DETROIT -- Quarterback Matthew Stafford pushed through the pain in his final game with the Detroit Lions.
It was Jan. 3, and the Lions were trying to end a three-game losing streak amid a disappointing 5-11 season. Fighting through ankle, rib and thumb injuries, Stafford completed 20 of 31 attempts for 293 yards, three touchdown passes and an interception in the Week 17 loss.
Two months later, Stafford -- the Lions career leader in yards, touchdowns and completions -- was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Jared Goff in a swap of former No. 1 picks.
Sunday, Stafford will welcome his old team to his new home, SoFi Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET on Fox).
Stafford was 74-90-1 in Detroit and led the Lions to three playoff appearances with no victories in his 12 seasons. His fortunes have turned in LA where Stafford leads a red-hot Rams team (5-1) with Super Bowl aspirations. He's among the frontrunners for MVP and his 16 passing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback through his first six games with a new team in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Meanwhile, the Lions have struggled in their first season under first-year head coach Dan Campbell. They are the NFL’s lone winless team at 0-6, and are coming off a lackluster 34-11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals during which Goff was booed by home fans.
Stafford said on Sunday facing the Lions would be “just like every other game.” But for a diehard Lions fan base, who witnessed him leave it all on the field for 12 seasons, it’s not.
“This is not just a regular game for either side. For us diehard Lion fans, Matt being traded was the end of an era of what could and should have been,” said Ty Mopkins, a lifelong Detroiter and designer of lifestyle gear. “The real Lions fans are generally happy for Matt and want to see him win a championship, so it’s kind of like having both of our kids competing against each other. Of course Lions fans are going to be cheering for the team Sunday, but a little bit of all of us are going to be rooting for Matt as well.”
Like Mopkins, many others share bittersweet emotions while witnessing Stafford shine elsewhere, but more seem happy for him than upset.
“It's mixed. A lot of people are still not understanding why he couldn't have the same success here with some of the top tier talent that he had around him,” former Lions All Pro receiver Herman Moore said. “Even when the defenses were solid -- they had a Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and a fairly decent running game -- they still weren't able to put together the success that he's had in LA. On top of that, Jared Goff isn't comparable to Stafford from a statistical standpoint or in terms of wins and losses. So fans aren't seeing it as an even swap.”
Stafford threw for at least 4,000 yards in eight of his 12 seasons in Detroit, but was part of four winning teams.
“Look, I think he’s the best quarterback they’ve had since [former Lions QB] Bobby Layne, that’s obvious,” said Mike O’Hara, a longtime Lions writer who entered the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. “When I heard the word ‘polarizing’, I don’t agree that [Stafford's career is] polarizing. I think people have different opinions, but inside that building on game day, he’s their guy.
“Like we had Joey Harrington here with fans booing him when he warmed up, he [Stafford] was their guy and I really think you’re seeing now what he meant to the franchise.”
Former Lions offensive lineman Lomas Brown can relate to Stafford’s situation. After 11 years in Detroit, Brown made stops with the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, and eventually the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with whom he won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. Defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril, kicker Eddie Murray and wide receiver Willie Green are among other former Lions to leave Detroit and win Super Bowl titles for other franchises.
“For me, it’s different, because if you think about it I was in a similar situation, leaving Detroit and then going somewhere else and having success there,” said Brown, who reached the playoffs four times in Detroit and won the division twice. “I mean we had success here in Detroit, I’m not taking that away, but just to be able to get to two Super Bowls and win one, that was just great for me, so I’m going to look at it differently, but I can see how some fans see the standpoint of what Stafford is doing now, out there, and wonder why he couldn’t lift the talent here.”
Other Detroit natives, like former NBA player Jalen Rose and rapper Sada Baby, are happy Stafford was able to get away and reach his full potential -- even at the expense of their favorite team taking a hit.
“For me, personally, I was happy we sent him somewhere because I would’ve wanted that for Calvin Johnson. I would’ve wanted that for Barry Sanders,” Sada Baby said. “So, I’m glad that we didn’t waste that man’s whole career playing for us because we wanted to be selfish and keep a [great player]. If you look at him over there in LA with Cooper Kupp, he’s having fun.”
Win or lose, Stafford has the respect of Detroiters. And No. 9 earned it.
“As a true Detroiter and Lions fan, at some point I say that certain players did their time here and were great to the city and contributed all that they can but now it’s their turn to escape,” said Rose. “For me, Matthew Stafford, I wanted to see if he could go somewhere else and put himself somewhere with this talent, and that’s potentially in the Hall of Fame. He wouldn’t have done that as a member of the Lions just because he wasn’t going to be able to really win as a quarterback.”