The Los Angeles Rams have a lot riding on the 2021 playoffs, and while that might seem true for most teams in the tournament, it’s especially true for LA. After getting ousted in the divisional round of the playoffs a year ago the Rams decided they were just an upgrade at quarterback away from serious contention. Two firsts and one third round draft selections later, Matthew Stafford is donning sol horns on each side of his navy helmet.
We can debate the success of the Rams’ quarterback swap up to this point, but that isn’t necessarily the point. You see, the Rams set the expectations of winning a Super Bowl themselves, and anything short of that in Stafford’s tenure in Los Angeles will and should be considered a failure. It’s entirely possible that LA could find its groove at just the right time to hoist the Lombardi trophy. That’s really the only circumstances that void what I’m about to say next - because a Super Bowl victory trumps all other expectations for the Stafford-LA marriage.
With a lack of premium draft capital, in part due to the quarterback swap but also due to other trades, and limited cap space in 2022, the Rams will feel pressure to extend Stafford this offseason - but LA would be wise to hold off for now.
I can't argue the cap point. I would definitely argue that Goff is a better asset.— Aviv (@AvivShalit) January 31, 2021
Matt Stafford Cap Hit:
2021- 33 million
2022- 26 million
2023- 3 million (expired??) Age 35
Jared Goff Cap Hit:
2021 -35 million
2022 -33 million
2023 -32.5 million
2024 -28.5 million Age 30
A premature quarterback extension is exactly what got the Rams into a messy situation the first time around, and they’d be wiser to avoid doubling down on their sunk costs in Stafford. Sure, not committing to the quarterback past 2022 could mean the Rams send away their first round draft pick in 2023 without the return investment on their roster - but the cost of tying yourself to a signal caller that can’t get you where you need to go is even greater.
After all, why does it have to be Stafford for Los Angeles? Could someone like Derek Carr or Ryan Tannehill be available in 2023 and lead LA to similar outcomes? Yes, Stafford has raised the ceiling for quarterback play in Los Angeles, but the marginal improvement over his predecessor does not necessarily offset the jump in turnovers since his days in Detroit - his 17 interceptions are by far his highest total since the 2013 season. At some points this year it has been two steps forward for the Rams and then one step back.
It’s completely possible that Stafford plays mistake-free football for four straight games in the playoffs, but that’s not something he was able to accomplish during the regular season. The quarterback’s volatility could easily be what punches LA’s ticket home.
With that said, it was perfectly reasonable to expect up and down moments in 2021 with Stafford learning the ropes of the Sean McVay offense. With the ageless Tom Brady making a similar switch to the lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl a year ago, Stafford and the Rams have drawn comparisons to Brady and the Bucs. While those comparisons could hold accurate over the next month, it seems Brady and Stafford closed their first regular seasons with their new teams on much different trajectories:
Tom Brady - last four games in 2020:
94/136 (69% comp) for 1,333 yards (333 average), 12 touchdowns, and 1 interception
Matthew Stafford - last four games in 2021:
89/133 (67% comp) for 988 yards (247 average), 8 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and 1 fumble lost
The Buccaneers were peaking at the right time heading into the 2020 playoffs, but Stafford had one of his worst stretches of the year to finish out the regular season. The Rams did lose star receiver Robert Woods to injury around the midpoint, but his replacement Odell Beckham, Jr. has improved steadily in his time with LA. Sony Michel emerged as physical, workhorse back in the month of December, which seemed to take considerable pressure off of Stafford and the passing game. So what is to blame for Stafford’s late season slump - could it be wear and tear?
We’ve seen the Rams’ signal caller roughed up on a number of occasions this season, and he’s taken a beating at times. During the team’s three game slide mid-season, there were reports that Stafford was dealing with chronic pain and “His health (was) certainly an issue”. It is rare to get such injury news from the Rams organization, so it is fair to wonder whether the leak came instead from Stafford’s camp.
"Stafford's arm has been in a lot of pain, he has elbow pain and his back has a chronic issue that he deals with every single day. His health is certainly an issue."— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 28, 2021
- via @diannaESPN per Rams sources
But you cannot have it both ways - if you attribute inconsistent performance to a rash of nagging injuries you cannot in turn expect your team to commit to you in a meaningful, long-term manner. Stafford will be age 35 in time for the 2023 season, and it’s fair to wonder how well a player that heavily relies on unique arm talent will age. There have been potential signs of arm strength decline in 2021, such as a severe underthrow that resulted in the San Francisco 49ers’ game-sealing interception in Week 18.
Not only does this throw embody potential decline by Stafford, but it also represents that the quarterback has not lived up to his billing. The Rams were supposed to have a quarterback under center that fully unlocked the McVay offense - that afforded LA the ability to throw hefty counterpunches after defenses surprised with initial looks. Stafford was supposed to push Los Angeles over the hump and be the key to defeating teams such as the 49ers and the Packers - both of which defeated LA in 2021. As of the opening of the playoffs, the Rams are largely dealing with the same limiting factors that have lingered over the McVay era.
Even though the run game was ineffective versus San Francisco, LA could have instead pivoted to a quick passing attack - or have used designed rollouts to move the pocket. When the 49ers’ front seven was crashing to stop the run, the Rams countered with a 18-yard jet sweep by Cooper Kupp. Instead of building upon the success of this play with jet actions or fakes, the Rams continued with the straight drop back passing game with little success and a lot of hits on their quarterback.
Rams have called 10 consecutive pass plays. I'll let you figure out how things have gone with that.— Rich Hammond (@Rich_Hammond) January 9, 2022
It’s kinda crazy how one play can change a game, why does McVay go empty set on 3rd and 1?? Completely diff game since that awful call.— Joshua Ford | xKaris_ (@Jford3428) January 9, 2022
The bottom line is that Matthew Stafford was supposed to make the Rams better, and LA’s star-studded supporting cast was supposed to take the quarterback to new heights. After 17 games it seems Stafford is largely the same passer we saw for more than a decade in Detroit - and really this calls into question the mindset of teams that believe they can get more out of middling veteran quarterbacks.
Final results of the great QB shuffle— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 10, 2022
I think the lesson here is that if you're planning to give up a lot of assets because you think you can get more out of a veteran than he's shown before, you're probably deluding yourself pic.twitter.com/t0wW0xt81J
It’s not that Stafford isn’t the right quarterback for the future of the Rams, it’s that the team should not commit to the passer as a trade-off for cap space in the short-term. It’s simply too early to tell if Stafford can elevate Los Angeles into a true Super Bowl contender, and his play has not necessarily lived up to the expectations set by his team. While the regular season is a data point in determining how far each have come, the playoffs are the first real assessment for the Rams with Stafford - and it all starts Monday night at SoFi Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals.