ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The night before the 2009 NFL draft, a text flashed across Matthew Stafford's cell phone. It was Mark Sanchez, who was holed up with some friends at a dive bar in Manhattan. Sanchez wanted Stafford and his crowd to join them.
Off Stafford went, and there were the two young quarterbacks, who'd become fast friends through the pre-draft process, knocking back a few beers in their final hours as mostly anonymous, carefree college kids.
Their careers went in sharply different directions. Sanchez joined a strong team and over his first two seasons he won four playoff games, reached consecutive AFC title games and became a magazine cover boy and big city celebrity. The tabloids dubbed him "Sanchize." He was the modern day Joe Namath, on and off the field.
Stafford came here to the Lions, a team fresh off an 0-16 season and a long way from being competitive. Over his first two years he won just three games. Worse, he played in a mere 13, saddled multiple times with injuries that left him fighting the label of "fragile."
The Jets and Lions played last season in November. Stafford was brilliant, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another as he built a Detroit lead. Then he got tackled from behind, busted his shoulder and was lost for the season. Sanchez stepped up to lead a dramatic fourth-quarter, game-tying drive and another in overtime for the victory. It was symbolic of their careers.
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"I just told him to hang in there," Sanchez said afterward.
The whole thing has circled around now. One team is up, the other down. And the debate about who made the right pick has swung back like a pendulum.
There's no rivalry between the two. They remain friends. They remain supportive. They've both learned the hard way everything is fleeting in the NFL, both good and bad, and that these kinds of snapshots in time mean little.
Still, the juxtaposition is dramatic.
Stafford is preparing for Saturday night's playoff game at New Orleans, the star player in the rise of the Lions.
He's fresh off a season where he not only remained healthy, he delivered just the fifth 5,000-plus yards passing season in NFL history (5,038). He's only 23, the same age as when Dan Marino did it in 1984. Stafford threw 41 touchdowns to boot.
He is, undoubtedly, a huge talent with brilliant potential.
Sanchez, meanwhile, is under the microscope after throwing 18 interceptions as the Jets imploded. He's had to deal with cries about whether he's not only regressed but whether he can ever be an elite player.
Stafford knows the playoffs are the time when quarterbacks are judged. It was January, after all, that made Sanchez's rep to begin with, besting Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on consecutive weeks just last year.
Growing up in the Dallas area, Stafford was a huge Dallas Cowboys fan and watched Troy Aikman in his prime. Forget those gaudy regular-season stats, he says, there's only one thing that elevates a player.
"Win," he said.
Stafford is the first to downplay his numbers anyway. He shakes his head at even the thought of 5,000 yards. Was it ever a goal? "No," he laughed. "That's a lofty one."
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Besides, circumstances played a big role. Stafford has a ton of talent to throw to, including Calvin Johnson, one of the league's best. Then the Lions lost multiple running backs to injury and kept getting roped into high scoring affairs that required him to "sling it around." He threw 663 passes this season, most in the league and the third highest total ever.
"We were just trying to do whatever it took to win," he said. "We had to throw the ball probably more than we thought we would this year, but it resulted in [enough] wins to get us into the playoffs and that's all that counts.
"That's a team accomplishment. It doesn't just happen for me. You've got to have guys out there getting open, making players after catches, guys up front blocking. It was a total team effort. It's great to be part of it."
All true. So too is the fact Stafford had a season that was worthy of far more attention. Over his last four games, he's thrown for 1,511 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Can you imagine if Tim Tebow did that?
It was the combination of Tebow, the fact both Drew Brees (5,476) and Tom Brady (5.235) had greater statistical seasons and various Lions dramas and controversies that pushed Stafford aside.
If anything, he seemed to like it. Or at least accept it.
He points to Aikman and other quarterbacking role models from his youth like John Elway and Brett Favre. Who remembers their stats?
"I remember a lot of games from all three of those guys and they'd do whatever it takes to win," he said. "That's what you've got to do. Whether it's go out there and run, throw, whatever. Just get your team in position to win.
"And that's what I'm going to try to do."
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Postseason opportunity knocked immediately for Sanchez; it was sink or swim. Stafford had to take the more traditional route of a top pick and be the centerpiece of a construction job. This is the first of what is expected to be many postseason trips with a young, talented core of Lions.
So now here it is, the stage, the moment, the shot he's been waiting and working for all these years. Two long seasons of questions and here comes the answer. No one calls him fragile anymore. No one doubts he has the ability to one day be a top five quarterback in the league.
And no one will be surprised if he puts up big numbers on Saturday, goes pass for pass with Drew Brees, makes this thing a game.
"It's going to be fun," Stafford said.
This here, at last, is the start of something big for Matthew Stafford.
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