It’s always the first tendency for Super Bowl winners to want to “run it back”, and keep together the nucleus that helped them reach the pinnacle in the first place. But the margins are so razor thin in the NFL, and it takes a fair amount of good fortune in order to endure the playoffs and earn the title of world champions.
The odds work against your favor in terms of making it back to the top in the same way that you accomplished the feat the first time around.
The Los Angeles Rams battled those same tendencies last season coming off a victory in Super Bowl LVI, and those forces pushed them into making emotional decisions they might not otherwise have made under normal circumstances.
Even before last year’s Super Bowl kicked off, rumors were circulating that star defensive tackle Aaron Donald was contemplating retirement. Whether or not Donald was using retirement as leverage for a new deal is besides the point, because the Rams renewed their commitment to him for three more years and 95M more dollars.
The more questionable contract decisions were the extensions for WR Cooper Kupp and QB Matthew Stafford.
Kupp was coming off a season where he had just become the fourth player to ever lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns—the triple crown for receivers. Yes, he certainly outproduced the value of his contract in 2022, but any player who accumulated stats at that volume would seem like a bargain relative to whatever they are being paid. Kupp will be 30 years old in time for the 2023 season. The Rams can’t separate from Kupp until after 2024 (outside of a creative trade) without incurring an eight-figure salary cap penalty.
Was Kupp deserving of a new contract after the season he had in 2022, especially after he caught the game winning touchdown and was named the MVP of Super Bowl LVI? Probably, but it wasn’t a savvy business move on the Rams’ part.
The same goes with the four-year, $160M contract extension that Los Angeles inked with Stafford. After a year of injury concerns related to a lingering elbow issue, concussions, and a spinal cord contusion, the retirement rumors just won’t go away for the veteran QB. Stafford has not yet played a down on his new contract, and the Rams would be in a much different salary cap position today and for the future if they would have left the franchise tag option open.
The Rams are clearing cap for 2024 and beyond—that is evident in their reported plans to move on from Bobby Wagner, Leonard Floyd, Allen Robinson, and potentially Jalen Ramsey. The Stafford extension is the albatross on the books that almost forces them to maintain a base level of talent so they remain competitive this year.
Based on how the offseason has started so far, would LA be much worse off if they instead franchise tagged Stafford to trade him away, accumulate more draft picks from him and Ramsey, and then signed a middling free agent option such as Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota, or Jimmy Garoppolo? The Rams aren’t winning the Super Bowl in 2023—and their moves heading into the season show they know it. If the team is ramping up for next year and beyond, it makes almost no sense to keep Stafford along for the ride.
I wrote in January last year that the Rams should not extend Stafford with one caveat: winning the Super Bowl. Yes, he got the job done and got the team over the hump, but the Rams rewarding him with a new contract was based more in emotion than logic. I guess that was their prerogative, but they are paying the price now.
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.
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...
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.
Matthew Stafford’s contract extension is the only thing keeping the Rams from completely overhauling the roster, and the bill for keeping him around might not come due until 2024 or beyond. The issue isn’t any decision the Rams have made this calendar year—it dates back to the post-Super Bowl glow where they operated in an emotional headspace as opposed to their usual measured, calculated ways.