After all, Detroit had not won a playoff game since 1991 (and still has not) or a championship since 1957, when Bobby Layne, who lived on the same street as Stafford in Dallas and played for the same high school, was Detroit’s darling quarterback.
So just between friends, was he really O.K. with becoming a Lion?
“He said, ‘Absolutely,’” Aikman said in a telephone interview last week. “He said: ‘I want to go to Detroit, and I want to be part of building something. I want to leave my mark on this franchise.’
“Nothing against Detroit,” Aikman continued, “but I don’t know how many quarterbacks would have said that. I always remembered it.”
After nearly eight prolific and compelling years in Detroit, Stafford has established himself as one of the toughest, most entertaining players in football, passing for more yards than all but three other quarterbacks in their first eight seasons. Only Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Dan Marino had more.
Stafford is also in sixth place for the most games with at least three touchdown passes in his first eight seasons. Stafford has 27, trailing only Marino, Manning, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, a quarterbacking pantheon in the modern passing era.
This season, with virtually no running game for support, Stafford has led the Lions to the top of the N.F.C. North, a half-game ahead of the Green Bay Packers.
On Monday night, the Lions (9-5) will play the Cowboys (12-2) in Arlington, Tex., not far from Stafford’s family home, with a chance to win a playoff spot for only the third time in Stafford’s career. Dallas was the opponent in two of Stafford’s more memorable comeback wins, including one in 2013 in which he faked a spike with 12 seconds left and, without notifying anyone on his team, dived into the teeth of the Dallas defense for the winning touchdown.
Thrilling drives like that one have become Stafford’s signature skill. He has 28 fourth-quarter comeback wins in his career and eight already this year, a record for an N.F.L. season since the league’s merger with the American Football League in 1970.
Certainly, it would be preferable, and much less stressful, to lead every game by 21 points. But in those nerve-jangling final minutes when improvisation, poise and toughness are required, Stafford can be at his best.
“I definitely want the ball in my hand,” he said at his locker after a workout last week. “I want the opportunity to help my team win. Luckily, we’ve been able to do it eight times this year.”
If the Lions trail as the clock is draining, Stafford will extemporize long pass plays out of desperate scrambles, dive for critical yardage on fourth down, absorb punishing hits and play through an array of injuries, both serious and minor.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Lions wide receiver Golden Tate said. “He throws his body around for us and fights for every yard. I love to see it, but I hope and pray every time that he’s going to get back up. In those late-game situations, he kind of carries the team on his back.”
Of Stafford’s 28 fourth-quarter winning drives, 18 have come after the two-minute warning, and his eight game-winning touchdown passes in the final two minutes are the most by any quarterback since the merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The string of comeback wins this year began in Week 1 in Indianapolis after the Colts seized a 1-point lead with 37 seconds left in the game. Stafford drove his team 50 yards in 29 seconds, with three straight quick-strike passes that set up a Matt Prater field goal.
“You can’t be afraid to fail,” Stafford said. “That’s a big part of it.”
Under the offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford has become a more accurate passer — completing 66.3 percent of his passes this year and 67.2 percent last year. Before that two-year span, his career average was 59.6 percent. This season, Stafford has thrown 22 touchdown passes and eight interceptions, one of which came Dec. 18, late in the Lions’ 17-6 loss to the Giants — one of the rare occasions when Stafford could not engineer a comeback.
A few days later, he was snubbed by Pro Bowl voters for the seventh time in eight seasons. When someone suggested to Stafford that the Pro Bowl ballot is largely a popularity contest, he joked: “Am I unlikable? Is that the problem?”
The problem could be that the things that make Stafford excel in late-game situations — his ability to escape trouble and throw crisp, accurate spirals on the run, his ruggedness and his leadership — are not easily quantifiable.
“I do think that he’s a unique guy,” Lions Coach Jim Caldwell said. “He’s extremely tough, and I think that has a trickle-down effect on our team. He’s got poise. He’s got focus. They believe in him.”
Because of Stafford’s ability to extricate wins from impending losses, the Lions are in the opposite position heading into their final two games — hoping that Green Bay, now 9-6 after winning its past five games, does not come from behind on them with a victory in their Week 17 divisional showdown in Detroit.
But for all of Stafford’s accomplishments, two glaring voids have prevented him from joining Layne, his fellow Highland Park alumnus, in Lions lore. While Layne won three league championships in Detroit, Stafford is 0-2 in the playoffs and has never won a division title.
“He is a terrific talent and a great competitor,” Aikman said. “But when people talk about the best quarterbacks out there, they talk about Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Matt’s name doesn’t really come off the tongue. The reason, in my opinion, is that you’ve got to do it in January. Until you win in January, then you are never going to be thought of as a great one.”