I don’t think I understood the true meaning of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” until I leapt up into a standing position on my couch as the Los Angeles Rams set up their 30-27 victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Matthew Stafford, who had started at his own 25 with the game tied and just 42 seconds remaining, took a snap from his own 44 a few moments before NBC returned to live action from a replay. As viewers were still getting their bearings, Stafford heaved off his back foot a high, arcing ball downfield. And while it seemed to be a mere prayer when it left his hand, the camera slowly panned left to eventually reveal the league’s best receiver, Cooper Kupp, sprinting toward its destination with a length between him and his defender. Kupp slowed down just a hair to catch the ball, got tackled at the 12, and before I could even begin to process the regicidal nature of what I had just seen, Stafford was rushing his offense up to the line to spike the football—the last snap he would take before Matt Gay eliminated the reigning champs.
Until this year, I never had much of a compelling reason to care about the fortunes of the Los Angeles Rams, or any other Los Angeles football team, or the St. Louis Rams, or any particular male sheep, for that matter. But the offseason trade that sent Jared Goff to my Detroit Lions and Stafford to the Rams changed matters. The Lions, as usual, remained a lost cause, though for better and usually worse the first season of the Campbell/Goff era was more memorable than plenty of others. But suddenly, on the West Coast, a quarterback who had never won a postseason game in any of his dozen seasons in Detroit was the centerpiece of a contender.
Stafford led an electric Rams offense to a 7-1 start, headlined by a 343-yard, four-TD performance in a Week 3 win over the very same Bucs who’d prove so challenging in the divisional round. As the Rams finished 12-5—the most wins ever for a Stafford-led team—and as I reckoned with the Lions’ continued failures, a realization dawned on me: This might the closest I’ll ever get. It’s terrifyingly possible that Detroit will never, ever, be granted a Super Bowl victory—or even a conference title, or, uh, a wild card weekend win—but seeing the Lions’ No. 1 pick from the draft after they went 0-16 command a dazzling attack through a very entertaining winning season was something like the next best thing. And particularly as the Rams earned a chance to stop Brady’s quest for yet another ring, the lines between Detroit and Los Angeles—my guys and some other guys—started to blur. And, well, that’s how I ended up standing on my couch.
There are echoes of old Lions memories running through last weekend’s Rams win, even if none of those were playoff wins. I remember how it felt, god help me, when Stafford and the Lions beat another Tom Brady team on national television, giving Matt Patricia (ugh) his first career win as a head coach. I remember another time I saw Stafford emphatically motion for a spike as his team attempted an improbable comeback, only to fake out the Cowboys and take it into the end zone himself for the win. I remember the excitement of his first flash of greatness, from back in 2009, when Stafford threw five touchdowns and gutted out a shoulder injury to deliver an epic 38-37 win over the Browns.
I unfortunately also remember the screwups—namely those 144 interceptions that Stafford threw while with the Lions, which were often what forced him to try and pull out some magic in the game’s final moments. I saw flashes of those once more as I watched the Rams’ lead disintegrate on Sunday—a fumble, a three-and-out, a fumble, a missed field goal, a three-and-out, and another fumble, all on successive drives. You can take the man out of the Lions, but you can’t take the Lions out of the man, was my pithy, demoralized mindset. But then Stafford conjured up a resurrection on the biggest stage of his life, and suddenly, the proof was undeniable: It is indeed possible to build a bona fide championship contender with Matthew Stafford at quarterback, even if, despite years of top-five draft picks, the Lions never could.
Not that Stafford seems to be worrying all that much about it. Asked on Wednesday what had hindered the Lions from making it this far in the playoffs all through his career, he had very little to say. If it ever occurred to him that, years ago, Calvin Johnson could have been on the other end of that pass instead of Cooper Kupp, he kept quiet and stuck to the polite cliches:
“I haven’t thought too much about it to be honest with you. I’m just trying to make sure that I’m in the present, being kind of where my feet are planted, and taking care of business here. I had a great time, a great run there. I loved playing there for 12 years, but I’m in this place now and enjoying the opportunity to be a part of this team and see where we can take it. So, that’s kind of where I’m at the moment.”
I seem to be thinking about Stafford’s first dozen seasons much more than the man who actually lived them. But that’s OK.
Something I’ve done every once in a while, particularly back in 2020, is look up videos of roller coasters on the internet. I’m very much not alone in this—these videos get millions of views—but it’s inherently kind of a strange activity. The joy of a big coaster is the wind in your hair, the disorientation of your brain, the drop in your stomach as the machinery tricks you into thinking you’re in real danger. None of that’s especially accessible through a screen. When I watch them, sometimes it’s to remember a trip I took a decade ago. Other times, I just like to admire the technology that went into building these things. But maybe most often, I watch rides I’ve never been on before and try to let my imagination close the distance. It’s like going to a pool when you want to see the ocean, or heading to a restaurant called like Rocco’s or Vinny’s when you want to travel to Italy. The unattainable desire is soothed, somewhat, by the simulacrum of at least a few of the same elements. Obviously it’s not the same, but it’s something.
When my euphoria from Sunday’s Rams win died down, I struggled to adequately process my actual connection to Matt Stafford. For a long time, I watched him play football on TV for a team based near my hometown, with a logo on his helmet I had chosen to support. Now he wears a different logo on his helmet, representing a city I’ve never visited and a franchise I’ve never liked. While I wished him well and generally preferred it when the Rams won this year, I didn’t passionately root for his success until he reached unprecedented territory. Frankly, he had been associated with the Lions for so long that it wasn’t really conceivable to me that he could shed their burden, until suddenly he was one of only a handful of QBs remaining.
Now that Stafford sits on the cusp of football’s ultimate achievement—now that it’s finally hit me that there’s a real chance of him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, or at least being in the same building—the old attachment has soared back. I see past the uniform, past the unfamiliar teammates, past what will likely be very pleasant home-field weather in the middle of winter. I only notice the Lion who sidearmed it to wide receivers and DBs alike for so much longer than anyone else I’ve ever known. If he does somehow find a way to win these next two games, I’m sure there will be plenty of Michiganders whose primary emotion is disappointment that he couldn’t do it for them, or vice versa. But I’ll be happy, because I’ll just be thinking of him in Honolulu blue and silver at the end of the roller coaster ride.