In his ninth NFL season, Matthew Stafford is no stranger to playing through injury.
Begin with the genesis of Stafford’s career, his rookie season in 2009, and look no further than Week 11’s matchup against the Cleveland Browns as a testament to the type of toughness he’s had from the jump. A separated shoulder, one untimed play from the 1-yard line, and Stafford, who knew he didn’t need his left shoulder to throw, threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew.
That moment feels like it happened ages ago because times are different now. That win pushed those Lions to a 2-8 record, a marked improvement from the season they had the year prior, but the stakes simply aren’t the same anymore; they haven’t been any higher for Matthew—the recipient of the richest contract in NFL history this past offseason—or the Lions as an organization for that matter.
But that same 21-year-old kid who gutted out that final play against Cleveland almost eight years ago has done a lot of growing up, and with it has come its fair share of adulation and accomplishment. He’s thrown for extravagant touchdown totals and gaudy amounts of yardage, and those helped net him that aforementioned contract. The 2016 season is quite literally distilled into one now infamous meme because of Stafford’s record-setting eight come-from-behind victories: That’s a nice lead you have there. It’d be a shame if someone made a comeback.
However, all of those personal accolades may have got him paid, but with payment comes considerable expectations. Expectations not only for his level of play on the field, but also for his availability in terms of suiting up on game day, especially when most outlets tend to be in agreement that Stafford should be able to play through his reported mild high-ankle sprain and thigh strain this Sunday.
In a game where durability and availability are as much a skill as anything else, this isn’t going to be a problem for Stafford.
Along the way, Stafford has battled through various types of injuries, managing to start 101 straight games since the beginning of the 2011 season. This week—as is the case with most weeks in an NFL season—another challenge presents itself: a date with the Saints in New Orleans. The all-alluring bye week, a chance to rest and recover, sits just on the other side of Detroit’s Week 6 matchup with the Saints and some have even suggested giving Stafford this week off in order to get himself right for the second half of the season.
But once again, in a game so married to attrition, Stafford has proven time and time again that he’s willing to gut it out for his team.
Last season, with the Lions sitting atop their division at 9-4 and the chance to win the NFC North for the first time in nearly a quarter century, disaster struck. An injury to Stafford’s middle finger on his throwing hand—literally torn ligaments in that finger—couldn’t keep him off the field. He played, the Lions lost each remaining game on their way to handing over the NFC North to the Green Bay Packers, and they then were bounced from the playoffs in a Wild Card round matchup with the Seattle Seahawks.
This exact scenario playing itself out feels eerily similar to Week 2 of the 2015 season where Stafford was brutalized by a swarming Minnesota Vikings defense. He received x-rays, even mentioned he was in pain during the post-game press conference, but went out the very next week to face a Denver Broncos defense that would lead Peyton Manning and Co. to victory in Super Bowl 50 just five months later.
All of this certainly feels very similar. This isn’t anything new for Matthew Stafford to gut it out and play through injury with the hand he’s been dealt. The offensive line, fortified by the offseason additions of Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang, hasn’t been as advertised. Playing without left tackle Taylor Decker has clearly proven to be a problem—the line protecting Stafford has given up 18 sacks, the third most in the NFL.
What it all boils down to is this: Stafford playing on Sunday gives the team their best chance to win and move to 4-2. It’s up to the likes of Jim Bob Cooter and Jim Caldwell to put together a gameplan that gets Stafford to the bye week; the time for rest and recovery is right around the corner, and another game like the one against Carolina, where Stafford was sacked a season-high six times, just can’t happen again.
But in the meantime, expect No. 9 to be under center come Sunday. After all, there are over 100 reasons to prove that’s where he’ll be.