Ironically, offenses are not centered around centers, but instead put the most focus and responsibility on the quarterbacks, which in the case of the L.A. Rams means protecting Matthew Stafford and giving him a bevy of skill players who he is eager to get the ball to as often as possible. When the Rams are successful at doing that, as we saw for most of 2021, Stafford’s immense arm talent is made that much more dangerous and L.A. can be a Super Bowl contender.
When the Rams don’t do that, as we saw for most of 2022, L.A. is no different than most of the down years that Stafford endured with the Detroit Lions.
How will the Rams do a better job than last season of centering their offense around Stafford in a way that allows him to thrive instead of just trying to do enough to ensure that he survives? If the offense can’t do that during a challenging start to the schedule, how will L.A.’s regime that is responsible not only for this season but future campaigns—as well as Stafford himself—react to a potentially slow start and the desire to start looking ahead to next year?
Teams are centered around a quarterback. So what’s Stafford seeing when he looks around at his teammates when the Rams face the Seahawks in Seattle this Sunday? That’s an important question. Here are a few more:
Can the Rams starting offensive line protect Matthew Stafford? (And who are they?)
The question nobody ponders: Is it a given that Steve Avila is going to be a strong link?
There have only been two assured spots on the offensive line throughout training camp and one of those belongs to a rookie picked in the second round. There were four guards drafted in the top two rounds in the 2022 draft, including Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson going in the top-20, and all of them struggled in either pass protection or run blocking, if not both.
Green, the highest-drafted in the bunch, was arguably also the worst.
Sean McVay has had nothing but good things to say about Avila and that is definitely preferable to a situation in which the rookie wasn’t considered good enough to start in Week 1. However, we’ve seen time and time again that just because you perform well in Rams training camp and get praised by the staff, a la Tutu Atwell in 2021 and 2022, it doesn’t mean you will perform well in the regular season.
Which rookies stand out to Sean McVay? "I'm really excited about Steve Avila, Byron Young, Kobie Turner, Puka Nacua, those are guys that come to mind as guys that we count on being immediate contributors for us who have earned the right to be those types of immediate contributors pic.twitter.com/Rqde7S7ab6— Bridget Condon (@BridgetCondon_) August 31, 2023
I’m not making any judgments about how Avila will perform in the regular season. Maybe he’s the best Rams second round pick since Rob Havenstein in 2015. Havenstein made the All-Rookie team that year despite missing three games, but we can safely say that his best football came in later years. There’s just no way for anyone to know if Avila will be a highly dependable player from the jump, there’s only historical context of other rookies, other first-time starting offensive linemen, other draft picks made by Les Snead along the offensive line; the majority of evidence suggests that in most situations, a rookie second round guard would be a source of concern for an offensive line.
However, in L.A.’s case, Steve Avila is the second-to-last person you worry about with regards to the offensive line.
The next-two highest-paid offensive linemen on the team after Havenstein are expected to have lost starting jobs at left tackle and center. McVay has said that this week’s practices will determine who starts at the other three positions next to Avila and Havenstein, but it would be surprising at this point if those jobs don’t go to A.J. Jackson, Coleman Shelton, and Tremayne Anchrum.
For Jackson, Week 1 would be his seventh career start. For Shelton, it would be his 16th career start and third career start at center. For Anchrum, it would be his second career start. For the five players in unison, not only would it be their first-ever game together, we don’t even know for sure how many reps they’ve gotten as a unit in practice together.
It’s also evident that same as any other competition on a football team that comes down to the wire, McVay’s going to be quick to look at the bench for a new starter if any of them disappoint early in the season. Jackson or Anchrum could start Week 1 but then it could go back to Joe Noteboom by Week 4. It was only a year ago that Cam Akers was so far in the doghouse that the Rams deactivated him and put him on the trade block, now he’s the starting running back again.
Yet another question about the line: When will be the next time that the Rams can say, “We have offensive line continuity?”
Which receivers are going to step up this time after not stepping up last time?
The question nobody ponders: Will Stafford ever have chemistry with a receiver other than Cooper Kupp?
When Van Jefferson returned from injury in Week 8 of last season, he played 31 snaps and wasn’t targeted. The next week, he played 20 snaps and was targeted five times, but finished with zero catches. In the 11 contests that Jefferson appeared in last season, he caught 24-of-44 targets (54%) and had 369 yards (15 YPC, 8.4 YPT) with three touchdowns. Paced out for 17 games, Jefferson would have 41 catches for 627 yards. In three NFL seasons, Jefferson’s career-best game was 93 yards against the Packers in 2021, a game in which he caught three of nine targets from Matthew Stafford.
It’s not fair to say that Jefferson “only” underwhelmed in 2022 because he played most of the season with Baker Mayfield and John Wolford. The fourth-year receiver shared a lot of playing time with Stafford in 2021 and was especially needed in the playoffs following a rash of injuries at the position, but caught only nine-of-17 targets for 102 yards and no touchdowns.
There is no evidence to suggest that Stafford and Jefferson have a good rapport working together. There is only evidence that Stafford loves locking onto a single target and nobody else, which goes back to his Lions career, when he would target Calvin Johnson as many as 200 times; in 2012, Stafford targeted Johnson four times as often as number two receiver Titus Young.
The ball was spread out more evenly by the time that Detroit added Golden Tate, but so far in LA we haven’t seen Stafford show favoritism to anyone other than Kupp or Tyler Higbee.
When Stafford was healthy enough to start in 2022, Tutu Atwell played in 23 snaps over the five games that he was not a scratch. He caught one of two targets for 54 yards. Only after Stafford went on IR did Atwell become a mainstay in the offense, but in the final seven games he caught 16-of-30 targets for 182 yards (6 yards per target, 26 yards per game) with zero touchdowns.
Now the Rams enter Week 1 facing a very real possibility that Cooper Kupp is going to miss not one, but multiple games to start the season and we have no clue as to which receiver Stafford is going to want to throw the ball to without his favorite target.
You really have to wonder why the Rams didn't play it cautious with Cooper Kupp to begin with. Why play him for joint practices against the Broncos? Hamstring injuries linger.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) September 5, 2023
This should have been his first week back at practice if we're being honest.
Is it going to be a fifth round rookie? Is it going to be the free agent signee who has played with both Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson recently but averaged 10 yards per catch, 6 yards per target, and 21 yards per game over the past two seasons?
We can say, “Well, this time is going to be different because of (a list of reasons I’m making up to fit what I want to happen).” But even in the best case scenario, it has to be acknowledged that this time is going to be different. It can’t be the same as the past times with Jefferson and Atwell and Demarcus Robisnon. They would need to be different. Puka Nacua would need to be a much “different” kind of fifth round rookie than the NFL usually sees.
Starting on Sunday, we’ll find out if they are different.
How would Matthew Stafford respond to another challenging season?
The question nobody ponders: Is Matthew Stafford content with his career because he won a Super Bowl?
Recently I was at a poker table with two Lions fans and they both agreed that as much as they appreciate and love Stafford, as talented as they acknowledge that he is, that he couldn’t have won a Super Bowl without being “carried” by a talented roster and an ideal setup provided to him by the trade to L.A.. And you have to remember that for the most part, Lions fans are not bitter that Stafford requested a trade, they actually were happy for him that he got his way out of Detroit to win a title because most of their stars end up retiring early and without many (or any) career playoff wins.
But this is still the perception of Matthew Stafford, even from many of his biggest fans: The Super Bowl win didn’t have as much of an impact on the narratives about Stafford and his playoff history as you would have expected.
He’s a Super Bowl winner, but people still question if he’s a “Winner”.
Now he’s looking at a situation that doesn’t appear to be all that different than the one that he asked to escape from not that long ago.
Only two years ago, Stafford went to the Lions front office after a five-win season and said, “Please trade me, I don’t want to be a part of a rebuild at this stage of my career”. Now Stafford is 35 and the Rams are coming off of a five-win season (L.A. went 3-6 with Stafford as the starter) and appear to be undergoing a bigger overhaul than just a “remodel”.
The Rams season starts with a road game against the Seahawks, a home date against the 49ers, road games against the Bengals and Colts, and a matchup against the Eagles at SoFi Stadium in Week 5. How will Stafford, the oldest player on the roster and the one who has the most reason to think “I may only have few years left to win at a high level, how do I want to close out my career?” respond to the Rams potentially opening the season 1-4?
How will L.A.’s front office and coaching staff change their approach to the season and the future if the team is 1-4?
Maybe that’s a question we won’t have to get an answer to, but it’s one that the Rams should still be prepared for.