The Super Bowl is many things. A display of athletic prowess between players. A strategic competition between coaches. And, perhaps most importantly, a demonstration of American consumerism. But, the 2022 Super Bowl also contains in it a valuable lesson — the importance of circumstances.

You see, the 2022 Super Bowl was a contest between a second-year quarterback in Joe Burrow and a QB with over a decade of experience in Matthew Stafford. But, despite the decade plus of experience, Matthew Stafford was a rookie in one way…he was on a brand new team. Between the end of the 2020-2021 season and the start of the 2021-2022 season, Stafford was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Los Angeles Rams.

And, while I’m sure Stafford viewed the trade as bittersweet given his love of Detroit’s fans, it was also a huge win for him. You see — and I’ll put this as nicely as possible — the Lions suck. (As a fan of a team even suckier than the Lions — my own Baltimore Orioles — it gave me no joy to type that.) And, through no fault of his own, Stafford was drafted to join them.

Stafford’s Bad Circumstances: The Lions

Many ways exist to illustrate the Lion’s level of suck. As one of the NFL’s original franchises, the Lions have a history that predates the first Super Bowl in 1967. And, in that pre-Super Bowl Era, the Lions were sort of good. They won four NFL Championships, with the last one coming in 1957. I’m sure that some 90-year old is reading this and fondly remembering that time when he was 14 and he read about the Lion’s victory over the Cleveland Browns in the local newspaper. (BTW, the Cleveland Browns have also pretty much sucked since then…see below).

But, the intervening 65 years have not been kind to the Lions. How unkind? Figure 1 shows the number of playoff wins by each NFL franchise since 1958. The Detroit Lions have one playoff win. One!!! That’s 6 less than the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that didn’t even exist until 1993!

Figure 1. NFL Playoff Wins by Franchise since 1958 (i.e., Sad Graph for Lions Fans)

Source: Statmuse, accessed on April 16th, 2022.

Indeed, the Detroit Lions sucked so bad in 2008 that they won zero games. In fact, they were the first team in NFL history to lose all 16 games. (Since 2008, their 1957 championship opponent the Cleveland Browns have joined them in this feat.) And, since the NFL rewards awful teams with the chance to choose the best collegiate players, the Lions had the first pick in 2009.

And that’s when a young Matthew Stafford became available. In his last year at Georgia, The Bulldog threw for 9 yards per attempt, good for number 6 in the country. His team finished ranked 13th in the country, playing in the notoriously difficult Southeastern Conference. And, all the scouts thought Stafford had what it takes to succeed in the NFL, writing: “[he] possesses exceptional arm strength. Can make all the NFL throws and more. Excellent zip on deep outs.” Because of this excellence, Matt Stafford was drafted by a historically bad employer (in what other industry is this legal?).

Matthew Stafford’s Career with the Lions

So, did Matthew Stafford live up to the hype? Sort of. Stafford was certainly a good NFL quarterback during his time with the Lions. Figure 2 shows his QB Rating — a common measure of quarterback skill — against the average in the NFL. The league average during his tenure with the Lions was a rating of 88. Stafford beat this average over that period, at a rating of 91. And remember, he did this while playing for a franchise (and I can’t stress this enough) that sucked at the primary reason for its existence…winning football games.

Figure 2. Matthew Stafford’s Quarterback Rating vs. League Average, 2009-2020

Source: Pro Football Reference.

But, winning didn’t really follow. During Stafford’s tenure, the Lions won roughly 41 percent of their games. Then again, in the decade proceeding Stafford’s arrival, the Lions won just 30 percent of their games. Plus, prior to Stafford, the Lions hadn’t even made the playoffs in a decade. They made it three times during his tenure. So, Stafford was a substantial improvement.

And, it’s not like the Lion’s gave Stafford a lot to work with on the defensive side of the ball. QBs get a lot of the blame for their teams’ play, but they have nothing to do with the defense. And, the Lions weren’t good on defense during Stafford’s tenure. Out of 32 teams, the Lions Defense Averaged 21st from 2009-2020. As Figure 3 shows, the team finished in the top 10 of defense just once — and in that year the Lions went 11-5 and made the playoffs. So, with a decent defense, Stafford did just fine.

Figure 3. Ranking of Detroit Lion’s Defense 2009-2020 (High is Bad)

Source: Pro Football Reference.

After the 2020 Season, in which the Lion’s Defense ranked last, Stafford requested a trade. It was time to see how he would fare under a different set of circumstances.

Stafford’s Good Circumstances: The 2021-2022 Rams

Stafford’s arrival on the Rams came at an odd time for that franchise. The 2018-2019 season had ended in Super Bowl disappointment at the hands of the Patriots. The Rams failed to make the playoffs the following season, and in the COVID season of 2020-2021 lost in the playoff’s second round. The team was obviously good, but stuck in neutral.

As per the usual, the blame for this mediocrity fell on the Ram’s Quarterback Jared Goff. During that 2019 Super Bowl year, Goff had shown real promise, but two years of subpar play on good teams — the 2020 Rams had the number one defense in the league — left fans wanting more than poor Jared. So, the Rams got Matthew Stafford in exchange for Jared Goff and two coveted first round draft picks. Most believed the Rams had gotten significantly better.

Indeed, heading into the 2021-2022 season, Pro Football Focus had the Rams ranked 6th in the league. A big question mark was how Stafford would play. After all, he’d never won a playoff game in Detroit. In the end, Stafford played well. The team rolled to a top-10 offensive finish, and by any metric Stafford was a top-10 QB. Stafford posted the second-best quarterback rating of his career, led the team to the playoffs, and ultimately to a Super Bowl victory. Stafford, while unable to resurrect an awful franchise in Detroit, was certainly capable of guiding a decent one to the promised land.

Evaluating Stafford’s Career

Which gets me to the point of this post (you knew there had to be one!). How do we think about the career of Matthew Stafford given these disparate outcomes? Is Stafford a marginally above average quarterback incapable of leading his team to a single playoff victory? Or, is he a top-10 QB, who wins every playoff game thrown his way? The answer to these two questions is obvious: no.

The truth is that it is impossible to separate out Stafford the player from his circumstances. Given the Lion’s history, it seems fair to say that no one could be expected to guide that team to a Super Bowl victory. After all, no one ever has. In that context, Stafford’s tenure with the team seems more impressive — he definitely did better than many others would have. Stafford was probably better than the just above average QB he appeared be with the Lions. Just above average with the Lions would probably be way above average anywhere else.

And, judging by the Ram’s recent history, it seems fair to say that a well above average quarterback could win the Super Bowl with that team. After all, Jared Goff almost won a Super Bowl with the Rams and they mortgaged the team’s future just to get rid of him. So, Stafford’s season with the Rams seems to make sense. He was put in the company of one of the best coaches in the league (Sean McVay), one of the best defensive ends in NFL history (Aaron Donald), and one of the best wide receivers in the league (Cooper Kupp). And, he won. As a well above average quarterback would.

Which gets me to my point about circumstances. Sometimes, I feel that people suck at differentiating outcomes from circumstances. In fact, they might suck at this as much as the Lions have at football for the last 65 years. For example, here’s a graph from Google Trends indexing how often people searched “Matthew Stafford Hall of Fame” over the last decade. After the Super Bowl, people were searching this term five times more often than ever before.

Figure 4. Index of “Matthew Stafford Hall of Fame” from Google Trends

Source: Adapted from Google Trends Data.

Of course, Matthew Stafford was no more or less a Hall of Famer the day after the Super Bowl than the day before it. He was a well-above average QB drafted onto a horrible team that made him look average. Then, he was a well-above average QB put onto a great team that made him look great.

And of course, the same thing is true of people. When we see people’s life outcomes, we tend to attribute it to their effort and talent. But, the same person dropped into better circumstances will do better. Luckily for Matthew Stafford, being dropped onto the Lions just meant he got paid a lot of money to not win championships for a decade. For others, of course, the consequences are more serious.