March 2, 2024

He was the prodigal bum.

They didn’t throw him a parade, they marched all over him. They didn’t pop champagne, they uncorked sprays of pain.

Eminem cursed at him. Barry Sanders led cheers against him. Fans screamed so loud he once tripped over his feet as if knocked backward by the boos.

Matthew Stafford made his first appearance at Detroit’s Ford Field on Sunday since a 12-year career with his beloved Lions ended in 2021, when he was traded to the Rams, and, oh man.

As homecomings go, it was one bloody boutonniere.

The Rams lost the NFC wild-card playoff game to the quarterback they traded for Stafford, falling to Jared Goff’s team 24-23.

Stafford had his hand sliced badly enough to require a bandage, his head pounded enough to have doctors check for a concussion, and his ego damaged as he failed on three late potential go-ahead drives.

It was deafeningly difficult. The results were season-ending awful. Stafford and his graying beard creaked through the locker room afterward as if he were twice his 35 years.

But you know what? I’d still take him over Goff.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) signals from the line against the Lions.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) seemed in perfect control of the offense against the Detroit Lions.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He’s two years removed from leading the Rams to a Super Bowl title, but I’d still take him over Goff. He has been so pummeled for so long that he was asked afterward about retirement, and I’d still take him over Goff.

He said he’s coming back, and good thing, because in a very short time he has become the Rams’ version of LeBron James.

He keeps showing up, and showing up huge, conquering time, carrying the kids, the weathered face of the young and gifted Rams.

“[Goff] has done a great job … and I wouldn’t want anyone else as our quarterback other than Matthew Stafford,” Rams coach Sean McVay said afterward. “He was outstanding, he was gritty, he was gutsy, he made tough throw after tough throw, the rush was barreling down on him, he stood in there and was dropping dimes all day.”

On a night where he surely has never been more uncomfortable, Stafford has never been tougher.

In a city where he still has deep roots and charitable ventures, a city where it had to hurt to be treated so much like the enemy, Stafford has never played more powerfully oblivious.

He threw for 367 yards — nearly 100 more yards than Goff — and for two touchdowns, one more than Goff, all under far different circumstances.

Stafford couldn’t hear. He couldn’t fully grip. After suffering the crunching tackles that led to the concussion check, his eyes glazed over.

It was brutal. The crowd that gathered for the Lions’ first home playoff game in 30 years taunted Stafford with a “Jar-ed Goff … Jar-ed Goff” cheer.

Yet he fought back by essentially screaming his own name.

The Lions jumped to a 14-3 lead after scoring on their first two possessions before Stafford calmly whipped out a 50-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Puka Nacua, his new favorite target who caught 181 yards worth, a rookie record for an NFL postseason game.

“He’s the toughest guy, I mean, you see the shots he takes, he continues to deliver the ball in the right place,” Nacua said. “He’s falling down, not even seeing if the ball is completed, and it’s right on my face mask.”

The Lions increased their lead to 21-10 before, late in the second quarter, Stafford converted a fourth-down pass and followed with a 38-yard touchdown pass across the middle to Tutu Atwell, whose youthful somersault into the end zone epitomized the Rams’ joyous late-season surge.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) looks to pass around the Lions' Brian Branch.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) utilized all sorts of arm angles to pass around Lions such as Brian Branch (32).

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“[Stafford] is the leader of our team, the fight that he had bleeds onto everyone else,” Nacua said.

That fight was finally stymied in the final moments when, driving toward a potential winning field goal around midfield, the Rams needed to convert a third-and-14 play. Stafford threw a dart over the middle but Nacua, who was double-covered, couldn’t come down with the catch.

Nacua blamed himself.

“I didn’t come down with the play and the opportunity I had and it stings … it’s going to sting for a while,” Nacua said.

Stafford, meanwhile, blamed himself for not choosing a receiver running a shorter route so they could set up for a fourth-down field-goal attempt.

“Part of me is like, ‘Man, is there a chance to hold on to the ball a little bit longer and try to get something underneath,‘ ” Stafford said. “But man,we’re playing aggressive, we’re trying to win the game.”

Then, of course, in keeping with the Rams teamwork theme, McVay blamed himself for not trying to convert the ensuing fourth-and-14 play instead of punting the ball to the Lions, who proceeded to run out the clock.

“The way our defense was playing, we’d hoped we’d get a shot,” said McVay. “Hindsight is 20-20 and I certainly regret that decision now.”

Stafford regrets little about this season, which reenergized him and reminded the Rams of his importance.

“A jolt of energy, man, it was fun, I had a blast, it was a heckuva challenge, I got to sit there and push guys but also watch guys come into their own in this league,” he said. “Happy to be a part of a team, a group of guys like that.”

And if he was bothered by Sunday’s cheers for Goff and boos for him, he would never admit it.

“The guy’s their quarterback. … I was happy for him, I thought they played excellent today,” he said of Goff. “I wasn’t surprised they were cheering for their team. … I’m not too worried about what anybody personally feels toward me who is sitting in the stands.”

There is certainly no regret from anybody about the trade, which gave the Rams more than just a Super Bowl but also a venerable cornerstone.

“He certainly gave us a chance, we’d never be in this position without Matthew Stafford’s leadership, his guidance, his resilience,” McVay said. “He was one of the main catalysts for what was right about this football team, and I know he’ll be excited about coming back next year.”

He won’t be the only one.

One can hear the chants now, next fall, SoFi Stadium fans finally having a chance to respond to Sunday’s awkward season farewell.

Remember this night. Remember your lines.

“Mat-thew Staf-ford … Mat-thew Staf-ford.”

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