Friday, August 24, 2018

The Passion of Matthew Stafford

Well shit, here we are. Matthew Stafford. It occurred to me while doing the offensive preview that it was pretty much impossible to actually write the damn thing without pretty much talking about Stafford the whole time, but since only the same six people who read everything I write read that one along with maybe a penguin in Antarctica, I think it’s safe to hit some of the same points again. But really, this will be more about Matthew Stafford the dude than Matthew Stafford the stat machine. Then again, those two dudes are inextricably linked and shit, I’m already gibbering and not making any damn sense.

Okay, so if I had an editor, this is probably where things would start: I still don’t know what to make of Matthew Stafford. That is fucking absurd given that we are going into Year 10 of the Matthew Stafford Era. Yes, it has been that long.

I’ll let that settle for a moment, because that in itself is kind of damning, isn’t it? We keep waiting for that moment when Stafford kicks it up a notch and rescues us from ourselves, but . . . 10 years, man. 10 years.

In those 10 years (well, 9 so far, but don’t be a pedant) Stafford has a 60-65 record as the Lions starting quarterback and has won 10 games or more only twice, in 2011 and 2014. Other than those two years he’s pretty consistently been a 7-9 win quarterback.

I can already hear people bellowing that familiar refrain “THAT’S NOT FAIR, IT’S A TEAM SPORT, IT’S NOT ON HIM,” and that’s true. It’s also bullshit. It’s both true and it’s bullshit, and that’s the thing no one has been able to accept about Stafford. Lions fans almost universally fall into one camp or another. But the thing is, is that they are both reactionary and defensive camps, the sort of binary thinking that has destroyed The Discourse in all facets of society today.

The Lions never win because they’re the fucking Lions. That exists independent of Stafford. They never won anything with Calvin Johnson either. Barry Sanders won one goddamn playoff game in his career and he was the best football player ever. So . . . I mean, I get it. The bigger picture here is emphatically Not Stafford’s Fault.

But when it comes to quarterbacks, you’re always looking for someone who can transcend the situation. The greats show up and change the culture, they make that team theirs and no one better raise a hand to them. The quarterback is the only dude who can do that on a team, the only one that has that sort of transcendent transformative power. That’s the fucking job, man. And that’s where Matthew Stafford is responsible.

Look, Stafford ranks 29th on the all-time passing yardage list. He’s famously the youngest player to hit every new milestone, but here’s the thing: every single quarterback above him on that list has won at least one playoff game in his career. Of the top 50 quarterbacks of all time, 8 of them, including Stafford have never won a playoff game. Here’s the list: Stafford, Jim Hart, John Hadl, Y.A. Tittle, Sonny Jurgenson, Norm Snead, Jon Kitna (lol) and Roman Gabriel. Of those, Hadl, Tittle, Jurgenson, Snead and Gabriel played either their entire career or the bulk of it during an era when there essentially were no playoffs. There was just an NFL championship game. That leaves Stafford in the company of Jim Hart and Jon Kitna. Well, shit.

Still, Stafford is only 30 and should have at least a half-dozen more cracks at it. I think he’ll get there, but to be honest, that also feels like sort of a ludicrous dream. I mean, come on, the Lions have won literally one goddamn playoff game in 60 years.

But again, that brings us back around to the whole Lions Disease of it all, and leaves us grasping in the dark as we try to untangle the wild snarl between who Stafford is and what the Lions make him be. How the fuck do we figure this out?

Let’s double back to the whole no playoff wins thing and a quarterback being capable of changing a team’s identity. A guy I like to compare Stafford to, both in terms of supreme talent and in terms of his inability to “win the big one” is John Elway. For years, Elway carried around the burden of being known as, well, like people know Stafford. A talented loser. That sucks, and is harsh, but let’s not pretend here. We’re better than that.

But the thing is, is that Elway also had been to three Super Bowls in his first eight seasons, and he famously did it despite not having much of a team around him, especially on offense. He also took over a franchise that had never won anything. It’s kind of absurd, I guess, to try to compare Stafford to Elway, especially in this circumstance, but the point is this: the greats, the true greats, those who are capable of changing an entire team, a.k.a. fucking winners, do it. Or at least come really damn close. I mean, I think we’d take three Super Bowl appearances from Stafford even if the Lions didn’t actually win one, right? They don’t wander in the desert for a decade complaining that it’s not their fault.

And that’s the thing about Stafford: who is this fucking guy? There are times, and we’ve all seen them, when he looks like he’s ready to storm through Normandy with Dick Winter and the boys. Who can forget that famous game against the Browns early in his career when his shoulder was fucking torched, knocking him out for the season, and he refused to come out and just won the damn game by himself? It was incredible, the sort of thing that caused idiots like me to start launching a thousand ships in his name and signing hosannas to the sky.

But we’ve also seen that other dude, the one who inspired me to get second and third hand reports via email that he was a dick who nobody liked at Georgia. Those are easy enough to hand-wave away because “cocky dick” is basically a quarterback’s job description. Of course some people wouldn’t like him. But we’ve all seen it. That sulky petulance. That temper tantrum bullshit whenever a receiver doesn’t make a catch. Those times when he just seems not to give a shit, like he’s off on a walkabout in the Australian Outback. We’ve all seen it, and it sucks.

Which one is real? Which one is Stafford? The answer, as much as people don’t like to hear it because people don’t like complicated things, is that he’s both. Both things are true. What can I say? People are complicated, man. The same person that breaks your heart day after day can make you see Jesus, and vice versa. Stafford is a frat boy dick, comfortable wearing his backwards baseball cap and drinking Natty Ice while he and his bros hogtie a nerd in the basement and throw darts at his naked ass. But Stafford’s also the dude with something deep and terrifying in his heart, an inner drive that makes him stubbornly refuse to die even when his limbs are getting chopped off. He would lead a battalion charge into hell. He’s that guy too.

Those two dudes are constantly warring with each other, just as we all have different versions of ourselves fighting day and night for our souls. The only difference is that Stafford has to do it all in a highly visible, almost cartoon way. Football is a game that magnifies that battle, that lets it play out in a ritualized way. And more than that, Stafford has to do it all while also carrying the burden of our own battle. After all, that is what being a fan means. It is about watching your team fight for your soul and represent everything heroic about it. Or they fucking lose and make you feel like a loser too. Stafford has to shoulder all of that, and it’s too much for anyone.

We’re monstrously unfair to Stafford, but that’s because sports fans are always unfair. Especially when it comes to a dude like a quarterback, or a kicker, or a goalie in hockey or soccer. A closer in baseball. These are dudes out on an island, both their successes and their failures magnified. And it’s even worse for Stafford because he has 60 years of history chasing him down the entire time, Failure Demons cackling and screaming in his face. How can you not cut a guy like that a break?

Because it’s his fucking job. It’s unfair, but it’s also that simple. That is the nature and the beauty of sports. It reduces the complicated to simple truths based on stark outcomes. You win and you’re a magnificent warrior of strength and virtue. You lose and you’re a weak-willed coward of low and base character.

It’s utterly ridiculous, but so is getting worked up over something so dumb, something so inconsequential as sports. But we do it because that is the game, that is the ritual. That is the deal we make, both with ourselves and with the athletes themselves. Fair’s got nothing to do with it.

But how can you shit on a dude that over the past two and a half seasons has thrown for 10,952 yards and 72 touchdowns (one for each virgin in paradise) and only 22 interceptions? All of this with no functional running game and Lions Disease infecting everything? (thanks to Pro Football Weekly for the stats and perspective.)

It’s nuts. You can’t and you shouldn’t. We’re in the midst of by far the greatest era of any quarterback in Lions history.

And yet, it isn’t enough.

This is the sort of thing that makes us all run hooting into the hills to climb trees and return to our ape ancestors, our brains shrunk by madness and despair. This is when I start rambling about ether and drain cleaner and all that bullshit. IT ISN’T ENOUGH.

What in the goddamn fuck?

And that brings me to what the Lions need Stafford to be, and thus what we all need him to be. It’s not enough for him to put up those absurd stats. Not Good Enough, we all say. And we say it because that is the sort of thing the Lions do to everyone. They need Stafford to be the best quarterback in the NFL, and when he isn’t, but only barely, it’s not enough.

He’s not Tom Brady. He’s not Aaron Rodgers. He’s not that quarterback of singular transformative will that I talked about earlier. Some part of him is, but not enough. That is his tragedy and by extension ours. Not Enough.

I don’t know exactly where to rank Stafford. At some point, it just becomes a masturbatory exercise people do in order to validate their own opinions. Some people think he’s a top five quarterback because they need him to be in order to “prove” something they already believe and so they pull out a list made up by Haywood Jablowme from the Fuckstick Times that show Stafford is number four or whatever. It’s all meaningless. And it’s the same thing for people who need to validate their belief that he stinks. Pretty soon they’re waving around Mike Hunt’s article claiming that Stafford isn’t even a top fifteen quarterback. It is all ludicrous and absurd.

Of course, this is the point where I attempt to do it because ludicrous and absurd is my brand, baby. I don’t know that I could call Stafford a top five quarterback. It’s Brady, Rogers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson as a top four. I think I’m pretty solid on that. But who is fifth? Matt Ryan? Rapelisberger? Carson Wentz was headed that way? Why not Stafford?

On the other hand, there is no way you can credibly argue, I think, that he’s not top ten at least. I mean, who are you gonna take over him? Cam Newton? Fuck off.

In the end, I think the only thing I can say is that he fits somewhere in that 5-9 range. I just don’t know where. Unfortunately, that might make all the difference in the world between Elway Stafford and Walkabout Philip Rivers Stafford.

I compared him to Rivers the other day, and I mean that in terms of both his production and his temperament. Rivers is a dick, but he’s a talented dick, one that’s always at war with himself. This war allows him to transcend his inner Ryan Leaf and make him one of the top ten quarterbacks all time in terms of yardage. All Time. That is something that is almost impossible to square with peoples’ image of Rivers. And yet, it’s true.

I don’t want that to be Matthew Stafford’s legacy, a dude who people look at in a decade and say “Him? He’s in the top ten? No way!” but I’m afraid that right now it is. The good news is that Stafford has years still to change it, and I hope he does. I mean, of course I do. His success is tied to my own happiness as a fan. And he is the franchise, for now and for the foreseeable future. He’s It. He’s our Hope. That is terrifying, but I always find myself drifting back to that Browns game because that is a dude who I’ll go to war with anytime.

I wish I had more answers when it comes to Stafford. We all do. He’s an insane contradiction, both in who he seems to be as a man and what he has done on the field. He is a fat fratboy who deserves to be drowned in a barrel and he’s a fucking Spirit Warrior. He’s a dude who’s thrown for more yardage at his age than anyone in NFL history, and he’s a dude who can never beat a team with a winning record.

10 years ago, I remember being unconvinced when the Lions drafted him number one overall. That dude we see today was the same dude that was Georgia. Super talented, but inconsistent. Hadn’t won a damn thing. I remember feeling that way, but I also remember feeling hopeful. I remember being excited by his obvious talent, and I remember that game against the Browns. I remember everything. And in that memory lies today’s truth. He’s still both dudes to me. I know he’s going to go nuts in the fourth quarter of every game. I know that with him, the Lions always have a chance. But I also know that with him, the Lions always trail into that fourth quarter. And I know that with him, the Lions ultimately fail.

But that is the tangled web Stafford finds himself in, that we all find ourselves in. This isn’t just his story, it’s the story of the Detroit Lions, and he’s just a character in it. An important character, but just a character all the same. And I also know that this is a story which has shattered our hearts, our minds and our wills for 60 years now. It is a story that goes back to our fathers, to our grandfathers, hell for some of you, your great grandfathers (children, get your parents permission before reading Armchair Linebacker, or at least sneak it like porn when they’re not around.) It is a story bigger than all of us, certainly bigger than Stafford, and it makes his own story unreadable on its own.

I have celebrated with Matthew Stafford more than any other Lions quarterback in my life. And I have also cursed and sneered at him more than any other Lions quarterback in my life. That’s who he is, that’s who I am, and that’s who we all are. And for now, that must be his legacy. It is fitting, I suppose, that is our legacy too. He is a Detroit Lion. We are all Detroit Lions. God help us.


  1. God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

  2. God's like "another Lions fan, just toss it on the pile with the rest"