The epic tales of Matthew Stafford at 40,000 yards: Dislocated fingers, pranks and TDs

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has a nearly photographic memory when it comes to the almost 10,000 snaps he has played in his NFL career. The defensive alignments, the throws, the situations, they’re all tucked deep inside his beautiful brain.

But as Stafford closes in on 40,000 yards passing — he’s 352 yards shy of that milestone entering Monday night’s NFC North showdown against the Green Bay Packers and will become the fastest in league history to reach that mark if he does it sometime in his next five games — there are two of his 3,460 career completions that he can’t quite pinpoint.

The two to himself.

“Did I get one in Green Bay?” Stafford asked earlier this summer. “Or did I bat it down? ... Yeah, I think I might have caught one in Green Bay at some point, which is like cardinal sin of quarterbacking when you catch your own pass.”

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To this point in his 11-year career, Stafford has not caught a pass at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. He’s thrown hundreds there, and he did bat one down there — right into the arms of offensive lineman Brian Mihalik.

But we’ll save that story for later.

Twice, Stafford has caught his own deflected pass.

The first time was in 2012, in the Detroit Lions’ season opener against the St. Louis Rams. It was late in the third quarter of a tied game, Stafford took a three-step drop out of a shotgun formation, looked to his left and fired a pass to Nate Burleson in the flat.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates a fourth-quarter touchdown during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Ford Field on Sept. 29, 2019 in Detroit.

Eugene Sims jumped and with both hands deflected the ball straight up. Sims tipped the ball again as he tried to corral the interception, and Stafford scurried under it for a completion, then dipped his shoulder as he ran for a 3-yard gain.

“If it’s the play I’m thinking of, I think I got smoked by the nickel. Who was their nickel? Real competitive kid,” Stafford said. “Cortland Finnegan. Yeah, I got smoked. Yeah, I remember that. I threw a pick-six that game, didn’t I? Far right, tried to throw a comeback.”

There’s that beautiful mind again, and it’s amazing what it fixates on. Yes, Stafford did throw a pick-six that game. Finnegan returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown just before halftime.

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But he also led a nine-play, 80-yard winning touchdown drive that culminated with a 5-yard pass to Kevin Smith with 10 seconds left.

Smith, who played for the Lions from 2008 to 2012 and now coaches running backs at Florida Atlantic University, said that play is the favorite of his 69 career catches from Stafford.

Again, we’ll save that story for later.

The other pass Stafford completed to himself came in a 2015 game against the Denver Broncos.

This time, he was looking for Calvin Johnson over the middle when DeMarcus Ware batted a pass back into Stafford’s hands, where he was tackled for a 6-yard loss.

“Bat it down,” Stafford said, reminding himself of a basic rule of quarterbacking four years later. “ 'Cause you’re going to lose yards, whereas an incomplete is minus-zero. Tough to remember all that when the ball is floating in the air and you’re like, ‘I got to get this thing before somebody else does.’ You’re supposed to bat it down.”

Stafford swears he has no recollection of that play. That season, however, is tough to forget.

“That’s the year I broke my finger?” he said, incorrectly thinking of the Lions’ 2011 game against the Broncos. “2015? I had the ribs that year. I was (messed) up.”

Fine and dandy

As part of Stafford’s pursuit of 40,000 yards, a mark just 20 players have surpassed in NFL history — 13 of them current or surefire future Hall of Famers — the Free Press set out to talk to as many of Stafford’s former receivers as possible to have them share the most memorable play they made with the ironman quarterback.

Smith's was that winning touchdown against the Rams.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I remember them calling the play and then just remember the pass being right out in front of me and just catching the ball. Obviously, time was ticking down and we had to have that play. Stafford was always a good leader in the huddle and he was very, very encouraging, so I can’t remember vividly but he probably said something like, ‘We need this one right here,’ or ‘I’m coming to you, Kev,’ and we made it happen.”

More on Stafford:His favorite TD pass? To Calvin Johnson, of course

Mihalik’s, naturally, was the batted ball that he caught in a 2017 game against the Packers when Stafford tried to knock it to the ground.

“I think it was negative-4 yards, I want to say, and so I was hoping that year I was going to have the least receiving yards in the NFL but somebody else got a tipped one for like a negative 6-yarder or 8-yarder, something like that,” Mihalik said. “I was actually tracking that like towards the end of the year and I was like, ‘This will be cool. It’ll be a good stat to have, the least receiving yards in the NFL.’ But I probably got Stafford’s least receiving yards, at least. I’m probably the only one in the negatives.”

Of the 80 players who have caught passes from Stafford, Mihalik’s minus-4 yards total is last on the list, just ahead of Stafford at minus-3.

“There you go," Mihalik said. "Good company."

But he isn't the only one with a good Stafford story.

Jed Collins, who played fullback for the Lions in 2014, said his favorite catch from Stafford was the 1-yard touchdown he caught in a 24-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Collins, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Palmer, a few months earlier, ran through All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly's tackle at the goal line and celebrated by rocking the football like a baby.

A few days later, Collins found a FedEx envelope in his locker containing a letter, informing him he was being fined $11,025 for using the football as a prop in a celebration.

Collins was “kind of beside myself” the rest of the day, angry about the fine and half-engaged at that day’s walk-through.

“I’m a fullback, I’m counting my dollars," he said. "I don’t want to waste any of it."

A copy of the fake fine letter that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to trick former running back Jed Collins with.

When Stafford huddled the players after practice, he told them that then-Lions coach Jim Caldwell wanted him to re-emphasize that the ball can’t be used as a prop in touchdown celebrations.

“Jed’s should have been a penalty last week and it wasn’t. We’re lucky it wasn’t,” Stafford recalled saying. “He’s like, ‘No (kidding). They fined me $15,000,’ and he’s like, ‘I already called my wife and canceled my (stinking) vacation for the offseason.’

“I was like, ‘That’s tough. That’s tough. And we just got to be better.’ And I was like, ‘This stuff’s no joke, but what is a joke, Jed, is what I’m playing on you. That fine wasn’t real.’ He was like, ‘You mother-.‘ He was so mad. He was great.”

Stafford, who brought the team’s other quarterbacks, Kellen Moore and Dan Orlovsky, in on the joke, even had then-Lions team president Tom Lewand dummy up an authentic-looking letter from the NFL. In what became an almost annual tradition, he hit running back Zach Zenner with a similar fake fine for a uniform violation for wearing his socks too low.

Collins saved the letter and the FedEx package it came in, and recalls that moment fondly.

“It was very funny, and just a sign of who he is,” Collins said. “It was kind of a rite of passage into their little group. Anybody you make fun of is in the family. It made a memorable play for me that much more memorable.”

Finger-lickin' good

In talking to Stafford’s current and former Lions teammates, several qualities explain why he is on the verge of NFL history.

First, Stafford has ungodly gifts as a quarterback. He can recall and process information on the field like a human Google, and he has one of the strongest arms in the NFL.

“Practice, my first ever pass catching from him, he ripped my glove,” said Brandon Powell, who signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent in May 2018  and was with them through training camp this year. “That was probably the hardest ball I ever caught. Like it was just a simple little crossing route and I just put my hands up just to catch a normal little pass and I didn’t know it was coming that fast and it ripped my whole thumb off my glove.”

Yamon Figurs, who spent a month with the Lions during Stafford’s rookie season in 2009, experienced something even worse.

“I can’t even remember the play, but I remember I ran a deep out-route (in practice) and he was rolling out to his right and he threw a liner right down the sideline and squeezed it in and I caught it, but then I hit the ground,” Figurs said. “Like when I caught it, he threw it with so much velocity it dislocated my pinkie. It was crazy.”

Figurs said the dislocation was so bad that it couldn’t be popped back in at practice and he had to go to the hospital.

X-ray of Yamon Figurs' hand after suffering a broken finger after catching passes from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“When he’d throw the ball to Calvin Johnson across the middle I’d hear the ball just go BOOM! when it hit his hand, a loud pop,” Figurs said. “Crazy. I’m telling you, them dudes was amazing. Him and Calvin together was amazing.”

Although Stafford, who is 31, can put touch on the ball when needed — “I just told him not to throw it that hard. I think it’s pretty well known that he can rip it and I had my hands all taped up as a lineman does and I don’t need one of those bullets, so he just lobbed it up for me,” left tackle Taylor Decker said of the touchdown pass he caught from Stafford last season — he hasn’t lost any of his velocity.

“Stafford did that to me last year,” running back Kerryon Johnson said, holding up a crooked right pinkie. “It wasn’t broken, it was just a real bad sprain, but last year it was (bent sideways). Just straighten up a little bit, it just pops every now and then.

"And then the Green Bay game I think it might have been, at home, I caught a little 5-yard in from him and I swear to you I had a bruise on my bicep for two weeks. Like, couldn’t (even flex my arm). I’m like, ‘Just because of a Stafford ball?’ But yeah, because of a Stafford ball.”

'Tough cookie'

Although his rocket arm was what he was best known for coming out of college, Stafford is more synonymous with toughness now.

Before the bye, he played through a painful hip injury against the Kansas City Chiefs. Last season, it was a broken process in his back. And before that, he navigated a slew of ankle, finger, rib, knee and shoulder injuries.

“I got to say he’s hands down the toughest quarterback that I’ve ever played with,” said Lance Moore, who caught 24 passes from Stafford in 2015 after playing with Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. “I mean, those other guys are tough and Big Ben obviously gets called tough, but he’s a lot bigger guy and plays a different type of game than Staff does.

"But early on in that season we were so bad and we were so bad in the protection world, and Staff was getting killed. He would never, ever complain to anybody. Like no coach, no players. He kind of had the same look on his face and I’ll always remember that about him, that there was never any excuses or anything. He just kept playing and kept playing and kept playing.”

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is sacked by Denver Broncos DeMarcus Ware in the first quarte.

Running back Joique Bell said he was involved with a protection breakdown early in a September 2015 game against the Minnesota Vikings that left Stafford dealing with a rib injury all season.

“Stafford got crushed,” Bell said. “He takes that hit, crushes his ribs, he gets in the huddle, he can barely talk, barely breathe and that was the very first play of the game, and he stuck it out the whole game. Like the entire game not being able to breathe. I remember him coming in the huddle (gasping for air), ‘Trey right,’ (gasping for air), ‘tech tight.’ Gasping for breath every word.

“I already respected his toughness coming in on Mondays after the game ... And I’m just looking at him, like all these machines hooked up to him, ‘Just another day, I’m all right. I’m all right.’ Every Monday, ‘How you doing Matt?’ ‘I’m all right. I’ll be all right.’ Matt is a tough cookie, man. I respect his toughness.”

Once, when Golden Tate went to check on a hand injury his quarterback was battling, Stafford told him: “God gave me two. I’ve got another one. I’ll be all right.”

“The guy’s pretty much been broken and finds a way to play each and every week,” Tate said. “His toughness is just unmatchable, in my opinion.”

Numbers don't lie

Tate said in a TV interview earlier this year that Stafford was “the best quarterback I’ve played with.” 

For a guy who won a Super Bowl playing alongside Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks and spent part of last year playing with Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles, that raised plenty of eyebrows across the league.

“Yeah, I caught some flack, but (screw) everybody,” Tate said. “(Screw) them. I don’t care. That’s my opinion. I’m allowed to have my opinion.”

[Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford a future Hall of Famer? Stats might say yes]

Stafford, of course, has never won a playoff game in his decade in Detroit, but he’s on pace to be one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. His detractors have nicknamed him “Stat Padford” for piling up what they say are empty statistics, and fans have criticized him for being too laid-back and not outspoken enough as a leader.

But players who’ve caught his passes say that’s not quite the truth. Along with his genetic gifts and high tolerance for pain, they say leadership and competitiveness are other reasons why Stafford has lasted as long as he has in the league.

“His competitiveness. I love it,” receiver Danny Amendola said. “Fire. In his bones. Period.”

He said Stafford’s leadership style behind closed doors is “not much different than Tom” Brady’s, whom he played with for five seasons with the New England Patriots.

Tion Green, who caught two passes from Stafford in 2017, said Stafford routinely got on him and others about mistakes they made in practices and games.

“When rookies went in at 5 a.m., Stafford would legit be in the film room watching, 'cause like the running back room was next to the quarterback room,” Green said. “I’ve had Staff set the film for me a couple times, so like Staff’s legit first one in there, last one to leave. It’s really weird. Like he’s legit in that building.”

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on the sidelines before the game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday Sept. 15, 2019, at Ford Field.

Stafford  routinely has taken the blame for his team’s shortcomings, even when others were clearly at fault. He also has endeared himself to teammates by hosting an annual Halloween party that’s well-attended by all position groups and serves as an escape from football.

Burleson, who played four seasons in Detroit and now works as an analyst for NFL Network, said Stafford, who has become more demonstrative as a leader in recent years, once explained his reticence after giving a particularly rousing pregame speech before a Lions win early in his career.

“Just being the big brother and a guy that can appreciate somebody speaking from the heart, I was like, ‘Yo, great job, bro. Why don’t you do that more often?’ ” Burleson said. “He’s like, ‘I don’t feel that comfortable just sitting in front of people just talking like that. It’s not something that I look forward to or comes that natural.’ And he said, ‘The one place I always feel comfortable is when I have that helmet on.’ And I thought like, ‘(Shoot), that’s a powerful statement.’ I never forgot that. …

"He didn’t have to say much more than that because for certain people that really love the game, that grow up understanding the history of it and will play through injury, play through pain, will literally sacrifice everything for their squad, their team and their city, when you put that helmet on, nothing else matters.”

Ultimately, current and former teammates say, that will be Stafford’s legacy, no matter how many yards he has.

“I think that should be something that people talk about,” Burleson said. “When his career’s done, whether it ends with a Super Bowl and Hall of Fame or he’s one of those guys that just compiled a bunch of numbers and be respected as such, his professionalism on and off the field, handling adversity, handling — just call it what it is, poor talent around him — and then just being an absolute stand-up dude.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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