To this point, the NFL has shown it isn’t like the NBA, where a super team can join forces and produce championships. Much of that, of course, is simple numbers: There are only five players per team at a time on a basketball court and they play offense and defense.
This year’s Los Angeles Rams are trying to show it can be done in the NFL, adding Matthew Stafford, Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. to a roster that already included Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and MVP candidate Cooper Kupp. The Rams are all in, having used nearly all of their 2022 draft picks in trades to assemble their roster; Los Angeles hasn’t made a pick in the first round since 2016 and, at the moment, won’t until 2024.
When the Rams traded for Stafford earlier this year, the general reaction was an overreaction. Stafford’s career mediocrity was attributed solely to his being a Detroit Lion for 11 years. Being paired with Sean McVay was supposed to be the magic elixir that showed everyone Stafford was a hidden All-Pro all this time, despite being a Pro Bowler just once with Detroit and sharing the field with Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson for his first seven seasons in the league.
Three games in, with the Rams undefeated and coming off a win against the Buccaneers, Stafford was being discussed as an MVP candidate.
Since then, he’s largely been the quarterback he was in Detroit: statistically stellar against bad teams, meh against winning ones. The Rams’ road win over the Arizona Cardinals earlier this month was the first time in his career that Stafford had posted a win over a team that was five games over .500 at kickoff, and just his 11th against a team with a winning record. He’s 0-3 in the postseason.
On Sunday, against a Minnesota Vikings team that was 7-7 when the day began, Stafford had to make Rams fans very nervous. He was 21 for 37 (56.8 percent) for 197 yards with one touchdown, a season-high three interceptions and season-low 5.3 yards per attempt.
He threw picks on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter and was 4-for-9 passing in the red zone, with the Rams scoring only two touchdowns on five trips inside the 20. And that was while Sony Michel rushed for 131 yards, providing the run support we’ve been told ad nauseam Stafford never had with the Lions.
Los Angeles won — in spite of Stafford, not because of him.
That’s a risky proposition in the playoffs.
Yes, yes, Los Angeles is 11-4 and clinched a playoff berth with the win over the Vikings, and it must be noted Stafford lost No. 2 receiver Robert Woods to a season-ending injury. But look at how Stafford has played since completing 70.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, one pick and 10.0 YPA during that 3-0 start, especially since November began. The Rams were winless in three games that month against the Titans, 49ers and Packers, losing by a combined 41 points with Stafford going 78 for 127 (6.6 YPA) with five TDs and five INTs.
And analytically speaking, specifically expected points added (EPA) per play vs. pass blocking grade, Stafford is giving Los Angeles almost exactly the same production it got from Jared Goff in 2018. That’s the year the Rams reached the Super Bowl. Something tells us McVay and general manager Les Snead were hoping for a little more when they gave up two first-round picks to get Stafford ain exchange for Goff. They were expecting elite.
Los Angeles travels to Baltimore this week and finishes at home with San Francisco, both of whom are 8-7 and in the playoff field as of Monday. The Cardinals, at 10-5 and still in the running for the NFC West title, close at Dallas and home with Seattle.
There aren’t many quarterbacks playing who you’re confident can consistently put their team on their back and carry it to a win. Tom Brady, of course; Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes. Not long ago Russell Wilson belonged in that category, too. Does Stafford?
Great quarterbacks make everyone around them better and lift their games when the stakes are highest. To use McVay’s own words, when a game or a play is “not right, they can make it right.” That’s a big reason the Rams acquired Stafford.
They need him to become that quarterback quickly, or their big gamble for this season will be a big bust.