INGLEWOOD, Calif. — He began the day as a climber, but he finished it on the mountaintop. After 12 years in the NFL with a bumbling franchise that never sniffed greatness, Matthew Stafford went west, as young men in America used to do when pursuing their dreams.
And Sunday night, his came true.
In a game that, for much of the night, felt as if he were still playing for the Detroit Lions (bad calls, bad bounces, untimely interceptions) Stafford came out with 6:13 left in the Super Bowl and his new team, the LA Rams, on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Because of a flubbed extra point early in the game, LA trailed by four points instead of three, 20-16, meaning they needed a touchdown or it was toast.
Pressure? Yeah. Like an nuclear reactor. Because, at that point in the game, Stafford had zero momentum on his side. The Rams hadn’t scored a touchdown since the first half. Since then, Stafford had been intercepted, lost his star receiver to injury, and went three-and-out on his previous three possessions.
But as Lions fans can tell you, the fourth quarter is where Stafford feels most comfortable. It’s when he seems to stop thinking about it and just does it. And with essentially one reliable receiver, Cooper Kupp, and no running game, “just do it” was more than a Nike slogan.
It was the only way he was winning this Super Bowl.
“Coach (Sean McVay) said, ‘Matthew, you and Coop just get this thing done,’” Stafford told NBC in the crazy aftermath of the Rams’ come from behind, 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. “It’s such a team victory.”
Of course that’s right. All football victories are team victories. But on that final winning drive, it was mostly Stafford and Kupp, showing the benefits of countless 6 a.m. training sessions, the kind of pitch and catch and pitch and catch that enables you, in moments like these, to let all the noise disappear and just go back to doing what you do.
Here is what they did: marched 79 yards in just under five minutes, with Kupp saving the drive with a fourth-down run, and Stafford, after completing six passes on the march, completed his seventh and last of an amazing season with a 1-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Kupp that had “we do this every day 100 times” written all over it.
“Those guys did a great job,” Sean McVay gushed on the stage. “They just took over the game.”
The gamble pays off for both sides
You have to be happy for Stafford. All the talent that was frequently on display in Detroit saw its celebration Sunday night with a better team and better players. The Rams went for broke on this season, acquiring Stafford, Beckham, Von Miller, giving away draft picks and not caring if they could get their Super Bowl now.
It’s the kind of gamble that some franchises do. Detroit was never going to be one of those franchises. It may never be. Eventually, Stafford saw that fact, looked at his age, and realized the yellow brick road wasn’t going to finish on Woodward Avenue.
So he engineered a trade that brought three good draft picks and Jared Goff to Detroit, and sent Stafford to the land of the three-picture-deal. But despite his new address, he is still the same guy. Stafford, 34, showed up for the Super Bowl in a black T-shirt, while Joe Burrow, his opposing quarterback, arrived in a make-a-statement dark hat, sunglasses and a suit that looked like black and white Tiger stripes.
Stafford couldn’t care less. He came to play football. And over the course of a long, sometimes tedious, but ultimately exciting Super Bowl, it seemed as if he was replaying his entire career.
Stafford vs. Everybody
It started before the game. When the coin toss was called, the team captains trotted out to midfield. The Bengals sent out four guys. The Rams sent one:
He called tails. It came up heads. It almost symbolized Stafford’s early time in Detroit, when he no doubt felt like an army of one, with the coin often landing on the wrong side.
And then the game began. Both teams seemed tentative at the start. The Rams were bent on running the ball, despite a lack of success, and, in Hollywood terms, they kept putting a show on no one was watching.
LA would run eight times in the first quarter for a paltry 13 yards. Meanwhile, they would only try six passes. But two of them made a big difference. Stafford found Kupp with an across the field throw, and Kupp broke free for 20 yards.
And then, on third down in the red zone, Stafford threw a perfect lead pass to a leaping Beckham in the end zone. He gathered it in despite a tight defense, and one more milestone had fallen for Stafford. No matter what happened, he had now thrown a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
But he was far from done. In the second quarter, he found Beckham down the sideline for a 35-yard gain. And then, on second down in the red zone, Stafford faked a handoff, spun and found Kupp breaking free in the back of the end zone hit him perfectly for an 11-yard score.
Rams led, 13-3.
For a moment, it felt as if this might actually be … easy?
Lions luck strikes in Super Bowl
But nothing goes easy for former Detroit quarterbacks. In the sad history of Lions lore, it’s a stunning fact that, in more than 50 years, no full-time Lions head coach has ever gone on to head coach another NFL team. But how many starting quarterbacks have left and found real success elsewhere? Erik Kramer had a little luck with the Bears. Rodney Peete had a stint with the Eagles, Joey Harrington had some time with the Dolphins and Falcons. But success? Like, playoff success? Like Super Bowl success? Never happened.
So Stafford was lifting more than his share of bad odds. And if there is such a thing as a curse for those who once donned the Honolulu Blue, it certainly seemed to rear its head late in the second quarter, when Beckham missed a short reception and went down grabbing his knee. He was wincing in pain. And his expression could have been the face of every Lions fans in history. Why me? Why now? Why this?
Beckham, who has been magical for Stafford since arriving midseason, left the game for good. The Rams’ next two drives went nowhere, including an end zone interception on a prayer heaved by Stafford to Van Jefferson on third-and-14. Maybe Beckham somehow gets that ball. Either way, before you blinked, it was halftime, Rams 13, Bengals 10. But the Bengals felt better about themselves and their prospects.
And Lions fans — read: Stafford fans — had a weird sense of déjà vu.
That familiar feeling
And then, for a stretch, that Detroit déjà vu came to pass. In a stunning 22 seconds, the Bengals grabbed a touchdown, an interception, and the lead.
The touchdown came on the first play of the half, when Burrow heaved a bomb down the left sidelines, where LA’s Jalen Ramsey was running with Cincy’s Tee Higgins. Higgins grabbed Ramsey’s facemask, yanked it, and Ramsey spun to the ground. Higgins kept going and saw the ball hit him in the hands, and he scampered in for a touchdown. No flag was thrown. No explanation given.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to the Lions, right?
Then, on the Rams’ next offensive play, Stafford threw over the middle, a less-than-perfect-but-catchable pass, and receiver Ben Skowronek bobbled it right into the hands of Cincinnati defender Chidobe Awuzie. Interception.
Just like that, the Bengals had the lead and the ball back, and Stafford, after a long halftime, was back on the bench.
And perhaps wondering if he had just been transported back to Ford Field.
Another fourth-quarter drive
“This is gonna take some time,” Stafford would say afterwards, when asked to put his long career in perspective. “I don’t know what to think …”
You can understand the emotions. For so much of that second half, it felt as if LA was stuck in quicksand, and Stafford might have wondered if they’d ever get out. The loss of Beckham deflated the Rams and gave the Bengals a much easier way to defend the Rams’ other weapons. Stafford was sacked on a third down and went down badly, limping off the field.
Then after leading a field goal drive that cut the lead to 20-16, he had three straight drives that went nowhere. Three and out. Punt, punt, punt.
So when he emerged for those final six minutes, he had to know that if he didn’t do it there, he might not get another chance. His season would likely be summed up the way his career has been summed up: lots of talent, but can’t close the deal.
Ah, but sometimes men rise above the mold the devil has cast. McVay finally let go of his run insistence and basically told Stafford, “Go find your guy.”
Stafford needed no more encouragement. He played two-man football with Kupp on that last drive, hitting him four times for 39 yards. The exclamation point came after a series of penalties on the Bengals that moved the Rams to the 1-yard line. The temptation there is always to run the ball, right?
But all those mornings working out together led Stafford to trust Kupp more than the short yard that separated him from victory. With 85 seconds left in the game, Stafford found Kupp with a perfect fade throw, the Sofi Stadium crowd leapt to its feet, and the Rams had the lead and the mojo.
And Stafford, truly, was a Lion no more.
The top of the mountain
“It feels great,” Stafford said at the interview podium afterwards, surrounded by three of his four daughters. “I’m just so happy to be able to celebrate this with such great teammates and my family … it’s a special feeling. …
“That last drive was a special drive, one I’ll never forget. So many great pays by so many great players…just so happy to get it done.”
Lions fans should be happy, too. Sure, you can wonder why Stafford never came close to a Super Bowl here. But you’d be better off asking the Ford family or the string of coaches and general managers he worked for. What I saw this season with the Rams was the same guy who played in Detroit, giving the same effort, putting in the same time, but having a superior line to protect him, superior skill players surrounding him (with the exception of Calvin Johnson’s time as his receiver) and a far, far superior defense than he ever played with.
Truly, much credit for this Super Bowl win should go that LA defense, which featured big names players like Aaron Donald and Von Miller, who lived up to their hype Sunday, smothering Burrow again and again when they had to.
Burrow was sacked seven times for 43 yards lost, and you could have made a pretty good case for Donald as MVP (Kupp ultimately won it.) On the Bengals final drive, Donald manhandled Burrow on fourth down, causing the young quarterback to heave his final pass of the game underhanded. The Rams ran onto the field in celebration. And LA — and one former Detroit quarterback — had a championship.
“It’s a long time coming for a lot of guys,” Stafford said, when asked about what this meant. “Andrew Whitworth, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey … not just me.”
No, not just him. But he’s the one we were watching. The joke all week was that this was as close as a Lions fan was going to come to winning a Super Bowl. And in a sad and wistful way, that’s kind of what it feels like.
It was actually a journalist who said, “Go west, young man.” But today it’s a quarterback who lived it, journalists who are writing about it, and a whole lot of faraway fans who are smiling about it. Good for Matthew. He climbed for a long time. He deserves to reach a peak.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.