The Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl win on Sunday was a starting gun for a debate about their quarterback, Matthew Stafford. Right after the game, Stafford’s coach, Sean McVay, made it sound foregone that his QB would get enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I don’t know how he’s not a gold-jacket guy,” he said. Stafford’s Hall of Fame case became the subject of Fox Sports’ talk-show circuit, while the Washington Post weighed in that his Canton résumé isn’t quite there yet. Future Hall of Fame cornerback Richard Sherman said the chatter about Stafford was indicative of the Hall of Fame bar being “incredibly low now.” There is scant evidence for that idea, but Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor, a collection of counting stats for players who’ve gotten into the Hall, suggests Stafford indeed still has some work to do.
All of this is grating, and not just because hall-of-fame debates are often exhausting. Sports were built for arguing! The trouble here is that Stafford’s career is poorly suited for traditional evaluation. He’s spent most of his NFL tenure in a no-win situation with the Detroit Lions, who took him with the first draft pick in 2009, got a decade of mostly quality play out of him, and never supplemented their roster enough to give him a championship shot (or even a playoff shot most of the time). Stafford was not entirely helpless in these years, as he did have all-time-great receiver Calvin Johnson from his rookie year through 2015. But both of them had few chances to win big, and Stafford had to muddle along in a golden era of QBs, all of whom had better supporting casts. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning ruled the league, while Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Philip Rivers made playoff appearance after playoff appearance. The Hall of Fame has little room for QBs without playoff résumés to speak of, and Stafford played only three postseason games (all losses) in his 12 years in Detroit. It did not help that the franchise fired his lone successful head coach, Jim Caldwell, after three winning seasons in four years. The Rams, conversely, traded for Stafford and won it all in his first year in L.A. with a roster that was built to win immediately at any cost.
Stafford’s triumph points to two issues with how the media and the public assess quarterbacks. For one, we base a lot of our assessments on factors only somewhat within the QB’s control. For another, we take a wide view of their careers when, sometimes, tunnel vision gives us a more useful picture.
Even now, no one would argue that Stafford is the best quarterback in the NFL. But it’s not wrong to say that, at his best this season, he operated at the position’s peak. The Rams’ game-winning drive against the Cincinnati Bengals turned on a few key plays. One of them was Stafford’s no-look completion to his record-breaking wideout, Cooper Kupp. Stafford used his eyes to con the Bengals’ Vonn Bell, leaving the safety helplessly late.
There are only a few people on Earth who can do that, and Stafford pulled it out of his bag in the biggest moment of his career. He and Kupp, the Super Bowl MVP, connected for the game-winning touchdown a few plays later, capping a year in which the two of them worked in tandem on a higher plane than arguably any QB-receiver duo ever. The Rams’ divisional round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came down to the two of them connecting on a deep route that Stafford until he noticed a hole in the Bucs’ defense mid-play. Their connections all season were a product not just of athleticism but of Stafford and Kupp processing defenses at an absurd rate even by NFL standards, like on this play:
Stafford finished the regular season fourth in ESPN’s Total QBR, behind only Rodgers, Brady, and Justin Herbert, a second-year QB who many think could join those two in Canton one day. Stafford finished ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, at least one of whom if not both will be there eventually, too. At least for a year, Stafford showed that, given a non-Lions roster, he has the stuff to hang with legends.
He’s always been a talent. Before playing his college football at Georgia, he was one of the most touted recruits ever. He was a No. 1 overall draft pick. But for the first 12 seasons of his career, it was hard for him to show what he could do. Even now, he’s thrown a majority of his career passes while trailing, and his career record is 86-95-1. The simplest reason Stafford doesn’t have much of a Hall of Fame case is that the Hall of Fame is light on quarterbacks who lose more games than they win. On a better team, he’d have a much better case, whether that’d be enough to get him over the hump or not.
You might argue that the greatest quarterbacks lift their teams up, and that Stafford’s inability to carry the Lions is a strike against him. But Stafford is an outlier in how much his team failed him. From 2009 through 2020, 16 quarterbacks started at least 50 games and posted a losing record. Stafford played more games than any of them and was (along with Kirk Cousins, Colin Kaepernick, and Derek Carr) at the top of just about every statistical category for that group. His peers among losing QBs all played for regular, reasonably functional NFL franchises, at least once Cousins exited Washington for Minnesota. Stafford, on one of the worst teams in the NFL run by one of the least competent front offices in the league, routinely outperformed Eli Manning, who had a nearly identical sub-.500 record in those years but sprinkled in two Cinderella Super Bowl runs.
If Stafford can win another Super Bowl—and at 34, he might have a few more chances—he’ll have a straightforward route to Canton. But should he need it? Is it productive to evaluate athletes on championships won, even when they’ve already won one? Some people call the obsession with championships “rings culture,” and it’s a big deal not just in the NFL, but in the NBA. Hockey does the same thing with Stanley Cups. On the one hand, every athlete plays to win things. On the other hand, there are much more compelling ways to think about Stafford than to spend hours pushing and pulling over how much he deserves to be graded on a curve because he spent so much time as a Lion. You could learn more about Stafford’s ability by watching a replay of Sunday’s win than by watching hundreds of his passes in Detroit. If that’s irrelevant to the Hall of Fame discussion, fine, but in that case why should we care about that discussion at all?
Halls of fame are not designed to commemorate great moments or even great talent. They are built to memorialize careers, to be monuments to the durable excellence of players who delivered over the long haul. That’s all fine and worth celebrating, but it means that great seasons, even statistically historic ones, run the risk of falling through the cracks. Stafford’s connection with Kupp in 2021 was more prolific than anything two players have ever conjured. His no-look pass in the Super Bowl was an iconic play. His aggressive, sometimes sloppy playing style was fun chaos. Throwing 17 interceptions in a regular season and finding a way to work around them and still win a Super Bowl, as Stafford did, is awesome. (Only one QB, Eli Manning with 20 in 2007, threw more picks in a Super Bowl–winning season this century.)
I wish there could be a “2021 Matthew Stafford” bust that bronzed this single amazing year. In this version of the Hall, maybe Joe Montana would have 10 of them. But this is not the way sports world deification works. This way of doing business paints over incredible achievements if the player who made them can’t replicate them. It makes for apples-to-oranges comparisons between players in dramatically different circumstances. But that’s the point, I suppose: Unknowable debates are how a lot of people in sports pay the bills, and few things are harder to know than how many Super Bowls Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger would’ve won if they got drafted by the Steelers and Lions respectively.
Such as it is now, Stafford will not get the immortality that comes with the Hall of Fame. Instead, he’ll get a different kind: the type that comes from people watching that no-look pass over and over again, and being surprised over and over at how cool it was. Maybe that isn’t a more valuable currency than a bust in Canton, but maybe it should be.