Few quarterbacks ever played as well, for as long, for less postseason reward than Matthew Stafford did in his 12 years as a Detroit Lion. Fewer ever ended that frustration as quickly and dramatically as Stafford did in his first year as a Los Angeles Ram.
In a one-month spree last winter, Stafford went from zero career playoff wins to hero of the Rams’ title march, leading late-fourth-quarter drives to victories over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional Round, the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
Checking off the Super Bowl box prompted Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth to retire at 40 and led defensive tackle Aaron Donald to consider walking away at 30.
But it caused Stafford, 34, to reconfirm his commitment to the team’s future. His four-year contract extension is worth as much as $160 million but not as hard on the salary cap as he could have demanded.
A winner at last, Stafford doesn’t plan to stop winning. He sat down to talk with Athlon Sports about a variety of topics for a Q&A that was included in the 2022 Pro Football magazine.
Q: Congratulations on the Super Bowl. How long did you celebrate, and how soon and in what ways did you turn your attention to the challenges ahead in 2022?
A: It was probably a couple of weeks of celebration, trying to connect with teammates and coaches and people who helped us along the way. After that, you know, we’re kind of programmed to turn back toward the next season. I started going about just trying to get myself back healthy. That was probably number one, just trying to get to feeling as good as I can feel.
Q: There were moments during last season when people doubted whether you and the Rams were championship material. What did we miss? What’s the lesson?
A: (Laughs.) I’m not out here teaching lessons. But I think the biggest thing you’ve got to understand is that NFL seasons, NFL games, players, everybody, nothing’s perfect. There are going to be tough times. There are going to be times you’ve got to figure it out as a team, as an individual. Whoever does that the best is the team that comes out on top. I think as a team we did a great job of collectively figuring out what our winning formula was going to be, and then sticking to it and going out there and executing at a high level.
Q: As great as your season was, it didn’t receive a lot of recognition from the people who decide All-Pro, Pro Bowl and other honors. How nice would it be to correct that this season?
A: It doesn’t matter too much to me, to be honest with you. In 2011, I threw for a bunch of yards and a bunch of touchdowns, helped take Detroit to the playoffs for the first time in a bunch of years — and I was the third alternate for the NFC (Pro Bowl team). I said if I didn’t make it that year, I’ll never make it. So I’m not too worried about that. I’m just out there playing for my teammates.
Q: You and the Rams made a big commitment in agreeing to your contract extension. Why was it important to get that done the way you did?
A: First of all, I’ve got to say thanks to them. They did an amazing job through that negotiating process. There was mutual interest, and I felt it was going to be great not only for my family but for the team moving forward to kind of know where I’m going to be, know what it’s going to look like, and go from there. We’re excited to get it done.
Q: You and other veterans on the Rams — Aaron Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Eric Weddle at the end — seemed to draw super-motivation from your long quest for a Super Bowl. What replaces that as the emotional driving force now?
A: There’s no doubt about that, we were doing it for each other. Not just the players you just mentioned, but so many guys on that team. What replaces it is that once you get a little taste of it, you want more. That’s how I feel going into this season. Winning one was a lot of fun. I’d love to be able to do it again this year. We know what it looks like in front of us, know what that dedication and level of execution for that period of time looks like.
Q: Let me ask about some of the other people around you in the Rams’ building. What makes coach Sean McVay so successful?
A: He’s really comfortable in his own skin. He really understands who he is. There’s a lot of coaches in the NFL who are either great X’s and O’s guys but have a hard time relating to people, or have great people skills but don’t really know the game at a high level. He has a rare combination of both that is really special. His energy is infectious and present every day.
Q: Cooper Kupp had one of the great seasons for an NFL wide receiver. When did you realize what you and he together were capable of?
A: I don’t know that there was a single moment. I think it was just kind of one of those things where we were going about the season, trying to see what we could do to help our team win. Being around him day in and day out gives me a bunch of confidence about what he’s going to be able to do and how he’s going to help me be the best I can be. He’s a special player, a special teammate. There’s too many good things to say about him to fit in this article.
Q: What new dimensions are possible for the passing game?
A: I think that’s what this time of the year [spring and summer] is for, to go out there and seek and develop. I’ve been out here a long time, and I know that every team is different every single year. No matter how much continuity you think you can bring back, there’s always going to be turnover at different positions. There’s so much respect that I have for the guys we went to battle with last year. There’s shoes to fill for guys, and they’ve got to come in here and just be the best versions of themselves. That will be enough.
Q: How has the quarterback position evolved in your 13 years in the NFL, in terms of the demands of the position and the ways it’s played?
A: I think it’s being played, year in and year out, at a higher level than the game has ever seen. There’s guys out there playing at such a high level, it’s really fun to watch, I know, for fans, and it’s fun to watch for players to appreciate it and see what they’re going to do. As the game has evolved, and passing has become a more and more significant part of the game, the demands on the quarterback position have escalated. It’s fun to look around the league and see so many great players at the position I play.
Q: What is football’s future? Should parents be concerned about health and safety if their kids want to play?
A: It’s a physical sport. I think what they have to do is continue to gather as much information as possible, continue to research and understand the effects of whatever it may be on the body, whether it’s above-the-neck stuff or below the neck. I know, as a parent, that each individual parent is going to be different. I know this is a great game. It has taught me so many great life lessons, it’s exposed me to so many great people, I’m very thankful for it. But at the same time, I understand that everybody has their feelings on it on whether they would or wouldn’t let their kids play. That’s not for me to say.
Q: You came from Texas, the SEC, the Black & Blue Division — football hotbeds — to L.A., which has a different history and image concerning football. What would you tell the nation about L.A. and L.A. football fans?
A: There’s big-time [high school and college] football in this state. The city of Los Angeles obviously has two NFL teams, and they both play at a really high level. We had great support all season for our Super Bowl run. It’s something that hopefully ignites a young generation of fans, that maybe missed out when the team was in St. Louis, to become lifelong L.A. Rams fans.
Q: Do you think the buzz at SoFi Stadium will be a little different when you kick off the season as defending champions?
A: I hope it just builds on what we had last year. We had some great showings last year, and it really helped us throughout the season. I know we’re going to get every team’s best shot this season, which is a great problem to have. We’re just going to go out there and give our fans something to cheer about, and I’m sure if we do that, they’ll be rockin’ and rollin’ for us.