Through five games and a gauntlet of an opening schedule, the Los Angeles Rams have demonstrated both their high potential and their frustrating limitations. It’s a common saying that football teams take on the personality of their head coach—and in many ways the Rams do project aspects of Sean McVay—but particularly this season the team seems to be embodied by its quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
It says a lot about Stafford that nearly 15 years into his career we still don’t know exactly what kind of quarterback he is. Capable of catching a hot streak and playing at an elite level at times, he helped bring a Lombardi trophy back to Los Angeles in just his first season after the high profile trade with the Detroit Lions. A star-studded defense and historic season by Cooper Kupp also played significant parts in winning Super Bowl LVI on the Rams’ home turf at SoFi Stadium.
While the Lions were largely dysfunctional over Stafford’s dozen years in Detroit, it’s difficult to separate the quarterback from the team when pointing fingers and trying to discern why they could never put it all together. The Lions and Stafford finished with a record of 74-90-1 during their decade-long marriage.
And that’s why this year’s Rams team and Stafford seem so interconnected. We’ve seen LA hang with some of the best teams in the NFL at times despite spending the offseason paying down the “credit card debt” they racked up through their championship run and casting off many of its foundational players. The Rams were supposed to be really bad this year, but already several of their 14 drafted rookies have flashed promise. Stafford individually has played lights out in moments and shouldered the load offensively.
Matthew Stafford made some of the best throws of the week on his first drive against the Colts.— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) October 2, 2023
Credit to Puka for catching in traffic but there are very few quarterbacks that he would be putting up theses numbers with. pic.twitter.com/My1FDdHR6y
But they haven’t quite put it all together yet—and it remains to be seen whether they will over the rest of the season. Stafford almost serves as a cautionary tale for where this team could be headed.
While the veteran leads all NFL passers in big-time-throws (tracked by Pro Football Focus) with 14 and the next closest being Jalen Hurts with 11, he also has been flat out erratic in moments where the team needed someone to keep the ship steady. The Rams have been dominated in the second half of games this season—save for Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks—and Stafford’s play isn’t the sole explanation but has contributed in part to the ice cold production.
Stafford currently ranks 27th of 31 qualifying quarterbacks (based on a 50% drop back threshold) with an adjusted completion percentage of 71.8%, which accounts for dropped passes, unaimed throws, or other incompletions that aren’t the fault of the passer. Ahead of him are several maligned signal callers in Zach Wilson (76.2%), Josh Dobbs (73.6%), Justin Fields (73.1%), and Desmond Ridder (72.3%). Jared Goff leads NFL passers with an impressive mark of 82.9%.
The general inaccuracy helps explains why the Rams offense has sputtered late in games, especially when considering how they’ve been known to abandon the run over stretches. LA has had chances at outcome-altering plays but just missed out, including an overthrow of WR Tutu Atwell that would have gone for a 65-yard touchdown to take the lead this weekend against the Eagles.
we were close to a 63-yard Tutu Atwell touchdown pic.twitter.com/4zyYrcfZQj— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) October 10, 2023
After reaching the pinnacle of professional football in their first season, the Rams and Stafford now have a joined regular season record of 17-14. In 2021 they finished 12-5 before winning only three of nine games in 2022 and then two of five games so far in 2023. The Rams are starting to closely resemble the Lions over Stafford’s tenure in Detroit.
An optimist would look at the Rams coming up short against the 49ers and Eagles and say that this team is on the verge of being a contender, especially considering that they’ll have ample salary cap resources and draft capital this offseason as they look to seriously return to championship competition. Defying expectations in 2023 only accelerates the timeline for the rebuild that most anticipated peaking in 2024 or 2025.
Another realistic perspective is to look at Stafford—a quarterback as talented as any but has never quite put it all together—and think that the Rams are headed for the same fate. For as long as Stafford is being asked to lead the charge, Los Angeles will be susceptible to the same spikes of elite highs and frustrating lows.
The Rams will go as Matthew Stafford goes this season, and they are as interconnected as they’ve ever been with their franchise QB... for better or for worse.