ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford stood at the podium and looked momentarily frazzled by the question. It’s the preseason, and Stafford, who had answered questions about his newborn child and the third preseason game, wasn’t expecting it.
But in the NFL, for any team with a franchise quarterback, there’s only one thing that really matters — the postseason.
For all the individual success Stafford has had in his career, the gaudy statistics he has put up and his role as the constant among eras of change in Detroit since the Lions drafted him in 2009, team success has eluded him.
He wouldn’t be the first Lions player to have that happen; Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson went through, essentially, the same thing. The viewpoint is different for quarterbacks, though. Other than coaches, who are hired and fired because of wins and losses, no one in the NFL is judged more on titles and postseason success than quarterbacks. It’s how people, right or wrong, make a line of demarcation for a quarterback’s success.
“One-hundred percent they do,” Stafford said. “I don’t hear many people talking about a running back or a receiver or a defensive end’s playoff career record. But it’s understandable. We touch the ball on every single play and make a lot of critical plays and decisions.
“Whether it’s fair or not is up to me to judge or think, really, too much about, because it’s out of my control. So I just go out there and try to play as well as I can.”
And because of this, like golfers and tennis players without major championships, Stafford has this label: He is the best quarterback in the NFL not to win a playoff game.
“Easily,” said receiver Golden Tate, one of his main targets over the years.
If you’re looking for the biggest hole in Stafford’s career entering his 10th year, it is the postseason. The Lions have no division titles under Stafford. He has had four winning seasons, but all either ended at the conclusion of the regular season or on the road in the wild-card round.
Yet the way Stafford has played throughout his career and the success he has had relative to his peers in the same situation have put him in an intriguing situation. He is widely viewed as a top-10 quarterback in the NFL and one of the better comeback creators in the league.
Of quarterbacks without a playoff win, he is first all time in passing yards (34,749), and only Sonny Jurgensen, John Hadl and Y.A. Tittle threw for more touchdowns than Stafford’s 216.
Among active players, Stafford has thrown for 7,758 more yards than the next-highest quarterback without a playoff win — Ryan Fitzpatrick. Only three active quarterbacks — Stafford, Fitzpatrick and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton — are over 25,000 career yards without a playoff win.
Stafford’s 60-65 career record is average. His winning rate is well below that of Dak Prescott’s 22-10 record — highest among active quarterbacks without a playoff win — and Don Strock’s 16-6 mark in the Super Bowl era, but that almost proves the overarching point.
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Judging Stafford by playoff wins will happen and it’s understandable, but it doesn’t illustrate everything going on.
“Matthew, he’s got confidence. He’s a terrific player, and hopefully you get a team that comes around, along, that has the capabilities of putting that together to get a win,” said New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has eight playoff wins and two Super Bowl titles. “It’s not one person. It’s not one player.
“It’s a team that finds a way to win those tight games, which those playoff games are usually going to be.”
That has been one of the biggest issues for Stafford and the Lions throughout his career. When Stafford first came into the league, he took over a winless team often considered one of the worst in NFL history. He endured a lot of losing as the team around him was built even to respectability.
And depending on whom you ask, Stafford really hasn’t had many good teams around him during his first nine years in the NFL — where he has made three playoff appearances and one Pro Bowl. Of the teams he has been on, only one — in 2014 — had the pieces to make a playoff run.
The 2016 team that lost at the Seattle Seahawks was a flawed squad that made the playoffs, in part, because the Washington Redskins lost the regular-season finale. The 2011 Lions had a dynamic offense — Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards that season — but a questionable defense.
In 2014, he had talent around him. The Lions had an offense with multiple options, including Johnson and Tate. They also had one of the best run defenses in recent history and a good enough secondary. But the Lions lost to the Dallas Cowboys on the road after leading at halftime.
It’s the closest Stafford has come to playoff success.
“You can’t win playoff games unless you’re part of really good teams,” said former Lions quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, Stafford’s backup quarterback in 2014. “And for him to still continue to play at a high level when he hasn’t been a part of a bunch of really good teams, and maybe some people would make an argument any really good team, speaks volumes to how good of a player he truly is.”
Since 2014, Stafford’s career has ascended. He became a more accurate quarterback and a better decision-maker under Jim Caldwell, Jim Bob Cooter and Brian Callahan. Last year, Stafford had two 1,000-yard receivers.
|Source: ESPN Stats & Information|
He showed dedication to his own improvement, going to an offseason quarterback guru between the 2016 and 2017 seasons to help refine his game.
He also has something else critical to success: coordinator stability. While Cooter is his third coordinator, Stafford now is in his fourth season in Cooter’s offense and has a high level of comfort with it.
“Sometimes he’ll beat Jim Bob, he’ll beat him to his words because he understands the offense so well and all the calls and all the looks,” Tate said. “So that’s what I noticed the most.”
In meeting rooms, before Cooter begins to speak, Stafford will ask if they could try something against a specific defense. Cooter will look at Stafford and essentially explain that he was just about to say that. As the other quarterbacks are working on understanding the teaching in his position room, Stafford is on to the next level of questioning.
He has seen almost all there is to see from opposing defenses. His knowledge of the offense — and offense, in general — is so deep that he has been teaching Matt Cassel, a 15-year veteran, more than Cassel ever expected.
“[Recently] we were going over some new protections that were going in and he knew exactly what we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it,” Cassel said. “Different looks, when we’re getting done. I’m like, ‘Huh? Say it a little slower there, bud.’
“You know, that’s part of being in the system, being comfortable; and for a lot of quarterbacks in this league, success comes from a comfort level and an understanding of that offense. Look at all the great quarterbacks. Most of them have been in the same system for a long time.”
Stafford’s understanding of the offense is encyclopedic. The Lions are hoping they have built enough around him — on offense and defense — to support his play with what’s necessary to win.
Stafford hasn’t been the problem in Detroit. The Lions agreed, giving him, at the time, the biggest contract in NFL history. He consistently has gotten better, even after he lost one of the best receivers in NFL history — Johnson — to retirement after the 2015 season.
Stafford often has been the one to bail the Lions out of defensive failures and offensive mistakes. But he’s often not viewed on the same level of some of the top quarterbacks in the league for one real reason.
He hasn’t won in the postseason.
Fair or not, right or not, whether you agree or not, that’s how Stafford is viewed. Not that his present and former teammates agree with it.
“I’ve had this discussion with many, many people before,” Tate said. “Sometimes it’s been Uber drivers. If you trade Matthew Stafford with another quarterback who has won them, just switched the situation, maybe the outcome is a little bit different.”
Stafford isn’t too concerned about it. He’s too busy trying to reach the playoffs, which would then give him another chance to distance himself from this unwanted moniker.
He understands why quarterbacks are viewed like that. They play the most important position in football and, at the end of a career, what matters most is how much you win.
“You have to look at the big picture,” Stafford said. “Obviously as a player, you want to be in that situation as much as you possibly can and win as many of them as you can.
“That’s what my goal is — and really what everybody’s goal is.”