January 11, 2022

Matthew Stafford’s Legacy Will Be Defined By This Year's Playoffs

For much of Matthew Stafford's 13-year career, the stakes were only so high in each game. Stafford undoubtedly created a quality reputation for himself despite the Lions missing the playoffs in all but three of his 12 seasons in Detroit. Known best for his rifle arm and 38 career game-winning drives, his time in Detroit always felt like an unkept promise. 

It's been five years since Stafford's last playoff appearance, and the 33-year-old is hoping to finally advance beyond the NFL's Wild Card round. Two of his three playoff games were solid performances, but his reckless style and occasionally boneheaded moments cost a Lions team that had zero room for error. Stafford just continued to stack huge regular-season numbers but the Lions couldn't consistently win with him.

The Los Angeles Rams wasted no time in taking a gamble on the veteran. By moving two first-round picks, a third-round selection, and quarterback Jared Goff in exchange for Stafford, head coach Sean McVay essentially put his Rams career in Stafford's hands. He gambled that the big-armed gunslinger who lacked playoff experience would be the man to get his Rams over the top. 

And for much of the 2021 season, McVay looked right. Stafford has been a solid fit in the Rams' passing attack. He's been able to produce one of the most efficient seasons in the NFL despite not having the traditional run-game support the Rams usually have. It might seem obvious that a player who has earned almost $240 million in his career would be a sure thing, but Stafford's age hasn't brought the wisdom that would cause him to stop horrible mental gaffes.

The second half of the Rams' season featured moments that have to give large concern to Los Angeles. He'll slip into a trance where a flurry of interceptions will plague him, and they're often so bad in optics and harmful to the team it makes anyone wonder whether he can be relied upon in the coming weeks. Truly, this playoffs will define Stafford's legacy.

The Rams will face a difficult pathway in order to reach the Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals are up first. Stafford has averaged just 251 yards, 1.7 touchdowns and one interception against the Cards in 10 career games. If the Rams make it beyond the Wild Card round, they would travel to Green Bay, then likely travel to either Tampa Bay or Dallas. They have the most difficult road of any top-four seed.

His journey isn't simply about the numbers. Stafford has combined for 645 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception against the Bucs and Packers. But his impact in those two games were on opposite ends of the spectrum, and the Rams won't win a single game in this gauntlet if he's not at least above-average.

There's a real possibility he is the worst starting quarterback among the NFC's top-five seeds. I'd argue he's no higher than fourth in the AFC's bracket as well, and Derek Carr has a real claim to push Stafford lower. This take could look incredibly foolish or on-point in the matter of days or weeks and the NFL community as a whole is paying attention.

Stafford's insane passing production has put him on track to rank as one of the top-five producers of all-time in many categories. He could play another five or more seasons, and he's had only one full season under 4,000-yards passing. The world is waiting to see whether he can make the tough throw as pressure reigns down on him in crunch time, or if he'll shrink and revert to bad habits on the greatest stage of all.

With 2022 looming as a contract season, an extension is surely on the way. The Rams are fully invested in him and have no way to upgrade barring another team growing infatuated with an aging, expensive wild card. We all know Stafford is good to some degree, but whether he can transcend McVay's friendly scheme more than Goff could will separate his legacy from his predecessor's. And chances are good if he's significantly better, the Rams will win a Super Bowl. We could see one of the biggest swings in legacy in recent memory occur if Stafford is up for the challenge. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration