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The Franchise: A Better Way to Understand Matthew Stafford’s Decade in the NFL

Stafford has been one of the most productive passers in an era defined by more famous and accomplished quarterbacks. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed his career and caring for his wife, Kelly, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor this spring.

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“You think I’m tough?” Matthew Stafford asks me.

I was interviewing Stafford about nearly every facet of his 10-year career with the Detroit Lions. I had mentioned that several people close to him told me stories about how he plays through injuries. His former quarterbacks coach, Brian Callahan, said Stafford is one of the toughest players who has ever played the sport. Stafford spoke about those injuries, and how he tries to play in every game, but moments later the conversation turned to his wife, Kelly, who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in April. Stafford makes it clear that Kelly is the tough one.

“I drew a lot of inspiration from her. Just seeing her in the state she was in right after [the surgery] and to where she is now three months out. It is incredible. It is crazy what she is able to do, and taking care of three kids,” Stafford says while sitting on a bench on the team’s practice field. “The [Lions] were amazing, but I also knew I had a huge responsibility, too. I was here as early as I could be and I’d catch guys as they were going to a team meeting and I was going to the hospital. It put a lot in perspective, and it was inspiring to watch her because it was wild for a little bit.”

Stafford changed his offseason schedule to make sure he completed his football work early in the morning, while Kelly and their three children were still sleeping. He arrived at the Lions facility at 5 a.m., put in a full shift of studying and conditioning, and returned home by the time Kelly woke up around 8 a.m. Most days, Stafford was leaving the facility as other Lions players were arriving. “Her mom would make sure she was good until I got back,” Stafford says. “Then both of us helped out as much as we possibly could for the first couple of weeks, at least until she started not needing me during the day.” Stafford says Kelly is “not 100 percent, but she’s right where she needs to be. She’s good to be on her own and all that.”

“He was playing many roles: dad, mom, quarterback, leader,” Stafford’s friend and Lions punter Sam Martin says. “He had so much shit going on, and you’d have never known.”

“Love,” Mark Richt, his former head coach at Georgia, says, “will do that to ya.”

Stafford holds a unique place among NFL quarterbacks. Statistically speaking, he’s a historically productive passer and has one of the best arms the sport has ever seen. I explain to him that I think he’s been the forgotten man in the league’s passing boom. He is on pace to rewrite record books, but is overshadowed by a historically great crop of older quarterbacks. He’s taken a formerly moribund franchise to the playoffs three times, but has never advanced beyond the first round. I wanted to know what makes Stafford so different from most NFL passers. A few years ago, Stafford joined Twitter and lasted about six weeks. He said he didn’t like it. He told Martin some wise words shortly after abandoning his brief journey into social media: “How is this shit helping me?” Martin remembers Stafford saying. “It’s not helping my life or helping my football, so what’s the point of it?”

In this era when passing is everything, Stafford will probably end up throwing the ball more than any other human in the history of professional football. He came into the league in 2009 at the cusp of an unprecedented, leaguewide uptick in passing, and he was near the top of it. In 2011, he threw for 5,038 yards and became the fifth player to eclipse 5,000 yards in a season. A year later, his 4,967 yards were the seventh most in a season in league history. The problem, from a legacy standpoint, is that Drew Brees surpassed those totals in both seasons, and Tom Brady did it in 2011. Being a historically productive passer doesn’t count for as much as it used to. Stafford’s career average of 38 pass attempts per game is the most in league history. Brees is the only active player who’s played at least 18 games who bests Stafford’s career average of 273 yards per game. If Stafford played another 10 years at his current rate of production, he would shatter the all-time mark for career passing yards (though that record remains a moving target because Brees, the current leader, is still active). Stafford and Brees are both native Texans who went to college outside of their home state and went on to throw for a lot of yards, but they are not exactly perceived as equals.

“He is, to me, still a top-10 quarterback in the NFL,” says Dan Orlovsky, Stafford’s former backup and current ESPN analyst. Orlovsky thinks Stafford stepped into perhaps “the most impossible situation” ever for a quarterback when he was drafted by the Lions a decade ago. “It’s this rare thing where when you look at yourself in the mirror, you are completely OK with it. Matthew is one of those guys,” Orlovsky says. “He is 100 percent content with who he is. The work he’s put in. The integrity he has. That’s why he doesn’t care what other people think about him. You can’t fake that. Matthew cares enough not to care.”

“There are not many guys who can stand in there and play this game with no fear. He’s one of them,” says Callahan, who is currently the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. Lions receiver Marvin Jones encouraged me to “search Matthew Stafford toughness” on the internet and offered his own example: a game in 2016 in which Stafford dislocated his finger and tore ligaments on his throwing hand. “I know the exact play it happened, and he just wouldn’t come out,” Jones says.

If you do as Jones suggests, you’ll find reports of fractured bones in Stafford’s back from last season, torn ligaments in his fingers in 2016, a sprained ankle in 2017, multiple shoulder separations, and a dislocated kneecap in his rookie season. One side effect of playing in the passing boom is that the quarterback gets hit more often, yet Stafford has played in all 16 games in eight of his 10 seasons in the league.

I ask him a simple question: “How?”

“It’s all mental,” he says. “I feel like I can just go to a place where I just never think about not playing. The second I think about it, it makes the decision harder. That’s the best way to describe it. I work really hard for 16 chances, and I’m going to take advantage of that.”

Stafford says he had a goal when he was at the Lions’ training facility in the early-morning hours before Kelly woke up: “I needed to know this stuff better than anyone and [my teammates] needed to catch up. That was my attitude,” he says. “I wasn’t dipping my toe in the water.”

I asked lineman Graham Glasgow what it was like to be around Stafford in these moments: He said he didn’t know. “I was never there that early,” he says.

Richt, now an analyst at the ACC Network, had a rule at Georgia that players had to live on campus for two full years. “After a year and a half, Matthew came to me and asked permission to move off. Even in the dorms, people would knock on the door and ask for a photo,” Richt says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, he just didn’t want the attention, and he wanted a peaceful life.” Stafford and star running back Knowshon Moreno, Richt says, were treated as “rock stars” on campus and this was not exactly what Stafford wanted.

Stafford has eschewed many of the celebrity trappings that come with being a star QB, so there was a point in our interview when I had to be honest. I told him I don’t know anything about his personality, at least compared to almost every other starting quarterback of his stature. So, uh, what does he like?

“I like Billions,” Stafford says. “That kind of stuff interests me. There are no sports [in the show], and it’s really a thinking man’s show. It has to do with power. That dude is a fucking boss which I like, so I’m like, ‘OK I can deal with this.’” He liked Game of Thrones but admitted having three kids has changed a lot of his TV viewing habits. “I like all types of movies but, look, I have three kids, so the last movie I saw is probably just putting Frozen or Lion King on for my kids. But I like the Judd Apatow comedies. I do watch sports, and Nat Geo Channel, Travel Channel.”

I asked around about Stafford’s personality. The thing that kept coming up was his competitiveness, which shows up in backyard games of H.O.R.S.E. and, as Martin told me, beer-chugging.

“He is—I hate to give him this credit—I’ve never seen him be beat. The viral video wasn’t even his best. He’ll be the first to tell you that. I don’t think he gets the repetitions he got in college, so maybe he’s lost a step, but he’s still really fast,” Martin says.

Martin is speaking of a video posted to Kelly’s Instagram account in May showing Stafford housing a beer in response to seeing Aaron Rodgers struggle with his own chug at a Milwaukee Bucks playoff game. “Completely encouraged by my wife,” Stafford says. “She saw the original video, and she said, ‘Come on, I know you’re better than that.’ It was after dinner, had a steak. It was cool.”

Martin (who like Stafford, prefers Bud Light) adds: “We were in this five-star restaurant in Palm Beach. Everyone is wearing suits, and we are just pounding beers. It was basically ‘It’s May, I don’t care, let’s do this.’”

I asked around and, yeah, losing a chugging contest to Stafford is pretty common, even for Orlovsky who, in response to the video, had a televised milk-chugging contest in which he dunked on Adam Schefter. Orlovsky said he lost his beer-chugging contest with Stafford when the two were teammates. “But it was not a one-sided affair. When I was with Matthew, I was in year 10, 11, 12, and he would make fun of me for being old. I think I somewhat surprised him in my ability to contend. I think I gained a little bit of respect in his eyes.”

Stafford doesn’t typically seek viral internet fame outside of this particular feat. “Building a quote-unquote-brand isn’t something that’s a motivating factor for me at all,” he says. “I’ve never sought fame. To a certain extent, it comes with this, but I’m not looking for more of it.” Richt remembers a remarkably low-key recruitment for one of the most talented players in the country. “He decided very early what he wanted to do. I was at a game for one of my nieces or nephews, and he calls me and says ‘I’m coming,’ and I said ‘OK.” Richt says. “He never wavered. You always worry in recruiting, but he was solid. There was not a lot of drama.” Orlovsky says he once asked Stafford how, despite growing up in suburban Dallas, he skipped over the University of Texas in favor of Georgia. “It turns out he hated the recruiting process. ‘You’d say ‘Why’d you go to Georgia?’ and he’d say ‘I don’t know, they asked me to go, and I said yes.’ It was that simple.”

Stafford attempts to block out the broader world around him that does not include his family, teammates, or friends. “I live my daily life fairly normally,” he says. “Sometimes I’m eating dinner, and I’m on the TV—I’m not going to rush up and change the channel or anything. But I don’t put a lot of stock in what is being said. It doesn’t matter to me.”

This is by design: He learned early in his NFL career that it’s incredibly hard for anyone talking about the sport to actually understand what happens on a given play—good and bad. It’s better to ignore it all.

“I love you guys,” Stafford says of the media with a smile. “But a lot of time you guys don’t know exactly what’s going on. That makes your job hard because [fans] want to know exactly what’s going on and you don’t know unless you are between these walls.” It’s not just criticism from the media that Stafford thinks is often misplaced, but praise, too. Sometimes he’ll see universal praise of a play in which most people did something wrong, but the result worked, and sometimes he’ll see the opposite. “So I can’t sit there and say, ‘Oh man, this guy thinks I threw a bad pass.’”

Ben Jones, Stafford’s center for one season at Georgia, says the ball Stafford throws sounds completely different than ones thrown from other quarterbacks. “You can hear it coming, it’s like a zing going past your head,” Jones, now with the Titans, says.

Richt remembers making an unusual move in a game against Colorado in 2006, Stafford’s freshman season. Stafford’s accuracy wasn’t the problem; it was that his passes were thrown so hard his receivers couldn’t catch them, so Richt took him out. “It is the only time I ever took a quarterback out of a game because they couldn’t catch his ball. He was throwing them well, and they were doinking off everyone,” Richt says. “The more frustrated he got, the harder he threw, and it wasn’t on purpose. The ball is just coming out so hot. It was a real learning curve for receivers. We had to bring in [backup quarterback] Joe Cox just so they could catch the ball. That lasted about a week.”

Building an offense around that arm talent has been a work in progress for nearly Stafford’s entire career. Orlovsky points out that two of Stafford’s head coaches—Jim Schwartz and Matt Patricia—are conservative by nature, and even though the third, Jim Caldwell, was an offensive coach, he erred on the side of conservative play-calling.

“I love Jim Caldwell—his main goal is to get Matthew to play a little bit more controlled, a little bit less chaotic and more refined. Less gunsling-y. I think that was really healthy for Matthew to a point. But I honestly think that some of the stuff that made him the no. 1 pick and made him the guy that was breaking NFL records got sucked out a little bit. Some of that ‘I can make throws that other people can’t’ was pulled out of him, his personality and his game. I would love to see his coaching staff and him get back to unleashing that dragon a little bit,” Orlovsky says. “What would happen if he had a Sean McVay or a Sean Payton?”

Whether that dragon is unleashed remains to be seen. The Lions hired Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator in January, but his run-heavy history with the Seahawks would indicate he will not let anyone unleash the dragon. Despite having one of the strongest arms in the sport, Stafford’s passes have been traveling a shorter distance because of the design of the offenses he’s played in. In 2012, his average depth of target was 8.7 yards, and it hovered above eight for most of the early part of his career. In 2018, it was down to seven yards. Does he just want to launch it?

“I think a good mix is best,” Stafford says. “There are teams that launch it deep, I think about Kansas City [with Patrick Mahomes]. He launches it deep to Tyreek Hill all the time. But he throws it to the back on swing routes a lot. I think there’s a healthy mix.”

The arm is still quite strong. Marvin Jones says he often doesn’t even know Stafford is coming his way with the ball, especially if the play breaks down. “All the sudden there’s a dart coming towards you.”

Orlovsky once saw Stafford throw a deep pass to Calvin Johnson in practice. “So I start watching the tape, go right to that play, and I’m counting the yards in the air as the ball goes—55, 60, 65, 70,” Orlovsky says. “And I get to 82. 82. And I look over at Matthew, and he gives me a sort of a side grin and wink. He’s used to it.”

Stafford is at an interesting time in his career. He’s 31 years old, and in any other era, he would have been gearing up for his last five or so years as a starting quarterback. Now, of course, we are in the era of the forever quarterback, when a player’s early 40s can be a second prime. It’s possible that Stafford, part of the generation below Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning, could play longer than any of them because he played a higher percentage of his career during a time when quarterbacks were more protected. Does he want to be one of those 40-plus guys? “I want to play as long as I can without sacrificing too much of my health in the long run. If too many things pile up, it makes that decision a little more loaded, but I love this game, and I want to play it for a long time,” he says.

When it comes to injuries, Stafford said last season was “one of the tougher” ones in his career. He said he seriously considered missing a game, which, in Stafford’s world, is very much a last resort. I followed up by asking what he wants his legacy to be.

“Hopefully it’s with a ring or two,” Stafford says. “But, I mean, it’s hard because I don’t care what people I didn’t play with care about me. I just want the guys I played with to know that, when they hear my name, they say ‘that dude showed up, worked, played through a lot, good teammate, good friend.’”

Callahan, his former position coach, thinks Stafford does not get enough credit for his study habits, which the former Broncos assistant says are “on par” with Peyton Manning. Stafford has spent his career as a strong-armed quarterback who has thrown for a lot of yards and gotten the crap knocked out of him for the sake of trying to make his team better. I tell him that if the rookie wage cap had been in place when he entered the league, the Lions could have been a dynasty: They could have had Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh on impossibly cheap deals (albeit quite staggered) and they could have, in theory, stacked the team. Stafford would have made less money, but the team would have been incredible.

Stafford sometimes thinks of the Lions’ near misses in the playoffs, and the 2014 team, which came within a referee’s call of beating the Cowboys in Dallas in the wild-card round. Orlovsky said that team would have beaten the Packers the following week (“Matthew had Dom Capers absolutely pegged to whatever he wanted to do” he says of the then-Packers defensive coordinator) and he thinks that team had a good shot of playing in the Super Bowl. Orlovsky finds it fascinating that Stafford is still in Detroit because, he says, he could have left by now if he grew tired of trying to resurrect the franchise. But Stafford has “an immense amount of personal pride” in trying to win a Super Bowl in Detroit.

Glasgow has a unique perspective. Not only has he played with Stafford for three years, but he watched him closely while he was at the University of Michigan. “What he’s brought to this franchise, this city, and this team, in some ways it goes overlooked even by our own fan base,” he says. “They don’t recognize what he means—not even on the playing field—what he brings to the city. And his play on the field is very, very consistently good.”

All this brings Orlovsky back to the way Stafford is wired: “He would rather play as hard as he can, get beat up and lose and be able to look his teammates in the eye than be phony.” Stafford is clearly not a phony. Just don’t ask him to tweet about that.

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