The question about Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford that has popped into the head of Mike in Lacey or Bill in Bremerton, is the same one Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright has contemplated as well.
“Is he elite?” said Wright at his locker stall Wednesday, interrupting a reporter before the question being asked was finished.
It is a difficult question for a defender who is expected to chase down Stafford on Saturday in the NFC wild card playoff at CenturyLink Field, requiring a delicate response.
“He is a legit quarterback,” Wright said. “He is definitely a top 10 quarterback.”
If quarterback legacy was based solely on statistics, Stafford might be on track to be a Hall of Famer. Last weekend, in the final game of the 2016 regular season against Green Bay, the former No. 1 overall pick became the youngest signal caller in NFL history to eclipse 30,000 passing yards — in his 109th game.
With the NFC North title at stake, Detroit lost to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, 31-24, at Ford Field. Stafford passed for 347 yards and two touchdowns despite wearing a glove on his passing hand to protect his injured middle finger. That pushed his season total to 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns.
That only adds to what gives most pundits pause when discussing how great Stafford is: He has plenty of stats but no paramount victories to his name as a professional.
The talent is undeniable. The former No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country for 2006 won a Class 4A state title for Highland Park High School in Dallas as a senior before signing with the University of Georgia.
With the Bulldogs, Stafford passed for 7,731 yards and 51 touchdowns in three seasons. He was also 3-0 in bowl games.
The Lions coveted Stafford’s big arm and fiery flair, and they picked him first overall in the 2009 NFL draft.
“He can launch the ball, that’s for sure,” said Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, who was Stafford’s teammate in Detroit from 2009-2012. “I’ve seen that from day one.”
What Stafford did have early in his career was a legitimate go-to wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. Nearly one-third of Stafford’s 25,976 yards and 163 touchdowns entering this season had gone to the All-Pro receiver, who retired at the end of last season.
Yet many critics feel Stafford had his best season in 2016 with two new receivers, Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin, joining Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron in the passing attack.
“It didn’t take too long (to stop looking for Johnson). He wasn’t out there,” Stafford said. “So, I just kind of try to throw the ball to the guys that are getting open.”
Stafford registered his sixth 4,000-yard passing season while tossing a career-low 10 interceptions. He also engineered an NFL-record eight come-from-behind, fourth-quarter victories.
“The biggest difference (now) honestly from when I was with him … is he’s taking control of the offense,” Avril said. “He’s making plays that veteran quarterbacks should make. He’s audibling and doing all these different things that earlier in his career, he probably wouldn’t have done.”
Add in the elements of his extreme competitiveness and creativity, and you’ve got yourself a regular John Wayne, said Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett.
“He does a lot of great things with the ball, especially impressive … when he throws it (side arm),” Bennett said. “Like a cowboy.”
But this cowboy must lasso a meaningful playoff win before people start mentioning him with the best in the business.
The Lions thought they had that big victory in 2014 when they traveled to Dallas for a wild card game.
Up 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, Stafford and the offense were on the move toward another score when a pass intended for Brandon Pettigrew bounced off Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who appeared to have an arm on Pettigrew before the ball arrived.
Pass interference on Hitchens was called initially, but minutes later the officiating crew reversed the call that would have given the Lions a first down past midfield.
The Detroit drive stalled, and the Cowboys rallied for a controversial 24-20 victory. The game ended shortly after Stafford lost a fumble, preventing him from leading the Lions to their first postseason win on the road since 1957.
“That has been the knock on him,” Wright said.
The Seahawks are hoping that breakthrough does not happen Saturday.
“He’s so equipped with everything, he can do it all,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We will treat him with the utmost respect.”