Super Bowl LVI Pits Matthew Stafford Against Joe Burrow—Middle-Age Angst vs. the Vitality of Youth

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast; Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast; Getty

This Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI marks the showdown of the century: the angst of middle age vs. the vitality of youth. Who will you, a middle-age person, choose?

Once, LA Rams QB Matthew Stafford was young. “Stafford is likely the most ‘ready to play right away’ quarterback in this class and most naturally gifted passer in this class.” The year is 2005, and someone is writing about high school senior quarterback Matthew Stafford for ESPN.com’s recruiting website. “He is a tough leader on the field and he has the natural ability to develop into an upper echelon starter in college. Has a very strong arm, gets good velocity on passes and can fit the ball into tight spaces.”

They love him. They’re crazy about him. “Shows good pre-snap recognition skills, adjusts to the blitz and can beat pressure. Possesses good lateral mobility, can buy second chances in the pocket and throws well on the run. Appears to play with confidence and wants the ball in hands.”

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A 17-year-old, getting written up by a grown man, ostensibly writing about his college prospects, is clearly positioning him for future NFL success. Athletic, tall, reads the defense, natural leader. It’s all in here. “Stafford shows great pocket presence and is deceptively athletic. Doesn’t have great speed, but speed is adequate and he is effective out of the pocket, will lower his head and get the tough first down.”

Imagine reading this about yourself, a teenager living in Texas, hearing the entire scouting world declaring that you, a 17-year-old, are a sure thing as a quarterback—a person who possesses all the tools to be that dude. Imagine how bright your future must seem?

Four years pass. Stafford played three seasons at the University of Georgia in the SEC, the best conference in college football. He was good enough to be a fairly clear No. 1 pick in the draft. People see a franchise quarterback with a big ol’ arm and good height and they know that’s what you need. But already, as he is getting drafted, you can see Father Time taking some of the shine off. The pocket presence they talked about when he was 17 has been replaced by hemming and hawing about “happy feet” in the pocket. They compliment his tools, which is simultaneously a passive-aggressive way of shading his mental approach. Lions fans boo, because they wanted the team to take a linebacker who ended up being a bust, and also because booing is really fun.

The Prospect tore his shoulder in his second year, but he recovered and he is, in many ways, excellent. The arm is real, he can truly throw that damn football way down the field. But the little things they talk about with his decision-making manifest. He is clearly a franchise-type quarterback, throwing to the best receiver since Moss in Calvin Johnson and racking up massive passing totals, but the heights of success elude him. The Lions can’t seem to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Then, they can’t seem to even make the playoffs.

Throughout all this, Stafford lives a life. He is married and has four children. In 2019, his wife had a benign brain tumor removed, an experience that gives anyone a more visceral relationship with death. Stafford is reaching his limits at work and feeling the chill of mortality down his spine. At 34, he is entering middle age (at least by NFL standards). The LA Rams, a good team seeking to move on from Jared Goff, a recent No. 1 pick who didn’t turn out like they’d hoped, targeted Stafford in 2021. He had played well for the Lions, their all-time team leader in passing yards and touchdowns but, you know. Stafford was tired of not winning and the Lions were tired of trying to win with him. More teams should move on. It’s healthy.

When Stafford was 17 and grown men were blowing water up his ass, he probably had visions of Super Bowl success. After a decade or so of really-great-but-not-transcendent-production, playing for his second team, and managing to squeeze his way in on a Wild Card berth, here he is: A middle-age man, playing in the Super Bowl, looking to validate those dreams of youth in a manner that he couldn’t have ever really dreamed of.

Across the field is Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback. Here he is, strolling into the AFC title game two weeks ago, wearing a faux fur coat with hearts on it, gray Nikes with a stripe of pastel pink, a giant gold chain with a Nike logo hanging from the end, a black turtleneck, and some AirPods.

This is an outfit that screams, “I am not middle-aged.” Like Stafford, Burrow was also a top recruit, a huge college star, the No. 1 pick in the draft. Unlike Stafford, he has found himself in the Super Bowl almost immediately: he is the first quarterback drafted No. 1 overall to make the Super Bowl in his second season.

Stafford was a model quarterback from a different age: big arm, tall, good athlete but not an amazing athlete. Burrow is today’s quarterback. He operates like Patrick Mahomes, or wiggly-limbed Bills QB Josh Allen. Burrow scrambles in the pocket, gets yards while weaseling around and dodging defenders flying at him. He runs almost like a running back. Short pass, long pass, hell, Joey B will do it for you. When Stafford was picked back in 2009, NFL talent evaluators didn’t even think players like Joe Burrow existed. And now, here he is, youth itself, facing off against Stafford, a middle-age man who is in the hard back half of his career, musing on death and wondering if this is all there is, managing to squeak into his first Super Bowl right under the wire.

Look, you can say what you want about running games, or lines, or special teams, or whatever you want. It is apparent to any thinking person that the stakes of this game are clear. Do you, a middle-age person reading this article, root for the man who is you? Do you root for the person you are—drifting toward the end, wondering what it all really means? Or do you valorize youth, like the culture wants you to, throwing in your lot for the person you once were, full of hope and life and joy, looking ahead to your best years? Who do you value more? Yourself or the version of you before the limits life placed onto you began to crush your spirit? Youth or middle age? Freedom or responsibility? AirPods that look surprisingly good in your ears, or a muted blue shirt? The one that means a lot, or the first of many? I pray you choose wisely.

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