The Los Angeles Rams led the Pittsburgh Steelers 9-3 coming out of the second half on Sunday. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the offense had a chance to take control of the game and potentially go up by two scores. Before the half, they had just driven 88 yards down the field to take their first lead of the game. This was a chance to build on that.
On the first play of the second half, Stafford dropped back and saw Cooper Kupp coming open across the middle. Little did he know, Steelers edge rusher, TJ Watt was reading his eyes and knew exactly where he was going with the football.
End zone angle of the INT...— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 24, 2023
When Stafford releases, Watt is not even in the picture. Believe the play even caught Kupp by surprise. pic.twitter.com/sLLNISSoed
Watt came across the field and intercepted Stafford — his sixth in seven games this season. It wasn’t a pick-six, which Stafford has thrown the third most of in NFL history, but three plays later, the Steelers were in the end zone and had re-taken the lead.
Instead of taking control of the game, Stafford and the offense gave the Steelers new life. After the game Stafford said,
“I’m not going to go into depth with it but they had a nice coverage call for what we had going. That being said, I got to be smart with the ball and make sure we end drives with kicks.”
Just a few weeks earlier, the Rams were playing the Indianapolis Colts on the road. Stafford came into the season feeling as healthy as he had in quite awhile. In the third-quarter, McVay called a play-action bootleg that was read by the Colts defense. Stafford took a hit and landed on his hip. There were times following the hit that the Rams quarterback was seen limping and appeared as if he could barely walk.
Still, as Stafford has shown throughout his career, he’s always been one of the toughest ‘SOBs’ on the field. His mindset has always been that everybody is dealing with something, especially the guys up-front blocking for him. Even if he’s not 100 percent, he’s going to go to battle with those guys.
While the Rams were shutout in the fourth quarter, on the opening drive of overtime, Stafford went 4-for-5 and his last completion was to rookie Puka Nacua over the middle for a game-winning touchdown. It was one of those legendary “Stafford toughness” stories you had only ever heard about during his time in Detroit.
That's the bad and the good with Stafford.
On one hand, he’s the tough, gritty quarterback who’s consistently been overlooked and underrated during his time in the NFL. He’s a guy that can make the throws only a small percentage of quarterbacks in the league can make. He’s the epitome of “if Patrick Mahomes did that, the media would go crazy.”
There is MAYBE one other QB who can make this throw...and I'm not sure that QB has a WR who makes this catch. Puka Nacua is just that good.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) October 24, 2023
Rams get Nacua a running start with the motion coming across. Matthew Stafford's placement is unmatched. pic.twitter.com/xkR0WEPIqN
On the other hand, he’s got some Brett Favre in him. Stafford has that gun-slinger mentality where he’s going to trust his arm sometimes maybe a little more than he should. That wasn’t necessarily the case for his interception against the Steelers, but it’s something that has happened more than enough times since Stafford has been in Los Angeles.
The Rams will have some difficult questions that they need to answer this offseason before they head into 2024 and 2025 — two years that they’ll be looking to make one final run with guys like Aaron Donald, Kupp, and potentially Stafford.
When it comes to the Rams quarterback, the question is a difficult one. Is Matthew Stafford still a quarterback that the Rams can win because of or is he now a quarterback that the Rams simply win with?
It’s the same question that they had to ask with Jared Goff following the 2020 season. There were times in 2017 and 2018 that the Rams were winning because of Goff. Goff’s performance on Thursday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings in which he threw for 465 yards and five touchdowns is legendary. The now former Rams quarterback threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs in what was an emotional game at the LA Coliseum during the California fires.
Even in the NFC Championship game later that season, there aren’t many quarterbacks who win on the road in New Orleans trailing by 10 points to the Saints with a prime Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
When the team got worse, so did Goff. He did still have good moments, most notably a game on Monday Night Football against the “to be Super Bowl champion” Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Goff threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns. However, Goff lacked consistency. He no longer seemed to be a quarterback that the Rams could win “because of” which was the case in 2018 when the situation surrounding him was among the best in the league. Instead, the Rams were losing because of Goff. Games against the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New York Jets come to mind.
It seems as if the Rams are entering a similar place with Stafford. The situation around Stafford has taken a hit and therefore, so has Stafford. As we saw first-hand in 2021 with Stafford coming to Los Angeles from Detroit, situation matters for quarterbacks.
The update you've all been waiting for pic.twitter.com/dXkXQCmlLU— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 24, 2023
What makes Stafford so difficult to even have this particular discussion isn’t the contract or sometimes rookie-like mistakes. It’s that the arm talent is clearly still there. The elite level throws still happen on a near-weekly basis. As mentioned earlier, Stafford is still making throws that only Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. can make. That’s a quarterback that you want in your corner.
His big-time throw numbers issustrate this. Stafford leads the NFL in big-time throws with 19 and his big-time throw percentage of seven percent ranks second behind only Tua Tagovailoa.
However, the efficiency level and everything in between those throws is what makes the conversation one worth having.
Turnovers have always been part of Stafford’s game due to the “gun-slinger” mentality. However, he’s always been able to lift up an offense and throw the touchdowns to mitigate those turnovers. While Stafford tied for the lead in interceptions in 2021 and ranked fifth in turnover worthy plays percentage, he also only trailed Tom Brady in touchdown passes with 41.
With Stafford, you could live with the negative plays because more times than not he could offset the turnover with points. That hasn’t been the case this season. Stafford’s 2.7 percent touchdown percentage is the lowest in his career while the interception percentage has remained near his career average.
Through the 2023 season, Stafford is a weird case. In almost all of the analytics, he’s been one the NFL’s top-12 quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus has him ranked seventh and he’s ranked 12th in DYAR or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement.
However, the advanced stats have him ranked as an average to below-average quarterback.
Stafford’s CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) + EPA (expected points added) score of .043 ranks 20th in the NFL and trails quarterbacks like Gardner Minshew, Sam Howell, and Jordan Love. He ranks 15th in EPA per play and 32nd in CPOE.
CPOE tells us how many more (or fewer) passes a quarterback completes compared to what a quarterback throwing the same distance per pass would complete. Stafford’s -5.7 ranks 32nd. His 45.3 percent success rate per Pro Football Reference is his lowest since 2014.
Again, the elite level passes are great and only a handful of quarterbacks can make those. It’s everything in between those throws that hurts his consistency and what he’s providing to the offense.
The elephant in the room here is Stafford’s age. He’s currently 35 years old and has taken his fair share of hits throughout his career. During his final season in Detroit and then last season, Stafford dealt with a back injury. The former Lions quarterback broke bones in his back in 2020 and had a spinal cord contusion last season with the Rams. Those aren’t minor injuries, especially for an aging quarterback.
While 35 years old isn’t concerning as it might have been 10 years ago, it’s also not young. The year 2025 is still two years away. That’s the season in which the Rams will be looking to make a push once again. In two years, Stafford will be 37. That’s the same age as Matt Ryan last season when he fell off and looked like a shell of his former self.
Ben Roethlisberger didn’t throw for more than 4,000 yards after 36. The best case is maybe Phillip Rivers who somehow managed to shot-put footballs for 4200 yards at 39. Even Aaron Rodgers seemed to take a step back last season when he threw for his fewest yards since 2010 and most interceptions since 2008.
Not every quarterback is Tom Brady who plays at a high level until 45. Even Peyton Manning at 39 was carried to a Super Bowl by an all-time defense as his 40.6 percent success rate in 2015 was the worst in his career.
Stafford dealt with a back injury and concussions last year. That doesn’t mention the elbow injury that hindered him in the offseason. This season, he’s been dealing with a hip injury since the Colts game. The Athletic’s Diana Russini reported before Sunday’s game against the Steelers that the Rams were “closely monitoring” Stafford’s hip injury. Stafford has rarely missed games because of injury, but he’s always been a quarterback that deals with injuries.
In the latest episode of “The Morning After” with Kelly Stafford, Kelly mentioned that Matthew has been in pain. Here’s what she said,
“He’s (Matthew) just not feeling great...He was just like in pain. His body, it’s the middle of the season now. This is what happens. All of us are really tough when we’re in our jobs and in our places, we’re not going to show any vulnerability. Then you go home and that’s where you let it show...They (the kids) know he’s been hurting. It’s been very apparent in our home. It’s not something that he can’t get through, but again, it’s just that time of year.”
The Rams are sitting in a similar spot as the Detroit Lions 2-3 years ago. Do they hang on to Stafford and try to get one more run out of him? His pure talent is worth hanging on to because of the upside that it brings. But what if Stafford no longer fits the long-term vision? Do they just need to rip off the band-aid?
Goff was traded away in 2021 to expedite the development process of the quarterback position in order to push for a championship. The Rams acquired Stafford and reached their goal following the trade. Goff was traded because McVay and co. didn’t feel like he was a quarterback that they could win ‘because of’ any longer. There’s a difference in a quarterback that you can win with and quarterback you win ‘because of’. Stafford was the later in 2021.
With that said, it’s worth wondering if Stafford is still that guy and if he is going to be the quarterback during the next run for the Rams. In spite of the injuries and lack of overall consistency, is he still a guy that can lift the team when they need him once the pieces around him are put back together?
It’s more than fair to believe that he can be that guy when the Rams need him. When Stafford is “hot” and puts it all together, there are few quarterbacks that are better. That upside is worth betting on.
This offseason, the Rams will have a first-round pick in a draft that is potentially historically good at the quarterback position. While they may not be in position to get Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, Quinn Ewers, Michael Penix Jr., JJ McCarthy, Jayden Daniels, and even Shedeur Sanders are names to keep an eye on next April. If they can’t land a top tackle, it makes too much sense to not prepare for life after Stafford.
The overall conversation here is likely one better suited for the offseason and will be one that the Rams have. It’s a question that the Rams will need to answer and they’ll need to commit to that answer. A lot has changed since the Rams traded for Stafford and won the Super Bowl back in 2021. McVay and the Rams are in a difference place mentally. The overall team-build has slightly changed.
There’s good and bad when it comes to Stafford. In games that he’s been “off” this season i.e. against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s cost the Rams two winnable games. The Rams are losing because of Stafford. The question is, can they still win because of him and not just with him?