Matthew Stafford: Big arm meets big opportunity

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There aren’t a whole lot of Matthew Stafford highlights.

For a guy who’s been around the NFL for more than a decade, once briefly ranked as its highest-paid player in history, and already stands inside the all-time top 20 in most major passing categories, that’s a little odd, right?

Sure, there’s the wild-card playoff game back in 2012 when he threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, which is a nice little stat line but not nearly enough to compensate when your own defense gives up 45 points.

There’s the game in 2009, Stafford’s rookie season with the Lions, when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns, heaving the final game-winner with a separated shoulder, to defeat Cleveland. To be fair, that’s a pretty great highlight, and it might be remembered even more fondly had it not been only one of two games Detroit won that year.

There’s … hang on, there have to be some more here. How about the 2015 Pro Bowl, where he won MVP? That do anything for you? No? Maybe the fact that Stafford’s in your home every Thanksgiving, throwing passes high enough to knock satellites out of orbit while helping football fans avoid setting the table?

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We’re reaching now, and that’s the whole point. For such a statistically accomplished resume — he ranks 16th in both career passes and touchdowns, for instance — Stafford has been a phantom on the national stage. Every active player with numbers in his range — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, even Joe Flacco — has rings or, at the very least, Super Bowl appearances and multiple playoff wins. Stafford’s postseason record: three appearances, three losses.

Stafford’s a walking example of the absurdity of relying on wins as any kind of definitive quarterback metric. During his tenure in Detroit, the Lions churned through three head coaches and four offensive coordinators. The team’s foundation is so dysfunctional that Calvin Johnson — an all-time wide receiver GOAT who should’ve teamed with Stafford for a decade of highlights — retired rather than suffer in Detroit any longer. Even when they won, the Lions lost; Detroit fell in its three Stafford-era playoff games by an average of nearly two touchdowns.

He led the league in game-winning drives in 2014, 2016 and 2017, and fourth-quarter comebacks in 2014 and 2016. His eight 2016 come-from-behind wins were the most in any season in the NFL since 1960, an impressive stat even without considering the fact that you’ve got to be losing to mount a fourth-quarter comeback at all. (Detroit went 9-7 that season. Draw your own conclusions from there.)

No matter what he did in Detroit, Matthew Stafford always heard footsteps. (Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
No matter what he did in Detroit, Matthew Stafford always heard footsteps. (Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

So yes, Matthew Stafford had plenty of valid excuses for why his accolades and highlights don’t match his paycheck. Those days are over. His move to the Los Angeles Rams is the equivalent of getting off a rusting tractor and sliding behind the wheel of a Formula One ground rocket. He’s got everything he needs around him — offensive weapons, innovative schemers on the sideline, a defense that won’t wilt in a gentle breeze. The highway stretches wide in front of Stafford now, and all he has to do is step on the gas.

The Rams are betting big on the idea that Stafford is a generational talent whose wings were bound in the Motor City, and the fact that Detroit went 16 games under .500 in the 165 games he started there is because they’re, well … the Lions. It’s a serious gamble, and at the moment, the oddsmakers are in on the gambit; at +1200, the Rams are the second-best bet in the NFC, and the fourth-best overall, to win the Super Bowl, per BetMGM.

For those odds, Los Angeles dealt away two first-round draft picks, a 2021 third-rounder, and Jared Goff, the quarterback who had gotten them to the Super Bowl just two years before. That’s a heavy price for a 33-year-old quarterback with a career 89.9 quarterback rating, right between Chad Pennington and Teddy Bridgewater … and below Goff.

Rams head coach Sean McVay, who rode hard for Stafford prior to the trade, knows his rep, if not yet his legacy, is on the line here. Not surprisingly, McVay is hyping Stafford like he’s a new album set to drop on Sept. 12.

“This dude’s a bad MF-er,” McVay told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer back in June. “Whatever people say about him, as good as it can be, he’s even better than advertised. It makes sense to him. The guy’s ability to see the game, his ability to draw on his experiences, the feel that he has, it’s pretty special and unique. And man, his feel for people, his authentic way of connecting with his teammates, his coaches, this guy, it’s great being around him.” Makes you wonder why Stafford wasn’t running wind sprints across Lake Michigan while he was in Detroit, doesn’t it?

Stafford’s winning over his teammates, too. “He’s playing lights out,” Aaron Donald said in July. “I’m excited that he’s on our side, helping us to win. Just watching him and the way he works, the balls he’s been throwing, getting them to the wide receivers? You know, I ain’t never seen nothing like it. So to be able to see it first hand is just pretty cool.”

Cooper Kupp, one of Stafford’s key targets, has noticed something more subtle: the way Stafford can control entire defenses with just his eyes.

Never the most quotable of quarterbacks, Stafford is saying the right things, if not quite stoking expectations to bonfire levels. “Across the league when guys change spots,” he said at a recent podium appearance, “there’s some really highs, there’s some lows, there’s some things we’re going to have to just battle through and keep working.”

For now, these tidbits are all anyone outside Rams camp has to go on. Stafford didn’t play in any of the Rams’ three preseason games, which means he’ll be leaping untested into a season that starts hot. After the opener against Chicago, the Rams face four straight potential playoff teams — Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Seattle — before a three-game breather of the Giants, a Detroit reunion and Houston. The Rams have the 12th-toughest schedule in the NFL, most difficult of any NFC West team, with Tennessee, Green Bay and Baltimore lurking in the second half.

There’s a whole lot of ground to cover in the next 17 games. But if Stafford can deliver on the expectations the Rams have — and if he can prove he’s out from under Detroit’s shadow — he’ll have a whole lot more highlights on his resume come 2022.

Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams are betting big on Matthew Stafford, who to this point doesn't have much in the way of career highlights. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams are betting big on Matthew Stafford, who to this point doesn't have much in the way of career highlights. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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