Matthew Stafford deserves praise and credit for the part he played in the Los Angeles Rams’ historic victory in Super Bowl LVI. His no-look pass to Cooper Kupp on the team’s game-winning drive should be remembered among the greatest plays in the history of the NFL’s biggest game. Two years later he will help lead LA’s youth movement and look to pry open a new contention window.
After 14 seasons of play between the Rams and Detroit Lions, we pretty much know who Stafford is by now—and that large collection of data and outcomes help us project how Stafford’s offense might perform during the 2023 campaign. One of the most confounding aspects of his career is the fact that the offenses he’s played on have not been able to generate dependable rushing production. With 198 career games under his belt, at what point does Stafford deserve blame for a lack of success on the ground?
Just how bad has the rushing production been over Stafford’s career?
Over the 168 games Stafford played with the Lions, his offense featured a 100-yard rusher only 11 times (6-7%).
Those struggles followed the signal caller to Los Angeles. Cam Akers tore his Achilles prior to the 2021 season and then was effectively off the team while Stafford was still healthy in 2022. Darrell Henderson was on a pitch count for most of his Rams career. The team acquired Sony Michel from the Patriots to help replace Akers, and he produced the only two 100-yard games over the last couple of seasons with Stafford as the starting quarterback.
After two seasons and 30 games in Los Angeles, the Rams have produced a 100-yard rusher only twice—good for a 6-7% clip and an eerily similar rate to what the QB saw in Detroit.
At some point you have to wonder if the relation is more than a coincidence, right?
Rams schematic adaption for Stafford comes at the expense of the run game
McVay used to speak in his early days with the Rams on how his offensive scheme married the run with pass, and how the team could create the illusion of complexity by designing plays that start the same but then diverge into something else—by the time you realize what’s happening you’re out of position. The McVay-Stafford offense has instead embraced a higher frequency of pure drop back passing that may often come at the expense of the running game.
Akers had a late-season surge to close out the 2022 campaign, but this came after the Rams had switched to a more run-heavy offense and utilized a greater instance of play-action with Baker Mayfield under center. Sean McVay essentially reverted back to the 2017-2020 version of the offense back when the Jared Goff was the signal caller. Play-action was almost used as a crutch in the final days because the traditional drop back passing game had become so ineffective.
One new schematic aspect of the McVay-Stafford offense is the utilization of empty sets, but these sets also take away the threat of run. Moving all five eligible receivers out wide forces defenses to declare their hand before the snap, which can help the quarterback quickly decide where he wants to go with the football. These sets help discern at the line of scrimmage whether the defense plans to blitz and can provide some insight into the coverage alignment, and this wrinkle played a significant part in the team’s victory in Super Bowl LVI.
Now, the Rams don’t play full-time in empty sets—but the increased usage signals a schematic shift that may be detrimental to the effectiveness of the ground game.
Lions revamped their ground game with Jared Goff and Dan Campbell
It also can’t be ignored that the Lions’ rushing attack took off once Stafford moved west to Los Angeles and Goff took over under center for Detroit.
The Lions had five games with a 100-yard rusher in the two years since the trade, even with Jamaal Williams, DeAndre Swift, and Craig Reynolds splitting time in the backfield. While Stafford seems to average a 100-yard rusher in 6-7% of his games, Detroit improved to a 14-15% clip since he moved on. Part of this is a re-commitment to the ground attack with head coach Dan Campbell.
Would the offense still operate the same if Stafford remained a Lion?
What is the outlook for Stafford in 2023?
The veteran QB’s 2021 playoff run is an outlier from the rest of his career, but you have to embrace the volatility with Stafford.
Los Angeles knew the veteran QB could be streaky when they traded multiple first round picks and Goff to acquire him, and Stafford had multiple-game stretches where he was one of the best signal callers in the NFL and one of the worst.
During the Rams’ 2021 mid-season losing streak where they dropped games to the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers, Stafford averaged a PFF offensive grade of just 57.7. This mark would have ranked 25th of 27 players at the position who played 440 or more snaps during the 2021 season. His nine turnover-worthy plays through this stretch comprised 31% of his season total (including four playoff games). His play hit rock bottom, but fortunately for LA Stafford caught fire just in time for a playoff run.
Over four post-season games Stafford earned a PFF offensive grade of 89.5 and converted 11 big-time throws to only four turnover-worthy plays. His offensive grade over this stretch would have been the highest mark he’s received for any full season over the course of his career. The most impressive part of this run is that Stafford made the offense go without any semblance of a ground attack—Los Angeles averaged only 82 rushing yards per contest.
McVay and the Rams are prioritizing the running game this offseason, and his hire of offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur speaks to a potential return to roots and a renewed marriage of the run and pass.
Can the Rams buck the 14-year trend and lack of rushing production over Stafford’s career, or is it time to attribute a portion of blame to the veteran quarterback?