Matthew Stafford Is Better Than You Think—Now He Gets the Chance to Prove It

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The Rams gave up a lot for Matthew Stafford, and the simple explanation is that he is one of the best players in the NFL. This was hard to see at times when he played for the Lions and the team kept losing, and it might be hard to see now. It will be obvious when he starts taking snaps in L.A. for Sean McVay and an organization that knows what it is doing. Stafford is a top-10 quarterback whenever he is healthy and top-five in the right situation. At some point in the next few years he will work his way into the MVP conversation. If you don’t believe me, listen to another MVP:

“He’s a fantastic quarterback and has done it for a long time,” Aaron Rodgers said two years ago. “I have a ton of respect for him. He’s a hell of a tough guy. He’s played through some injuries and just watching him, I love the different arm angles that he can throw from. He’s tough, mentally sharp, can make all the throws.”

Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, rich and famous and headed to the Hall of Fame, but no life is perfect, and every year of his career, Rodgers has been forced to watch the Lions twice a year. This pain was probably eased by the fact that Rodgers’s Packers usually won. But it also meant that Rodgers grew to appreciate Stafford in a way many NFL fans apparently do not.

Rodgers knows how good Stafford is. So, surely, does McVay. And though he will never say it publicly, so does Stafford. He knows his arm talent is among the best of all time, but also that it only tells part of his story. He relied on it too much when he was young, and then he worked to be a complete quarterback—the kind of smart, focused, extremely tough study geek who wins championships. He never came close because of organizational incompetence. Now he can go to L.A. and prove that was the reason.

Former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford

As much as we talk about the NFL, and as much as we analyze advanced stats, the complexity of the game can still overwhelm. This is especially true when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks. And so it’s easy to see Matt Ryan and Lamar Jackson as MVPs (which they are) and Stafford as a stat-stuffer (which he is not.)

Stafford has never won a playoff game, and through the reductive lens that Quarterbacks Win Games, this means he is a second-tier quarterback. Nonsense. It means he is a Lion. Detroit has won one playoff game since 1957. It is a streak of incompetence that makes every other failing NFL franchise look like the Patriots.

Stafford was not on the team for most of that stretch, of course, but he gave the team excellent quarterback play. Wasting Stafford’s peak years is one of the greatest failures in Lions history, and that history is littered with failures. It got to the point, by the end, where Stafford had been in Detroit for so long, and his team had lost so much, that it was easy to see him as part of the problem. He wasn’t. He was a victim of it, like Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders were victims of it.

The notion that some quarterbacks put up huge numbers for bad teams does not really make sense. It’s a lot harder to put up huge numbers when your team is bad—and a lot easier when you have a great head coach and are surrounded by talent, like Jared Goff was during his Super Bowl run with the Rams.

McVay and the Rams made an average quarterback look good for as long as they could. Stafford is miles better than average. Sometimes the conversation about his powerful arm distracts people. He has stretches when he throws 15 straight perfect passes—pinpoint lasers into tight windows. In the past five years, Stafford has completed a slightly higher percentage of his passes than Tom Brady. He has done it with subpar coaching and poor pass protection.

And yes, the Rams paid a significant price: two first-rounders, a third-rounder and Goff. But that also is distorted by the Rams’ history of giving up first-round picks, and by the implication that all first-rounders are equal. It is likely that these two picks will fall in the 20s. As for Goff, the Rams did not trade him as much as they traded his contract. Including him only decreased the price.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes should still feel good about the deal. He did get a nice package for the necessary rebuild. Stafford asked for a trade before Holmes was hired, so Holmes’s hands are clean. Holmes did not set Stafford up for years of failure; the organization did. Stafford gave the Lions his best effort and elite play for a long time. Now he is free. Don’t be surprised when he makes the best of it.