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Is Matthew Stafford turning the Rams into the Detroit Lions?

... and not the Lions team that suddenly seems competitive with Dan Campbell and Jared Goff

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Winning on a consistent basis is one of the most difficult outcomes to attain in the National Football League.

Before the Los Angeles Rams hired Sean McVay in 2017, they were an outright losing franchise. In the ten years that preceded the McVay-era, the Rams had a combined record of 46-113-1 - worse than even the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, and Jacksonville Jaguars.

This demonstrates just how high the stakes were when Los Angeles made the decision to trade quarterback Jared Goff to the Lions, a player they had drafted with the first overall selection in 2016 and who they had won 42 games over his last four seasons with the team.

Yes, Matthew Stafford was an upgrade over Goff at the time of the trade - and he likely still is the better player now; however, the Rams have changed significantly since Stafford’s arrival.

A lack of complementary football

McVay’s Rams weren’t necessarily a run-heavy team prior to Stafford coming to LA, but they were effective and used the ground game to set up downfield shots on play action. Wide zone concepts were LA’s bread and butter, and the rest of the offense was built around them.

But Todd Gurley’s knee fell apart years before Goff left town, and the Rams never really replaced him. Darrell Henderson is effective at times, but he’s also injury prone and not someone who can serve as a workhorse back. Cam Akers showed incredible promise as a rookie before tearing his Achilles prior to his sophomore campaign - he’s yet to return to form in a meaningful way. Sony Michel was probably the team’s best back last year, but he is now playing for the cross-town Los Angeles Chargers.

One of the main promises of the Rams trading for Stafford was that they’d make his life easier, especially by complementing him with a robust ground attack. More than a year after the quarterback swap, Los Angeles has not lived up to that promise.

In the 166 games Stafford played as a Lion, the offense featured a 100-yard rusher in only 11 contests.

The Rams created an environment that only produced a 100-yard rusher in 2 of the team’s 21 games in 2021 - both by Michel. LA’s run game struggled throughout the playoffs and still has not taken off in 2022.

The concern is that a lack of run game puts too much pressure on Stafford, who has been forced to shoulder more than his fair share of the offensive load over his 14-year career. While he’s proven capable as a high-volume passer, it also does not help him minimize the head-scratching mistakes that have seemingly followed him from his days in Detroit.

Striking a balance between aggression and game management

Stafford often gets a pass on his turnovers because he is capable of making high-end throws that other NFL-caliber quarterbacks are not able to convert. He also had to be the best player almost every game in his time with the Lions, so sometimes taking a back seat and acting as a game manager seems difficult for him.

But with a star-studding cast surrounding him in Los Angeles, Stafford doesn’t need to be the best player on the field. Yes, the Rams brought him in because of his unique arm strength and to re-instate a downfield element in their passing attack; however, each careless mistake Stafford makes with the football puts more strain on the other stars to make up for it.

Sure, in the games where Stafford struggles the Rams have Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Bobby Wagner, and others that can help slow down the opposing offense. The defense played a key role in certain games where this was the case last year - such as the contests against the Minnesota Vikings, in Super Bowl LVI versus the Cincinnati Bengals, and in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens. Stafford had three turnovers versus the Vikings and Ravens, and threw two interceptions in the biggest game of his career.

Flat out - we should expect more from a 14-year NFL veteran. A bad year for Aaron Rodgers in terms of interceptions barely dips him into the double digits. The most interceptions Russell Wilson ever threw with the Seattle Seahawks in a single season was 13. Stafford’s rival as the best QB in the NFC West would be Kyler Murray, but his highest interception total in only 12 in his first three seasons as a full-time starter.

Stafford has season interception totals of 20 (‘09), 19 (‘13), 17 (‘12, ‘21,) and 16 (‘11). Through 2 games in 2022, the veteran signal caller already has accumulated 5 picks - despite being one of the least aggressive quarterbacks so far this season.

It’s common for the good to outweigh the bad with Stafford, but it’s certainly not wise to be content with such a high-volume of turnovers. It’s very possible that the overall quality of the Rams’ roster peaked with the Super Bowl team in 2021, so this is important to monitor as the roster potentially deteriorates moving forward.

Sticking to the winning formula

In just the last handful of games, we’ve seen the Rams perform a disappearing act on sizeable leads twice.

Fumbles by Akers and Cooper Kupp and mental lapses by the defense allowed Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to storm back in the NFC divisional round. A late zero blitz by the Bucs and a streaking Kupp allowed the Rams to kick the winning field goal.

Just three games later Los Angeles had a 28-3 lead before interceptions by Stafford, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and a Kupp fumble gave the Atlanta Falcons life late. If the Falcons had a better quarterback than Marcus Mariota on the opposing sideline, this game easily could have ended up in the loss column for LA.

We aren’t used to seeing these kinds of mistakes from a McVay-led football team. His record with a lead a halftime is the definitive example of this - he won 45 straight games until the San Francisco 49ers broke his streak in Week 18 last season. Stafford threw two interceptions in that divisional contest.

The margin for error is so slim in the NFL, and being careless with the football only shrinks that margin further.

Where do things go from here?

It’s unknown how much Stafford’s lingering elbow injury factors into his worse-than-expected performance so far in 2022.

LA signed the QB to a contract extension that will keep him with the team through the 2026 season at an average price tag of $40M per year. The Rams entered into the extension with full knowledge of Stafford’s elbow concerns.

I wrote early in 2022 that Los Angeles should not extend Stafford with one caveat - that the team won the Super Bowl. The Rams had to reward their quarterback for helping get them over the hump, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s still an inherently risky player.

How long can the veteran expect to maintain his high-octane arm strength, and do the concerns regarding his turnovers heighten as his skills diminish?

The bottom line is that this is probably the best supporting cast that Stafford will have during his remaining time with the team - there will always be opportunity costs and trade-offs in regards to the team build when you are paying a QB $40M a year. Stafford has not lived up to his billing so far in 2022, but it’s a long season and there’s plenty of time to turn things around.

This is the moment for Stafford to play like a 14-year NFL veteran and minimize the head-scratching mistakes - giving his team the best chance to win in the process. The Rams could make life easier for their signal caller by developing a robust rushing attack and taking weight off of Stafford’s shoulders, but with the regular season underway it may be too late to find outside help.

The inability to play complementary football, making mistakes uncharacteristic of a long-term NFL veterans, and mental errors that prevent you from closing out games are all attributes of a losing team.

If the Rams underperform this year, it’s time to question whether they are fast becoming the Detroit Lions - thanks mostly in part to their franchise quarterback.

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images