Detroit — Two back injuries, one a season-ender. Three kids and a fourth on the way. One scary family health situation. A whole batch of rumors and debates about his status as the Lions’ quarterback.
Matthew Stafford isn’t concerned about the toll, and isn’t fretting about the future. In fact, with all he’s experienced the past couple years, he might be uniquely equipped for the uncertainty that grips everyone in the NFL and in sports right now. Stafford will get another chance to take his next best shot, whenever the coronavirus allows the season to begin, and he sounds like a guy who can’t wait.
He’s 32, and with his shaggy, uncut hair, looks 22. On a video conference call with media Thursday, Stafford was relaxed and joking, and if anyone suspected he was wounded — physically or emotionally — he laughed it off. The injured back? Feels great, ready to go tomorrow if he had to. The Tua (Tagovailoa) talk before the Lions picked third in the draft? No biggie. Those trade murmurs stirred by national pundits? Meh. Stafford said he talked to Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia at the time and it was over like this — he snapped his fingers to the Zoom screen.
“It’s something that doesn’t bother me,” Stafford said. “Listen, I’m here, I want to be here, I love being a Detroit Lion, I love leading this team. All that stuff is just out there to be out there. A slow news month at that point. I’m just happy to be where I am and try to make the best of a season that I hope happens.”
The rumors might have been bogus but the scrutiny of Stafford, entering his 12th season, will be real as long as the Lions struggle. He knows he won’t get many more chances to either confirm what his supporters say — he’s an elite quarterback hampered by the franchise — or refute what his detractors say — he’s a good guy with a big arm and no big victories.
Of course, he’s somewhere in between. (Sorry if that’s a copout, but it’s true.). He hasn’t won a playoff game, but then the Lions have won one in 63 years. Go ahead, pick a prism and peer through it. In two seasons under Patricia, the Lions are 9-22-1, but Stafford played through a back injury late in 2018. Last season, they were 3-4-1 and Stafford was off to a terrific start, then they went 0-8 in his absence.
That was the frustrating part, because when the team finally put Stafford on injured reserve with two weeks left, he felt he could play.
“Playing through it two years ago was not fun, and last year, having it end early for me, was really tough,” Stafford said. “It has been a long time since I wasn’t allowed — wasn’t able to go out there and play.”
The switch from “allowed” to “able” may have been accidental, but telling. It didn’t make sense for the Lions to put him back on the field in a lost season, but it defied Stafford’s competitiveness and pride, and tested the boundaries of his patience. That was probably the seed to rumors of discontent. Well, that and the post on Kelly Stafford’s Instagram suggesting she wasn’t pleased with Stafford trade articles. Other media outlets fanned it, even as the Lions immediately squashed it.
That’s all Stafford needed to hear, and now as he recounts it, he chuckles that his wife is far more interested in those stories than he is. I asked if there ever was a time — amid the back injuries and Kelly’s brain surgery last year and the losing and the trade whispers — that he thought he wouldn’t be the Lions quarterback this season.
“Not really,” he said. “I’m kind of boring in that aspect, I just prepare to be here and do my job. … To be playing at a pretty good clip (last season) and have it taken from you, is tough. But that’s on-field stuff. All the off-the-field stuff, that’s life. Everybody’s got those issues. I don’t want to pretend to be the only person that’s dealing with something because we all are, some way or another.”
Like many people who enjoy what they do, the pandemic has spurred a renewed appreciation in Stafford. He works out in his Atlanta garage gym and quarantines with Kelly and their three kids (another is on the way). He feels good, his back is fully healed and he enjoys spending more time than ever being a dad.
Maybe that’s why he was so reflective and engaging on the conference call Thursday. He even jumped back on to tell reporters he couldn’t believe they fell for a math trick he played with former Lion T.J. Lang. In the video, he appeared to quickly solve complicated arithmetic in a matter of seconds. He owned up to it, said Lang gave him the answer ahead of time, and laughed.
Stafford’s mood was upbeat, except for one unsettling possibility.
“I love playing football,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do in the fall without it, as I think a lot of Americans probably would say the same. I don’t want to put people at undue risk, but I’d love to be out there as soon as we can. If they told us we had to start the season tomorrow and fly to Detroit and put the pads on, I’d be thrilled and happy to go do it.”
Stafford has spent time in California and Florida before returning to Atlanta for the lockdown. He has thrown with receiver teammates Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola, and also with rookies D’Andre Swift and Quintez Cephus, while taking all precautions. Stafford said he’s even cognizant of not licking his fingers before grabbing the football, and at the end of their workout, the players would tap cleats, not hands.
Does he like the idea of bringing in another strong running back who happens to be a Georgia guy in Swift? You know that answer. It seems Quinn recognized one of his glaring mistakes, and is wholly determined to give Stafford and coordinator Darrell Bevell a running game. With Kerryon Johnson and Bo Scarbrough in the backfield, joined by second-rounder Swift, perhaps running behind punishing guards drafted in the early rounds, the Lions might finally balance their attack.
Stafford said he fully supports Patricia and thinks the third-year head coach has learned a lot and adjusted a lot after a rough couple seasons. For now, Stafford hops on the virtual video sessions with players and coaches, and reaches out to teammates as often as he can. The more he moves around and throws the ball, the better he feels about what’s next.
“I feel great, it’s healthy, healed up,” he said. “I’m moving around as good as this slow dude can run.”
Like everyone else, he’s running in place at the moment. After some nervous times in all areas of his life, it’s a place he’s happy to be.