During the summer of 2006, I was a fledgling student journalist baking under the blistering sun at a preseason practice at UGA, capturing B-Roll of a fellow pimply-faced true freshman from Texas. The quarterback phenom was about to be the talk of the SEC. Matthew Stafford’s singular talent created rampant anticipation that he would end the Bulldogs’ quarter-century-long national title drought. UGA lost only one game before their BCS bowl game the year before.
Unfortunately, the burgeoning Tim Tebow mythology, Mark Richt’s conservative offensive system, and Nick Saban establishing his SEC dominance kept Stafford from earning a nod from the Heisman or national title. However, he still wound up as the top player taken in the NFL Draft following his junior season. I harken back to that day because that exchange after practice was the first assignment of my reporting career and the dawn of his.
Sixteen years later, both of us are mid-career professionals. Speaking for myself though, most mid-career professionals can appreciate a guy who smiled his way through a work environment he endures for over a decade. His NFL job had hit a wall in Detroit. He needed a better coach about as much as most mid-career professionals need a career coach. It’s even more gratifying when said person shines in that new opportunity.
On a personal level, Stafford’s post-Detroit success doesn’t manifest the visceral joy of Peyton Manning’s second title playing in Denver or Ray Lewis’ last hurrah in Baltimore. I thought he needed a career coach after losing Jim Caldwell. However, watching Stafford finally triumph inspires professional respect.
“Long time coming, you know? Spent a lot of years in this league and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Stafford said after the NFC Championship Game.
Stafford is the ancillary quarterback in this Super Bowl, despite it being the second duel ever between No.1 overall picks (Manning vs. Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50 being the first). He’s a knife-thrower who can dice up defenses as he did on the final drive against Tampa Bay, or stab himself in the foot and lead the entire league in interceptions.
Joe Burrow is a Heisman Trophy-winning hotshot, national champ, and one of the future faces of the league. Glowing Super Bowl hagiographies are reserved for prodigies, superstars in their prime, and living legends.
Stafford is the mid-career professional of this moment. He can still whiz a ball through drywall, but his work history doesn’t inspire the same wonder. One Pro Bowl, a 5,000-yard season, and three playoff starts in 12 years make for a prosaic resume.
Burrow is a ball of clay for imaginative football. I can envision him pulling off a miracle on the 21st anniversary of Brady’s first Super Bowl win over the St. Louis Rams, then reeling off a few more. Turning around a franchise in only his second year has drawn comparisons to Joe Montana’s ’81 Niners team and garnered him the Joe Brrr… nickname.
The Rams acquired a slew of brand-name stars from their mid-career malaise sector. Odell Beckham Jr. might as well have been a potted plant next to Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland. One of our generation’s most dynamic outside receivers had never even won a playoff match until mid-January.
Von Miller was the fulcrum of Denver’s championship group back in 2015, and has the Super Bowl MVP hardware in his trophy case. However, he languished on an offensively-challenged Denver franchise in the post-Peyton Manning years.
Matt Hasselback, Rex Grossman, Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco, Jimmy G, and Nick Foles are the only other 21st century Super Bowl starters who weren’t consistently Top 10 passers at any point in their careers. Stafford is a far superior signal-caller to most of those names. Flacco used that playoff run to become the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback. Stafford was acquired to do what franchise quarterbacks do and prove he could lift their sails and guide the Rams to a Super Bowl, whereas Flacco was benched in favor of Lamar Jackson when he was the same age.
For Stafford and his ilk, potential gave way to realism and malaise over the last decade. Even if his numbers say otherwise, a Hall-of-Fame candidacy seems far-fetched now. A dozen years in Detroit knocked Stafford down a few pegs in the quarterback union’s hierarchy, but on Sunday, he has an opportunity to boost his credentials to reinsert his name back into the mix.