All through the second half of the Rams-Bucs game Sunday, Matthew Stafford watched his teammates do what people accuse him of doing. The Rams made one losing play after another, a display so staggering it looked like someone spiked their sports drink. They lost four fumbles in a 28-minute stretch. Kicker Matt Gay somehow left a 47-yard field goal short. Sean McVay, one of the best coaches in the NFL, seemed to call plays out of fear. And yet the Rams won anyway because, on a field sprinkled with future Hall of Famers, Stafford was the best player.
This was not surprising to many who have watched Stafford, but it was probably quite surprising to those who have read about him. Until this month, he had never won a playoff game. To much of the public, that failure defined him.
The NFL playoffs are down to four teams, and the four quarterbacks of those teams each carry a narrative with him. Quarterbacks are not just passers or runners or both. They are debate fodder. Some get tagged as winners and others as losers, as though every game reveals not just a skill set but a soul.
The narrative is almost always overblown and often does not align with reality, but good luck getting reality to trend on Twitter. You don’t have to be a great quarterback to be labeled a winner, and you can be a great quarterback and still get called a loser. A few memorable moments send that train down the track, and there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do about it.
Eli Manning, whose teams won precisely half their regular-season games, is a winner. Joe Flacco is no one’s idea of a great quarterback, but he also isn’t a loser because he had one phenomenal playoff run.
To understand how pervasive (and corrosive) narratives can be, watch what happens to the Bills’ Josh Allen. Two years ago, when the Bills emerged from playoff hibernation, Allen looked like he was starring in some cheesy movie where a kid suddenly finds himself with the body of a large adult and the athleticism of a superstar. The arm strength was extraordinary, the foot speed uncommon, and the feel for the game was childlike. He looked like he made important decisions based on what would be fun to try.
Now Allen is a dominant player. He just put on one of the best performances you’ll ever see, and the Bills probably would have beaten Kansas City if they had just squib-kicked near the end of regulation, played a little defense or won the overtime coin toss. Allen put up a winning performance, and we all know that now … but down the line, Allen will still have to answer questions about whether the Chiefs have the Bills' number and whether he can finally lead Buffalo to the Super Bowl. Of course, it will be stupid, but there is no minimum IQ to create a narrative.
This is the world in which we watch sports. And so, as we head toward the conference championship games, let’s break down what is at stake for the four quarterbacks, fairly or not.
Matthew Stafford, Rams
It is hard to remember a player in recent NFL history who could rewrite the entire story of his career with one Super Bowl run as Stafford can. If the Rams had flopped, the stat-padding reputation might have stuck with him forever, absurd as it is. Putting up great stats that don’t help your team is not something a person can actually do. If the Rams win the Super Bowl, get ready to hear a lot of this phrase: “Future Hall of Famer Matthew Stafford.”
Wins should not be a quarterback stat. It’s a team game. But Stafford is 12th all-time in passing yards and has made only one Pro Bowl, which should tell you how much all those Lions losses damaged his reputation. He is in the process of proving what the Rams believed last winter: He is one of the best players in the NFL.
Stafford is fifth all-time in fourth-quarter comebacks, a stat that goes back to 1960, but that is far too simplistic. At the least, it should be adjusted based on the number and quality of comeback opportunities—a quarterback who leads the whole game obviously has no chance of completing a comeback, and one who is down three obviously has a better chance than one who is down 23. Vinny Testaverde led more fourth-quarter comebacks than Brett Favre and Joe Montana, which should tell you something.
Those who blame Stafford for the Lions’ struggles say he had enough help in Detroit. “He had Calvin Johnson!” critics say. Yes, he did indeed play with Johnson. But Johnson retired when Stafford was 27. In the five years after that, Stafford had a 96.0 passer rating. If you want to talk about Stafford’s supporting cast, here is a more revealing stat: In Stafford’s 12 years in Detroit, Lions offensive linemen combined to earn one Pro Bowl berth. That came in 2017, when T.J. Lang was an injury replacement at guard.
Stafford had to overcome a combination of mediocre line play, organizational dysfunction and bad coaching. It forced him to carry too much of the burden, which probably explains why he sometimes reverted to his earlier habits of trying to make too much happen. He had some of those moments this season, too. But he also had a hell of a year.
He finished fourth in the league in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating—ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Allen, the two quarterbacks who entertained the nation Sunday evening. Stafford was sixth in passer rating and second in touchdown passes—really, by any measure, Stafford was one of the best quarterbacks in the league. And yet, for a while, the narrative was he made too many game-killing plays. He had a weird streak of throwing pick-sixes in games—one of them bounced off a receiver’s chest and into a defensive back’s hands—that reinforced he was not a winner. Kyler Murray made the Pro Bowl ahead of him, not because Murray had a better year, but because he is not burdened by a narrative.
Well, now. When the Rams played the Cardinals on the first weekend of the playoffs and Murray had a disastrous game, Stafford didn’t make a bad throw. Sunday, while his teammates melted down, Stafford played a game of ruthless efficiency. When the Bucs tied the game in the fourth quarter, Stafford calmly threw back-to-back completions to Cooper Kupp to set up the game-winning field goal. In this postseason, he has completed 41 of 55 passes for 568 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
I don’t think Stafford wanted out of Detroit to see if he could be great. I think he has believed he is great for a long time. I don’t think he wanted out so he could prove his greatness, either—to change the narrative. Stafford has never really sought attention. I think he wanted to go somewhere he could win because he hadn’t won and wasn’t going to win in Detroit. That’s it.
Now, he is two wins from being a Super Bowl champion, and both games will be in his home stadium. The Rams have a more talented and complete team than the 49ers, and Stafford is clearly the best quarterback in this game, but the 49ers swept the Rams this year, and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan has dominated McVay, which brings us to …
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers
Garoppolo is good for three decisions per game when he appears to be living in an alternate universe, so let’s create one for him.
It is the spring of 2021. The 49ers do not trade up to draft Trey Lance. Maybe the price is too steep; maybe none of the teams at the top want to trade down; maybe it was a draft that was weak at quarterback. Anyway, most of the world expects the 49ers to stick with Garoppolo, and they do. Coach Kyle Shanahan says “Jimmy’s our guy. He got us to a Super Bowl. He wins more than 70 percent of his games. He is a fantastic leader. His teammates love him. We believe in him.”
Everything in that quote except “We believe in him” would have been true … and now Garoppolo is playing in his second NFC championship game in three seasons. He just beat Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. He beat Dak Prescott in Dallas the week before that. He beat Rodgers in the playoffs two years ago. He gave the 49ers a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Mahomes and the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
Is he a great quarterback? Of course not. Some might wonder if he is even a good quarterback. But you could reasonably construct a narrative that he is a winner who possesses the mystical qualities that help a quarterback lead a team of large, violent people to gridiron victories.
The problem with that narrative now, of course, is Shanahan already said “Nah, not so much.” The 49ers spun the Lance trade as a concern about Garoppolo’s health, but it was really about Garoppolo’s ceiling. And since we know this, it’s hard to construct a narrative that contradicts it.
Still, though: if Jimmy G gets hot (and he is good enough to get hot) and the 49ers win, he can argue he is a winner—and general managers with strong rosters and suspect QBs will take a hard look at him next month. He is the only one of the four remaining quarterbacks who could be playing elsewhere next season. He can establish himself as one of the best of the below-franchise-quarterback tier, and speaking of franchise quarterbacks …
Joe Burrow, Bengals
Burrow can become the third quarterback to lead his college team to a national championship and win Super Bowl MVP. The other two were Joe Namath and Joe Montana. Do you know what those three have in common? That’s right: They’re all named Joe! If only we could come up with some kind of nickname for all three to capture their coolness under pressure.
Burrow doesn’t have a narrative to change. People think of him as a winner because of what he did at LSU and how well he played against Tennessee this weekend, and there is really nothing he can do to blow it this weekend. His offensive line is porous. He plays for the Bengals. He isn’t supposed to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City in his second season. If he plays lousy, he won’t have to make excuses. We will make them for him.
Burrow is the rare player for whom the narrative matches his play. He is a fearless franchise quarterback. He is older than you might think—he just turned 25—but we don’t have to project. He is already one of the best in the game. So there really is no narrative downside here, but if he leads the Bengals to the Super Bowl, Burrow could affirm that he belongs on the same plane as Allen and …
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Mahomes is 26, and this is not hyperbole: If he retired next month, he would be a Hall of Famer. He has won a Super Bowl and played in another. He has won an MVP award. We don’t have to waste a lot of time on this discussion since he isn’t going to retire, but Mahomes has had the best four-year stretch to open a career of any quarterback ever. He won’t win the MVP this year, but ask 100 people in football who they would take if they were starting a team, and Mahomes probably gets the most votes. He doesn’t need to change any narrative right now, but someday, when we start having G.O.A.T. conversations about him, this postseason will be part of the argument.
Win two more games, and Mahomes will be a two-time Super Bowl champion. Only four quarterbacks have won more than two: Tom Brady, Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman. Brady’s seven titles are a preposterous number, and maybe no one can catch him. But Mahomes does things no other quarterback can do, and he does them every week. If he stays healthy and the Chiefs remain a well-run organization, he is going to have an argument for best player ever.
Brady is (of course) a phenomenal player, but other factors contributed to him having the greatest career ever. He played for the best coach, Bill Belichick. He has stayed healthy. Luck is hard to define—Brady did lose a Super Bowl to a helmet catch, after all—but as quarterback lives go, Brady’s has been fairly charmed.
Allen was every bit as good as Mahomes on Sunday, but Mahomes won the coin toss and the game. If the Chiefs win the Super Bowl, there will be no asterisk because of the coin toss. In an era of exceptional quarterback play, Mahomes can reassert himself as his generation’s best player and best winner.
More NFL Coverage:
• A Fitting Final Game for Tom Brady (Yeah, Right)
• Cooper Kupp’s Approach to Greatness
• Burrow Survives Onslaught to Reach AFC Championship
• The Packers’ Latest Postseason Loss Was a Total Debacle
• Bills-Chiefs Is Greatest Game You Will Ever See