered plenty of scrutiny for poor big-game performances but is far too productive to replace. Yet, the one career arc that stands out to me, is the one of Detroit Lion’s pivot Matthew Stafford.

Stafford, now 32, has been in the NFL for over a decade now, spending it entirely in Detroit. His story is one of consistently proved individual prowess, all while leaving significant aspects to be desired given the expectations that followed him into the league. His career is one of grit, inheriting a winless roster and bringing it back respectability. This is why, it’s unfortunate that he is now mainly defined by what he has failed to do.

Today, we examine the career of Matthew Stafford, exploring the key events that have shaped his rise, and defined his failures.

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Prologue: The Beginnings

Georgia QB Matthew Stafford (#7) embraces teammate WR AJ Green (#8), during 2008 season
Photo Credit: Georgia Bulldogs Athletics

It is difficult to define Stafford’s career without at least taking a glance at his rise as a top-notch young football prospect. Let’s put it this way: Stafford wasn’t viewed as your average high school quarterback.

Born in Tampa Bay, Florida, Stafford lived his early years in Dunwoody, Georgia, with his father attending the University of Georgia as a Graduate student at the time. Eventually, the Staffords would decide to relocate their residence to Dallas, Texas where Matthew’s athletic career would really take-off.

The future NFLer would attend Highland Park High School, where he would become a multi-sport star. The strong-armed youngster played baseball for Highland Park, in addition to stepping on the gridiron. On the diamond, a teenaged Matthew would play first-base alongside other future professional ball-players in Jordan Walden and most famously, MLB star pitcher Clayton Kershaw. However, after a down Junior season on the football field, Stafford decided to specialize, putting down his bat and glove, and focusing on improving as a quarterback.

Despite having a rough Junior season, Stafford was still highly viewed amongst the recruiting community going into 2005, on the strength of his unteachable throwing velocity. However, it was his Senior season that truly pushed Stafford a cut-above his peers. That season, he would lead Highland Park to an undefeated 15-0 record, capturing the Texas 4A Division I State Championship and illustrating the capability to be an efficient pro-style quarterback with throws from the pocket. For his efforts, Stafford received plenty of fanfare, including several awards. The most notable of these accolades was being awarded the 2005 EA Sports National Player of the Year, putting a cherry on top his high school resume. Not even committed yet on where he would play collegiately, many draftniks were already predicting Stafford would eventually be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. More specifically, ESPN’s Draft Insider Mel Kiper famously predicted that he would be the 1st drafted whenever he choose to enter the NFL.

When making his college decision in 2006, which was a popular class for quarterbacks that also included future Heisman-winner Tim Tebow, Stafford had plenty of options, receiving official offers from Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas (via ESPN). Ultimately though, the quarterback opted to sign a letter of intent with his father’s alma-matter, the University of Georgia.

As a freshman at Georgia, many wondered how long it would be until the prized recruit would see the field. Despite his incredible talent, many wondered if he would be ready for action as a first-year player. The answer? Just three games into his freshman season, the Bulldogs’ lost their starter, Joe Tereshinski III, to injury. Enter an 19-year-old Stafford, the rare true freshman to start at quarterback for a team in the most competitive conference in College Football, the SEC.

Predictably, Stafford had his ups and downs in his opening college season, completing a low 52.7% of his passes while sporting an ugly 7-13 TD-INT ratio. However, there were still glimpses shown of his potential. In a game in 2006 against (#5) Auburn, the first-year signal-caller was efficient and aggressive, throwing for 219 yards on 20 passes while adding 83 rushing yards on the ground in Georgia’s upset. After qualifying for a bowl-game, Stafford was able to guide the Bulldogs past Virginia Tech in the final game of his freshman season.

Going into year number-two, there were things Stafford needed to improve on, such as his accuracy and general field awareness. He did just that, improving across the board statistically, leading Georgia to another successful season and bowl win, this time against (#10) Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.

The lore of Stafford as an all-world quarterback talent, combined with his evident improvement over his first two college seasons, set expectations sky-high for year-three. Not only was Georgia ranked #1 in the AP Preseason AP Poll, but Stafford was ranked on a short-list of leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in College Football.

As the season began, Stafford was playing his best college football yet, setting school records for single-season passing yards and touchdowns, while improving dramatically on his previous-poor-accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not translate into a successful Heisman Trophy bid for the quarterback, who didn’t crack the Top-10 of the voting, likely because the team did not fully meet preseason expectations. Still, Stafford had established himself as the type of talent that any NFL team would desire, possessing an elite arm, even by professional standards. With his draft stock never higher, the Georgia quarterback decided to enter the 2009 NFL Draft with one year of college eligibility remaining. As we will see, one can look at Stafford’s career from this point in four specific periods, all playing a significant role in his story.

ACT I: The Injured-Stafford Era

Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press Tannen Maury/EPA

While Stafford was coming into his own at Georgia, the 2008 Detroit Lions were losing, and losing OFTEN. As the 2008 season winded down, the Lions finished as the first NFL team (at the time) to go winless in a 16-game-slate. The only saving grace for the suffering fans in Detroit? That the answer to their long-time instability at quarterback was available in Stafford, whom they would go on to select with the first selection in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Inheriting an 0-16 roster couldn’t have been easy for the young passer. The cupboard of roster depth was considerably bare on both sides of the ball, meaning Detroit likely wasn’t to contend for a few years. Luckily, the team had one other core young building block in star third-year receiver Calvin Johnson, who would come to be known as “Megatron”. With Johnson and Stafford in tow, Lions fans would be treated with some excitement on offense while the rest of the roster filled out.

Only, this isn’t exactly how things got started in the new Stafford-era. Despite some moments in his first two seasons, what is most memorable about these years are the consistent injuries suffered by Stafford. In his rookie season in 2009, Stafford was only able to play in 10 of 16 games due to a few different injuries, including a dislocated patella in his knee. In his second season, the same story, only worse, as the pivot had a lingering shoulder injury that would hold him to a mere 3 games and require surgery.

Obviously, these injuries were incredibly concerning, as we have seen several quarterbacks in the NFL fail just because their bodies haven’t been able to hold up. There was legitimate chatter that Detroit had made the wrong decision selecting Stafford, and remembering back, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people say that Detroit should have selected the #2 passer from the 2009 Draft, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, instead.

Highlights of Stafford’s Gutty-Performance versus Cleveland Browns in 2009, courtesy of kr150r on YouTube

This doesn’t mean there weren’t flashes during his brief appearances. In 2009, in just his 8th career start, Stafford would throw for over 400 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 38-37 Lions win over the Cleveland Browns. In the game, Stafford would show toughness and grit, leading the Lions to victory despite suffering a dislocated shoulder on the second-to-last play. Likewise, in brief action in his sophomore season, he had multiple touchdown games in 2 out of 3 appearances. There was still hope for Lions fans at the end of the tunnel, if the team could keep their young face-of-the-franchise healthy.

ACT II: The Megatron-Stafford Era

Detroit Lions teammates Matthew Stafford (#9) and Calvin Johnson (#81)
Photo Credit: INFORUM.com Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports

The 2011 season brought some hope in Detroit. Stafford had recovered from his nagging shoulder injury, and Johnson, the team’s leading receiver, was coming off a strong season in his quarterback’s absence. The roster as whole, too, had a much needed infusion of talent from the development of previous draft draft classes, led by 2010 #2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh along the defensive line. The roster was young, but it was hard not to have optimism about the group heading into the next few seasons. Still, many could not have foreseen what kind of jump was in store.

Stafford entered the 2011 season dealing, leading the Lions out of the gate with five straight wins to begin the season, boosting an efficient 13-3 TD-INT ratio. The rapport that was developing between Stafford and his star receiver, Megatron, was astonishing, with the pair connecting for multiple touchdowns in all of the first four games of 2011. The defense, led by the young Suh and coached by the defensive-minded Head Coach Jim Schwartz wasn’t perfect, but gave the offense enough support to string wins together.

In spite of some difficulties mid-season, the Stafford and Megatron-led Lions were able to weather the storm, finishing the season 10-6 and earning Detroit’s first playoff appearance since 1999. The third-year quarterback produced eye-popping numbers by season’s end, becoming only the 4th quarterback to pass for over 5,000 passing yards in a season. He also threw for a career high 41 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Johnson was named to the NFL’s All-Pro Team after catching 96 passes for 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Detroit would meet the experienced New Orleans Saints in the Wild-Card round, where the young Lions were soundly overmatched, losing 45-28. Still, despite the expected first-round exit, there was so much for Detroit to be excited about.

Or so one would think. The 2012 and 2013 seasons represented learning experiences for the team, finishing with 4-12 and 7-9 records, respectively. It became to be apparent, that though Stafford was incredibly productive and was remaining healthy, his wild-gunslinging style of play led to high-turnover numbers (17 interceptions in 2012; 19 in 2013).

Another offensive issue that I felt Detroit never found a way to fix during this stretch, was their lack of skill-player depth behind Megatron, arguably the best offensive weapon in the sport at the time. Surrounding Megatron on the Lions starting offense included RB Mikel Leshoure (bust), WR Titus Young (bust) and TE Brandon Pettigrew (mild disappointment). In this sense, Detroit didn’t do a good job of building around their dynamic quarterback-receiver duo.

Due to setbacks suffered in 2012 and 2013, Detroit opted to go in a different direction at Head Coach, firing Jim Schwartz after five years.

View from Ford Field, Home of the Detroit Lions

In 2014, the Lions were able to temporarily patch-up these issues. Alongside Johnson and Pettigrew, the team signed receiver Golden Tate from Seattle, and had acquired runningback Reggie Bush from Miami the year prior. These two established players made a huge difference in providing balance to the Lions’ offense, particularly Tate, who managed more receiving yards (1,331) than Megatron in 2014 (1,077). Largely due to these improvements, Detroit was able to win 11 games–their most since 1991–in their first season under new Head Coach Jim Caldwell, qualifying for the playoffs.

In the 2014 playoffs, the Lions entered with better chances than in 2011. A more experienced-Stafford, along with the team’s best defense in years, gave Detroit a fighting-chance against the NFC East Champion Dallas Cowboys in the first-round.

Detroit played Dallas extremely well through three and a half quarters, leading 20-17. Ultimately, though, heartbreak would occur. In a key 3rd-down scenario late in the 4th quarter, Stafford attended a pass in the direction of his tight-end Pettigrew, who appeared to be interfered with on the play. The game’s referees would originally agree, tossing a flag for pass interference, but after a quick discussion between officials, the flag was picked up, and Detroit had to punt the ball back to Dallas late in the contest. After what Detroit fans refer to as “The Phantom Flag”, the Cowboys were able to take their last possession of the game in for a go-ahead touchdown, handing the Lions another playoff defeat.

The famed-2014 pass interference call during Lions versus Cowboys, courtesy of healthbar1313 on YouTube

For the great QB-WR duo that was Stafford and Megatron, this was the closest they would ever get to a playoff victory. In 2015, the Lions would struggle, starting 1-7 and finishing the season 7-9 despite a strong second-half. The year was plagued with injuries for Detroit, but as the team approached the offseason, a much bigger concern came about.

Mirroring other Lions’ star Barry Sanders in the 90s, Calvin Johnson would shockingly retire from the game at a young age. The then-30-year-old cited lingering injuries for cutting his professional career short, despite a sure Hall-of-Fame trajectory.

The loss of Megatron would mark a major challenge for Stafford, who had the receiver as his go-to weapon since he was a rookie. Many would question Stafford’s prominence as a franchise quarterback without his star teammate, as well as lingering concerns over his ability to win when it counts.

Ultimately, this era is defined first and foremost by the duo. Not much else was right with Detroit during this time, but the connection between Stafford and Johnson made both players stars early in their careers. It is just disappointing, looking back, on the lack of high-level success the two were able to have.

ACT III: The Post-Megatron Era

Photo Credit: Pride of Detroit Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Stafford was facing the most crucial single season of his career in 2015. It was the post-Megatron era, and there were plenty of questions looming about the quarterback’s ability to produce in the absence of an all-time play-maker. Further, the former #1 overall selection was entering his seventh NFL season in 2016, and had yet to produce a single playoff victory. To this end, few were predicting success for Detroit in 2016.

Yet, from the onset of the season, there was a different vibe around the Lions. The keys of the team’s receiving core were handed over to a cast of veterans in the returning Golden Tate and new additions Marvin Jones and Anquon Boldin. As the season progressed, they grew to play more of a relaxed tone in the absence of the higher expectations of the Megatron years.

The schedule, however, did them no favours early on. Playing three out of the first four games on the road, including trips to 2015 playoff participants’ Indianapolis and Green Bay, made the sled difficult for the Lions. The team was able to steal a win over the Colts in Indy in Week 1 behind a terrific, 340-yard, 3-touchdown game from Stafford. Unfortunately, the next week, in a game I was actually able to attend (see below), the Lions dropped a winnable game against the Tennessee Titans. The next few weeks, the Lions dropped back-to-back road games in Green Bay and Chicago, dropping their record to 1-3. Most by this point, myself included, had written off Detroit. Which is probably why the opposite actually occurred.

View from Ford Field as the Detroit Lions played the Tennessee Titans in 2016

Detroit was able to rebound for three straight victories after that 1-3 start, with Stafford playing some his most efficient and clutch football of his entire career. In the absence of Megatron, Stafford seemed to be fully unleashed, spreading the ball around to a wide variety of pass targets depending on the matchup. The quarterback, in the span of one October, began building a reputation as a comeback king, as Detroit largely survived due to Stafford’s heroics in those three consecutive victories.

After a loss against the Houston Texans in Week 8, Stafford and the Lions stood at 4-4 on the season. Then, in Week 9, Stafford recreated his late-game magic, leading Detroit in a key win over the division-rival Vikings to kick off a brand-new 5 game winning-streak. During this stretch, it was Stafford at his best, leading the Lions on several more dramatic comeback wins. By the end of the winning-streak, the Lions were sitting pretty, with 9-4 record. Additionally, Stafford had set an All-Time NFL Record for Most 4th-Quarter Comeback Wins in a single season with 8. Stafford was being applauded by even some of his harshest critics and had reached unquestioned status as a true franchise quarterback.

Highlights of Stafford’s comebacks in 2016, courtesy of Echo Highlights on YouTube

Unfortunately, the team would go on to falter after encountering a tough late-season stretch, losing two straight. Luckily, the Lions, at 9-6, still qualified for the post-season and had a chance to clinch the team’s first division title in over 20 years with a win in the regular season finale against the Packers. The bright lights of the NFL were shined Stafford, who was up against rival quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a two-time NFL MVP. Adding to the intrigue was Stafford’s established struggles against Green Bay, with the game providing the added storyline of having the chance to slay the giant. This could have been a career defining moment for Stafford, one that would potentially vault him into the game’s elite.

However, as the title of this article suggests, Stafford’s story has no clear happy endings. Stafford by no means played terrible against Green Bay in that aforementioned season finale, but Aaron Rodgers played spectacular. Rodgers once against stole the spotlight from Stafford and the Lions, denying Detroit the chance at a division title and handing them a 31-24 loss. A dejected-Lions team barely showed up in the following week’s playoff game at Seattle, where Stafford played flat, throwing for only 205 yards and no touchdowns in a 26-6 defeat. It was Stafford’s third playoff appearance in seven seasons, but all three ended with an immediate exit.

Matthew Stafford warming up for a 2016 game against the Tennessee Titans

While Stafford’s Lions would have another competitive season in 2017, they would not qualify for the playoffs. The quarterback was again extremely productive, completing 65% of his passes and throwing for 29 touchdowns. But the division was tougher, led by a resurgent Minnesota Vikings, and it felt like Detroit had missed their window of opportunity to ascend the year before.

At year’s end, despite producing three winning campaigns in four seasons at the helm, Head Coach Jim Caldwell was relieved of his duties. Stafford had some of his best seasons under the guidance of Caldwell, winning 36 games against 28 losses, and proving himself as a legitimate franchise quarterback, with or without Calvin Johnson. In the post-Megatron era, Stafford played smarter, cutting down on his mistakes and improved his usually-sloppy throwing mechanics. Those that are big Stafford supporters, to this day, often refer to this period in defense of the quarterback.

ACT IV: The Matt Patricia Era

An Injured Matthew Stafford (right) sidelined in game during 2019 season
Photo Credit: Daniel Mears/Detroit News

General Manager Bob Quinn had been hired by the Lions in 2016 when the team had Incumbent Jim Caldwell at Head Coach. Coming from the New England Patriots organization, many had speculated that Quinn had always intended to hire a new, different head coach, so it was no surprise that the Lions opted to move on from Caldwell after the 2016 season. In conducting their coaching search, the Lions GM went hard after former Patriots colleagues to fill the role, eventually settling on New England’s Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia.

There was initial concern about what effect the turn-over would have on Stafford, as Patricia was a specialist on the defensive-side, as opposed to Caldwell, a former quarterback’s coach. Optimism was in the air though, when the team announced that they had retained Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who had been credited with much of Stafford’s progress in recent years.

However, Stafford, and the Lions as a whole, would stumble in their first year under Patricia, finishing 6-10. Stafford, who fought through a bothersome back-injury to play in all 16 games, threw for less than 4000 yards and saw other statistical figures drop across the board. Additionally, mid-season, Detroit dealt away number one receiver Golden Tate, whom Stafford had excellent chemistry and production with. Another year of no playoffs for the former #1 overall pick, and things were not looking any easier going into 2019.

Matt Patricia (middle) being introduced as Lions Head Coach by General Manager Bob Quinn (left) and ownership (right)
Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland/MLive.com

In Patricia’s second season, the Lions decided they needed a change at offensive coordinator, resulting in Cooter getting the axe in favour of former Seahawks play-caller Darrel Bevel. And, to the coaching staff’s credit, it looked to be working out of the gate. Detroit started 2019 with a strange tie against Arizona, before winning two in a row to race out to a 2-0-1 record. Heading into a Week 4 game against the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, the Stafford-era Lions had another opportunity to make a statement. Stafford played excellent in the contest, throwing for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns without throwing an interception. Unfortunately, so did Chiefs’ superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and the Lions dropped the game, 34-30.

The next week, in another primetime matchup, Stafford once again encountered Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Detroit controlled the game early, but a series of controversial calls against the Lions late let Green Bay back into the game. Detroit eventually fell in the game on a last-second field goal as time expired, dealing a devastating blow to the team’s season.

In ensuing weeks, despite strong quarterback play from Stafford–including 3 games with 3 or more touchdown passes–, the Lions would unravel. Then, in a Week 9 game against the Oakland Raiders, the quarterback suffered an injury that included multiple broken bones in his back. Despite the quarterback’s leaked desire to return to the field in 2019, the Lions would shut Stafford down for the remainder of the season. Prior to missing action, Stafford had not missed a game for Detroit since his injury-plagued first two seasons, a stretched that included an impressive 136 consecutive starts. It was truly disappointing for those that have followed Stafford’s career, as he was producing a career-high 106.0 career passer-rating while sporting a 19-5 TD-INT ratio for the season.

The 2018 and 2019 seasons brought up several concerns about Stafford’s career going forward. First, while Stafford is still only 32 years-old–an in-prime quarterback in today’s age–, given his injuries, it is fair to question his career longevity going forward. The second main question is whether Stafford will ever be able to overcome an organization that has proven to do a poor job in maintaining a consistent, overall, supporting cast. Though there is still time to improve, the Patricia years illustrate just how poorly the team has done to provide both a quality offensive line and defense to support the franchise quarterback, and now Stafford’s body is starting to break down.

Act V: The Breaking Point?

Detroit Lions Coach Matt Patrcia (center), and Quarterback Matthew Stafford (right) face uncertain futures entering 2020
Photo Credit: PrideofDetroit.com Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if something changes for Stafford’s career one way or the other. After two disappointing season’s under Patricia, many are already circling the Lions as a team that may look to make a coaching change first in 2020. If this happens, it could set in motion a chain of actions that would lead back to the fate of Stafford. If the team struggles and decides on a coaching change, it is fair to wonder if Detroit would cut ties with General Manager Bob Quinn as well, who moved on from Caldwell to hire Patricia. This would mean another brand-new regime in Detroit, one that would have to decide whether or not to move forward with a future 33-year-old Stafford. Given what has transpired in the 2020 NFL offseason, with teams like the Carolina Panthers moving on from established franchise-faces like Cam Newton, Stafford might be viewed in a similar expendable category.

That is why Stafford is facing a career-defining season in 2020. Questions will need to be answered about his health, and he will have to produce, not just statistically, but in the win column. That much is certain.

Detroit will enter 2020 with an improved roster, at least on paper. The Lions worked aggressively to address their holes on defense, trading away starting cornerback Darius Slay and replacing him with two additions in free agent signing Desmond Trufant and #3 overall pick Jeff Okudah. Patricia was also able to recruit former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins to improve Detroit’s athleticism on the defenses’ second-level. Add in the fact that the Lions had Kenny Galloday emerge as a star at wide receiver last season, and that the team used a 2nd-round pick on highly-touted runningback D’Andre Swift, and Detroit should have their best supporting roster since at least 2017. Yet, in the end, people will look in the direction of Stafford.

As a #1 overall pick with over a decade of experience with the team that drafted him, it is difficult to describe Stafford’s career as disappointing. In fact, as someone that has followed it’s entirely, I don’t really know if there is a word that accurately sums it up. That’s what makes Stafford’s legacy the hardest to evaluate of any of the long-time NFL quarterbacks.

So, in ending here today, we will just state what we know.

Stafford had an established public profile before ever stepping on the field in the NFL, and when he was drafted, inherited a roster that didn’t win a single game the previous season. After struggling with injuries in his opening years, he let loose in 2011, turning into a star alongside Calvin Johnson, and later without him post-2015. Stafford has quarterbacked Detroit to three playoff appearances in ten years, after the franchise did not make a single appearance in the decade before his arrival. He has also been a statistical standout, during the 2019 season becoming the fastest quarterback to throw for 40,000 career passing-yards. Add in his 5,000 yard, 41-touchdown-season in 2011, and there’s little denying his production.

Yet, unfortunately, Stafford’s career presents critics with plenty of legitimate ammo. For starters, he has a career losing record at 69-79-1. Of this, he has went 7-11 against the arch-rival Green Bay Packers, who have consistently won the division over the Lions. More importantly to most observers, he has not produced a single NFL post-season victory in a decade under-center, and his play has shrunk against some of the league’s better teams. Now, the unfortunate truth is he may not be as healthy as the typical 32-year-old, considering his history in recent years of admitting to playing through nagging ailments.

These facts make Stafford such an interesting case for NFL fans to discuss, which is why we chose to cover it today. As a hyped-up generational-type prospect, has Stafford been a disappointment? We leave that for you to decide in the comments below.

I want to thank all of you so much for reading, as this was a topic I’ve always wanted to cover!

Shout out to Pro-Football-Reference, a site with remarkable statistical-breakdowns that made much of this entire article possible! Thank you!