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Who the hell is Matthew Stafford?

The Lions quarterback is a Rorschach Test.

Who is Matthew Stafford? Getty Sports Images

Matthew Stafford is a gawd. The Lions have won three straight games by a combined seven points. Stafford has now led a fourth-quarter game-winning drive in each of the Lions’ four wins this season. He is having the most quality season of his career, and is arguably (maybe)*just squint a little* an MVP candidate edging up on the midway point of the season, all without Calvin Johnson, who retired this offseason as one of the best wide receivers to ever play.

Stafford ranks eighth in the NFL by passing yards, fourth by passing touchdowns, fourth by completion percentage, and third by passer rating. He is the sole leader in comebacks this season. He has more fourth-quarter comebacks than any quarterback since 2011. He’s been doing this for a long, long time now, going all the way back to 2009, as the No. 1 draft pick, when he threw a last-second touchdown pass with a bum shoulder to beat the Browns and set a then-record for passing yards in a game by a rookie. It inspired passages like this from the Detroit News:

It was just one play after one fortunate twist at the end of a bizarre game between two NFL bottom-feeders. But in that moment, on Stafford's 1-yard touchdown pass with no time on the clock, the quarterback prodigy stamped his worthiness and sealed it with a bold signature, written in winces.

Can you stamp your worthiness on one play in the middle of a season in which you were mostly pretty bad? That’s rhetorical; the answer doesn’t matter. In the high of that win, writing that sentence probably felt really nice, and those words were likely forgotten when a few days later Stafford threw four interceptions against the Packers and played perhaps his worst game ever.

Legacies are based on a body of work, however, and Stafford can lean on that. He has so many comebacks, his nickname could be something like “Plucky young human whose teams frequently overcome fourth quarter deficits.”

We can workshop the name, as long as we all agree that Stafford is legitimately great, and has been for a while.

Matthew Stafford is a bum. He was having a great season even before he led a comeback against Washington on Sunday, and yet he was still tied for 19th in MVP odds, alongside Carson Wentz (a rookie), Cam Newton (hurt and ineffective), A.J. Green (plays a position only one person has played and won MVP), and Andy Dalton (Andy Dalton) heading into Week 7.

Stafford played well against Washington, but hardly had the sort of numbers you’d expect to launch an MVP campaign — 18-for-29, 266 yards, one touchdown. He threw for 270 yards and four touchdowns in another comeback win in Week 6, that time against a Rams defense that is much better than Washington’s, and that didn’t win many luscious headlines.

Stafford’s MVP odds were so low because his career has been kind of doodoo. Relatively doodoo, sorry. During three perfectly healthy seasons from 2012-14, he never finished higher than 19th in passer rating, and was as bad as 22nd — the bottom third among starters. His 79.8 rating in 2012 would be 27th in 2016, between Jameis Winston and Case Keenum. Sure that three-year stretch was bookended by two pretty good seasons, but it is still his most extended period playing with some form of consistency.

(And there are a bunch of mitigating factors for that performance, like pass protection, glass-blown running backs, and having Kris Durham as your No. 2 receiver.)

((All due respect to Kris Durham.))

Stafford seemed to regress badly from his 5,000-yard third season, and for a while Detroit fans were experts on the fine points of quarterback mechanics. The consensus was that Stafford broke down at some point under defensive-minded head coach Jim Schwartz, and needed resuscitation.

The Lions as an organization changed tacks in 2014 and put three (!) quarterbacks coaches on staff — head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter. They also signed Golden Tate, and spent a No. 10 overall pick on tight end Eric Ebron. That’s in addition to Calvin Johnson, a potential GOAT, whom he threw to for seven years but averaged just 6.7 wins per season.

All of this raised a good question: Is a player who needs that many weapons and coaches to succeed actually worth the effort? When Stafford didn’t actually get better— through 2014 and the first seven games of 2015, his passer rating was 86.0 and his 34-21 touchdown-to-interception ratio was worse than his career ratio — he was arguably a bust. He was a middling NFL starter who had vacuumed up the resources that only a superstar deserves (oh yeah, he also signed a three-year, $53 million extension in 2013).

A year ago, Stafford was benched in the middle of a loss to the Cardinals, and it was reasonable to wonder whether his future would be with the Lions.

Matthew Stafford is: a) tough b) soft c) a leader d) lazy e) poised f) Scott Mitchell, basically.


So it has been a rough season for Stafford in regard to his team's record and his body's ability to take punishment.

"Yeah, there's no question about his toughness," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "He's one of a kind in that regard. One hit is one too many in my book, and he had a few too many. But he stood in there. He hung in there.


“Stafford, good guy,” Follett said, per the Detroit Free Press. “He’s a china doll right now. Anytime he gets hit, he goes down. But the kid is — hopefully, it’s just patiently waiting for him, because the kid is an awesome talent. He has a tremendous arm.


Another area of progress that isn't quantifiable is his leadership. Stafford has noticeably spoken often — maybe more than usual — with teammates on the sideline after a play, going over nuances.


"In my opinion, when you're making that kind of money and you're the face of the franchise, you put in work. And I don't think that I was the only one to question that. When you see a guy like Calvin (Johnson) and Ndamukong working hard on a daily basis, doing extra stuff, and you don't really see that from the quarterback, it's like how can you be mad with the results? Because it's not a high demand they're placing on him for improvement."


Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick came close to breaking a couple, and rookie Zach Zenner showed power on the final drive. But the reshuffled offensive line has no push without Larry Warford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. On the positive side, Stafford wasn't sacked and didn't throw an interception, and against Seattle's punishing defense, he showed poise.


The Lions, of all teams, should have known better than to chase the quarterback dragon. They are the franchise of Scott Mitchell, the NFL cautionary tale of overreacting to small sample sizes. In 1994, Detroit signed Mitchell to a three-year, $11m contract after he had a few good games filling in for an injured Dan Marino in Miami. He then very much became a Lions quarterback, in that he played poorly, lost and got booed. Mitchell is mentioned every time NFL quarterback disappointments are discussed. The sad news for Stafford? His numbers with the Lions are on par with Mitchell’s across the board.

Matthew Stafford is [null]. The weirdest thing is that after about seven-and-a-half seasons, people are still trying to figure out who Stafford is. He has been really, really good since Lombardi was fired and Cooter (heh) took over as offense coordinator last season. In that convenient 16-game stretch, Stafford is 391-for-570 passing for 4,310 yards, 35 touchdowns, and eight interceptions — a 105.4 passer rating. People are fawning over Stafford for good reason ... but he’s been fawned over before. And dumped on, too. Fawned over and dumped on, etc., ad nauseum — a never-ending cycle of fawning and dumping/fawning and dumping/fawning and dumping that has never slowed down long enough to give anyone a clear view of him.

Stafford has had the Rorschach Test-iest career of any quarterback I can think of. Step back and you see all possibilities in a muddle of fine numbers and A LOT of sports page and sports talk psychoanalysis about a Georgia dude who has an incredible arm and has never seemed to think all that hard about things, truth be told.

Not that he cares, but it’s as if his legacy has been in a holding pattern from day one, when everyone started considering what he would become because being a No. 1 pick sort of comes with that territory. No one should dare assume that he’ll play next season nearly as well as he has the last 16 games, nor even next week. But he could! Anyone can say he will or won’t, and somehow they’ll both be wrong.

Opinions are useless on Stafford. He’s like dividing by zero — the components are tangible but the results don’t compute.

Who the hell is Matthew Stafford? Perhaps more than anyone else, he’s whatever he’s beheld to be, so what do you think? Until he’s done playing, good luck ginning up any kind of consensus. The last Matthew Stafford story ever written could be eight words: “He did what he did. Let it rest.”