39. Matthew Stafford
Quarterback. 2009-Present Detroit
While the Detroit Lions throughout their history have had their share of great players on both sides of the ball, unquestionably the position that has been plagued by an abundance of mediocrity has been the quarterback position. While the legendary hall-of-fame quarterback, Bobby Layne, led the Lions to three-straight NFL title game appearances (1952-54) and two championships (1952-53) and is still considered by many to be the best player in franchise history; the record shows that from 1957, through 2010, the Lions had just one quarterback selected to the Pro Bowl. That QB was Greg Landry in 1972.
The Detroit Lions made NFL infamy in epic fashion in 2008 by finishing by becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to finish 0-16. When Detroit’s new head coach (Jim Schwartz) and General Manager (Martin Mayhew) sat down to make the first-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, they had only one person on their board, University of Georgia and Highland Park (Texas) High quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
It was more than ironic that Stafford came to Detroit by way of Highland Park, Texas. Two of the greatest Lions in franchise history, halfback, Doak Walker, and Bobby Layne, were teammates at Highland Park in the 1940s, before being reunited in the Motor City in 1950 to lead the Lions to the greatest period of success in the franchise’s 82-year history.
Stafford chose to leave Georgia after his junior season. During his three seasons with the Bulldogs (2006-08), he threw for 7,731 years and 51 touchdowns. After beating out veteran journeyman, Daunte Culpepper, for the starting job in training camp, Stafford became the first Lions’ QB to start a season opener since Greg Landry in 1968. Stafford threw three interceptions in his debut, as the Lions lost to the New Orleans Saints. But in week three, he led the Lions to their first victory since the 2007 season, with a 19-14 win over the Washington Redskins.
However, his finest moment during his rookie season came against the Cleveland Browns on November 22. In that game, Stafford threw five touchdowns in a 38–37 win. He became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to throw five TDs in a game, being more than a year younger than the former record holder, Dan Marino. His fifth TD pass of the game came on the game’s last play, when Stafford defied team doctors by stepping back onto the field after suffering a separated left shoulder on the previous snap. In addition to the five touchdown passes, Stafford accumulated 422 yards passing in the game, a record for a rookie at that time. For that performance, Stafford won NFC Offensive Player of the Week. However, it was his final game of the 2009 season, as he was placed on injured reserve because of the left shoulder injury.
In 2010, Stafford injured his right shoulder in the season opener against the Chicago Bears on September 12. He returned to action on Halloween on against the Washington Redskins and threw 4 touchdowns to lead the Lions to a 37–25 win. But just a week later, on November 7, Stafford re-injured his throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Lions 23–20 OT loss to the New York Jets. It was announced by the Lions that Dr. James Andrews had performed surgery on Stafford’s throwing shoulder, which included an AC joint repair and a clavicle shaving, thus ending his 2010 season after just three starts.
Needless to say, the pressure was on Stafford and the entire Lions’ organization when their “injury-prone” quarterback took the field in 2011. Stafford and the Lions responded by earning the team’s first playoff birth since 1999, finishing with a 10-6 mark. For the season, Stafford completed 63.5 percent of his passes, for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The yardage and TD marks shattered previous Lions’ records. In addition, Stafford became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history (and third in the 2011 season, along with Tom Brady and Drew Brees) to throw for 5000 yards in a season. Stafford was the second youngest quarterback to surpass the 5,000 yard mark (behind the aforementioned Dan Marino). Amazingly, over the last four games of the 2011 regular season, Stafford became the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 1,500 yards (1,511) and 14 touchdowns over a four-game span as the Lions pushed for the playoffs.
In the playoffs, Stafford threw for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns (and also ran for a TD). But two fourth quarter interceptions, and a porous Lions’ defense, caused the Lions to fall to the New Orleans Saints, 45-28.
Also in 2011, Stafford became the first NFL QB since at least 1950 to win back to back games after trailing by at least 20 points, the first to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points, and the first to win four games in a season after trailing by at least 13 points according to STATS, LLC.
One would be remiss not to mention that that other Highland Park/Detroit Lion QB, Bobby Layne, was known for comeback victories during his Detroit years too.
Stafford was named a Pro Bowl alternate for the NFC after the 2011 NFL season. He was later named the 2011 Pro Football Weekly Comeback Player of the Year, AP Comeback Player of the Year and NFL Alumni Quarterback of the Year.
Stafford has passed fellow Texan and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bobby Layne, as the Lions’ all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Stafford also broke Dan Marino’s NFL record for the fastest quarterback to 20,000 career yards.
In addition, Stafford in 2013 became the most prolific quarterback in NFL history through his first 50 games, throwing for 14,069 yards. That number surpassed marks by Kurt Warner (13,864), Marc Bulger (13,551), Marino (13,514) and Peyton Manning (12,939).
Now entering his ninth season, Stafford looks to lead the Lions back into the playoffs and to their first playoff victory since 1991.