The last game he played in Ford Field, he threw for three touchdowns and nearly 300 yards — and lost by two points. That’s a microcosm of the bittersweet career Matthew Stafford put in during his long tenure as the Detroit Lions’ starting quarterback. With various levels of success, but never the level he wanted to achieve, Stafford labored here for 12 years worth of football Sundays.
And now, this weekend, he comes back for one more.
But everything’s flipped.
“I know I’m wearing the wrong colors this weekend,” Stafford joked.
He was speaking after his next-to-last practice in L.A., before his Rams team heads to the airport and takes a trip Stafford most likely never envisioned when he left the Lions in 2021 — or even as recently as eight weeks ago, when L.A. looked like an also-ran in the NFC playoff race.
“We were 3-6 at the break, so I don’t think anybody thought we were going to make the playoffs. And to start the season, I don’t think anybody really gave us a chance. So we’re proud of that.”
Then he added, quickly, “And, obviously, Detroit’s been playing great all season long.”
How strange for Stafford to say that sentence. Obviously, Detroit’s been playing great all season long. How strange that his current team, the former Super Bowl champs, had to scramble to get it together and edge into a wild card spot.
How strange this whole weekend must be for the guy the Lions drafted No. 1 in 2009 and upon whom they once pinned their future.
He is the ex-husband coming back to his former spouse’s birthday party — and his job is to destroy the cake.
Detroit’s undeniably in his blood
“Was there part of you that was privately rooting, in that last week, to draw another opponent in the playoffs?” I asked Stafford on Thursday when he joined me for radio interview.
“To be honest with you, I was just happy we were in. I didn’t care where we went. There were a lot of different scenarios. We could have gone to, I think, Detroit, Dallas and even Philly was still a chance. So, you know, we were not choosing at that point.”
No. Fate chose for him. Fate chose to send Kayne West to a Pete Davidson comedy show. Fate chose to put Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt up for the same award.
Fate chose to pit Stafford, in his first postseason game since winning the 2022 Super Bowl, against his old team — and the quarterback the Rams gave up to get him, Jared Goff.
So how is Stafford handling it? As he handles pretty much every obstacle out of his control.
With a shrug.
“You know, obviously, there’s a lot of attention because it’s a playoff game, and then you know, the familiarity with both quarterbacks and both teams and that kind of stuff. I understand that whole part of it …
“When we found out it was going to be Detroit, the storyline was going to be the storyline. But we had a big test, just because of their football team and how good (the Lions) are this year.”
Stafford admitted that his wife, Kelly, was “a little more emotional” about returning to their old hometown than he was, “because I got a job to do when I get there.” But there is no denying that Honolulu Blue is dyed into both of their personal tapestries.
They became a married couple in Detroit. Became parents (four times) in Detroit. Bought their first big home in Detroit. Made countless friends. Got involved in numerous charitable endeavors. Kelly even endured a frightening health scare with a tumor in her inner ear canal and underwent successful surgery at U-M hospital under the skilled hands of Dr. Greg Thompson.
Besides, a football player can no easier erase 12 years with the team that drafted him than you can forget where you went to junior high, high school and college. And Stafford isn’t trying to forget.
He just can’t afford to get sentimental about it. Because his dream, like the dreams of his former teammates on the Lions, is to walk off that field Sunday night with another game to play.
And to do that, he has to play Luke Skywalker, and take a lethal light saber to his NFL father’s head.
The feeling’s mutual
Maybe it would have been better had the Lions drawn another team. It would have allowed the focus to be on their incredible turnaround this season, their first division title in 30 years, Goff’s excellence, and the pure excitement of being a favored team in a home playoff game on national TV.
Instead, there’s a kind of shudder that hangs out there, Goff no doubt feels it. Lose to another team in this game, it’s an unfortunate defeat. Lose to this team, and this quarterback, and there are ghosts dancing all over the place.
“I still have a lot of buddies on that team,” Stafford said, acknowledging the hovering weirdness of the matchup. “I pull for them to have success. Except for this week. But you know, that’s the name of the game in the NFL. …
“Honestly, what they’ve been able to build in the last couple of years has been really impressive. We put the tape on to watch them and you see it. So I’m happy for their success. …
“But, you know, I’m doing everything I can to try and win. I’m a part of this team (the Rams). I obviously want to continue to play ball. This is win-or-go-home stakes. We understand that … as do the Lions. So it’ll be a great battle.”
Goff no doubt feels the same way. This is in many ways a mirror game. Yet despite what some may think, the Rams coaches didn’t swarm Stafford the moment the Rams drew Detroit and download his brain for inside information.
“No, there’s been so much turnover since I left,” Stafford said. “The offensive system is all different than when I used to be there. … The schemes have changed so much. So, honestly, it hasn’t even come up one time.”
Looking for one more memory at old home
The same can’t be said for “the storyline,” as Stafford calls it, which will no doubt come up 100 more times between now and kickoff Sunday night.
But if the 35-year-old QB learned anything in his time in Detroit, it’s how to downplay, avoid and deftly handle controversy. It’s one of the reasons his time here was unchaotic. He never griped. He never pointed fingers. Even his trade to L.A., which he encouraged, was handled deftly enough that most fans wished him well.
Before he left, he and Kelly contributed $1 million to build a learning annex to the SAY Detroit Play Center in Lipke Park. Most players don’t make that kind of investment in a community when they are about to leave it.
Before we finished our conversation, we joked with Stafford about wearing his old Lions jersey for warmups, having the Rams team bus disappear into a Detroit pothole, and how the player now wearing his old No. 9 — Jameson Williams — is slightly faster than he was.
He laughed at all of it. If there were nerves, they didn’t show. If there was discomfort, it wasn’t evident. When we asked if HE missed playing on Thanksgiving, he quickly said “I do. I loved playing on Thanksgiving.
“You also got to enjoy the Thanksgiving meal a little bit more when you didn’t have a game on Sunday. You could go home and really eat.”
We’ll see who is feasting Sunday night. Someone has to go home unhappy in this battle. But, if you believe Stafford, they don’t have to go home bitter.
“It’s crazy,” he admitted, when reminded that the Lions first home playoff game in 30 years is against him. “It’s wild.”
What else can you say? Maybe just this: If someone in this battle of traded quarterbacks has to be responsible for losing the game, let it be a kicker.