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Matthew Stafford Was the Missing Piece in the Rams’ Master Plan

The Rams’ future is murky. The past is not. Everything the team has done, especially trading for Stafford, has been worth it. Everything was for this moment.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

There is no such thing as destiny in football, only talent. Aaron Donald told himself just before the play that will define his career that if you want something bad enough, just go get it. This is not particularly good advice for most people. It’s something you might have thought to yourself, muttering under your breath in the last mile of a jog or walking into a job interview or just trying to finish Wordle. Just go get it. The world is waiting for you to take what you need. The difference between you or me and Aaron Donald is that he is more equipped than anyone in the world to take what is needed. Donald is 280 pounds and moves like a figure skater. He takes shirtless mirror selfies that people think look cool. Donald can just go get it. The rest of us cannot. It’s a hell of a lot easier to go get it when you run a 4.68 40-yard dash while being roughly the size of a small car.

Joe Burrow, lined up in shotgun on fourth-and-1, never had a chance to do anything other than go to the ground and throw a half-hearted pass that quickly went to the ground along with him. This is what the Rams do to everyone—they spend draft picks and money on their defensive line and ensure it’s worth it. Donald threw Burrow to the ground and then sprinted around the field, pointing to the finger where his Super Bowl ring will go. Sean McVay swears—he said this would be backed up by on-field microphones—that before Donald’s Super Bowl–clinching play, he said aloud that Donald was about to end the game. As far as predictions go, this was tame, on par with whispering, “John Wick is gonna do something cool,” to your friend before John Wick does something cool. But that’s the point: When you have talent, you get to do whatever you want on a football field and get away with it. Any player who has the misfortune of not being among the top players at his position is liable to be picked on by the Rams. A guy like Aaron Donald makes a lot of people look smarter.

This is more or less how football works. It’s not very romantic. There are times, in Bruce Springsteen’s words, that one and one equals three—see Nick Foles beating Tom Brady—but football is mostly about stacking the deck. The Rams have spent the last four years doing exactly that. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 on Sunday to win their first Super Bowl since moving back to Los Angeles six years ago and their first as a franchise since a win as the St. Louis Rams more than 20 years ago. Football is won on the margins, and on Sunday you could see clearly the margins that the Rams gained over the last few years. Donald could wreck a bad Bengals offensive line as soon as he decided he wanted to. The Rams tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks. When Cooper Kupp, one of the best receivers in football, is covered by someone like Eli Apple with the Super Bowl on the line, guess what happens. Matthew Stafford made throws late in the game that Jared Goff, the quarterback he replaced in Los Angeles for an exorbitant price a year ago, could not. On the go-ahead touchdown, Stafford saw man coverage with no help against Kupp and just had to place the ball correctly to win. It’s an easy game sometimes.

Burrow has become a part of NFL mythology over the past few weeks. In a few plays near the end of Sunday’s game, the Rams stars showed the limits of mythology in football. Burrow is a legitimate superstar who has not played in his last Super Bowl. It’s a feat that he came so close to beating the Rams so early in his career, despite such a talent disparity in certain position groups. One team spent years assembling some of the most talented players of the last decade, and one team employed an “eff it, Ja’Marr is down there somewhere” strategy with some solid defense and almost won.

Sunday’s final score simply makes sense. It’s part of the plan. In the next few days, there will be reports about the future of nearly everyone involved in the Rams’ win. Donald has hinted at hanging it up. A Sean McVay–might-go-to-TV report bubbled up at the end of last week. Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller are free agents. The bills for this team will eventually come due. There are not a lot of draft picks coming down the pipeline. It’s a relatively old group. The team’s future is murky. The past is not: Everything was worth it. Everything was for this moment.

The Rams confirmed that they knew exactly where football was heading and went there (Donald was already in the backfield). They established the barrier for entry for top NFL teams by selling out everything to maximize their window and, in doing so, pushed other teams to do the same. They did not exactly create the modern NFL roster; they just helped shape it in their image. You could see that clearly Sunday night. That’s Cooper Kupp on Eli Apple. That’s all football is.

Football is a talent-acquisition business and the Rams are the best at doing it. You can tell the story of that success through so many players on the roster but most of all, with the quarterback they traded for last winter.

In 2019, I sat down with Stafford on a bench outside the Lions’ practice facility in the Detroit area. I’d explained that I wanted to write a story about him because I felt he’d become the forgotten man among quarterbacks. The generation that entered the league just before him—Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger—had been era-defining stars. The generation prior to that includes Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. The generation that came in after Stafford includes guys like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. In the middle was Stafford, a guy in his early 30s who’d put up historically good numbers in a lot of losses and who’d been lapped by the quarterbacks around him, mostly because of the franchise he played for. Stafford was generous with his time but he simply didn’t care about the angle. He didn’t dislike it—he just didn’t care if he was the forgotten guy or not. He just wanted to play hard, have the respect of his teammates, and hang out with his kids. That’s about it. “Hopefully,” Stafford said when I asked about his legacy. “It’s with a ring or two. But, I mean, it’s hard because I don’t care what people I didn’t play with care about me. I just want the guys I played with to know that, when they hear my name, they say, ‘That dude showed up, worked, played through a lot, good teammate, good friend.’”

That’s all Stafford wanted. The ring will soon be on his finger and his kids were on his lap during his postgame press conference as he said he was speechless. He could explain the basics of the Rams’ last drive, like the fact that that uptempo offense opened up some looks for Kupp, the game’s MVP. McVay talked about the “regulated” (his version, I suppose, of basic) looks the Bengals defense gave on that final drive. After Beckham left the game, Kupp was double-teamed often, but it took only a few targets where he wasn’t for Stafford to find the game-winning plays. As McVay and Stafford explained that final drive, Eric Weddle sat a few feet away. He’d come off the couch a few weeks ago to help the Rams win a Super Bowl. After the game, with a torn pectoral, he confirmed he’d retired again. Kupp said he’d seen a vision from god during the Rams’ last Super Bowl appearance that he’d eventually be Super Bowl MVP. This is a team of veterans with stories.

If you were to ask me what I like about covering football, it’s collecting these types of stories. I like that you can take a picture of any given play and realize that every single person on every single play is interconnected. That everyone on the field for a snap is necessary and that everything that player has ever done matters in that one play. The Rams built one of the most talented groups in modern NFL history on paper. That’s their story. That one of the top quarterback recruits in modern history, Stafford, needed a third-round wide receiver and a 36-year-old coach who was playing for Miami (Ohio) while Stafford was playing in the SEC to finally become a winner. I like that the Rams’ front office made move after move, and the Super Bowl was sealed by the guy who was with the team the whole time, who was such a force he’d wreck Jeff Fisher’s practices when the Rams were in St. Louis. I liked seeing Donald walk through the tunnels with his family a few minutes after he’d run around the field following the Burrow pressure to signal that he was about to have a ring.

The day after the Super Bowl—the day you are most likely reading this—is the first day that fans can think in earnest about next season and experience the hope that comes with that thought process. Everyone is looking at the Rams and the Bengals and wondering whether their team can replicate those paths. Here’s the short answer: Don’t try. Burrow is a once-in-a-generation culture-changer who did the near impossible and turned around a franchise in record time. The Bengals had no real intention of changing as a franchise until Burrow did it for them.

Burrow could not overcome, over 60 minutes, the Rams’ depth. Stafford had a half-second longer to throw than Burrow on Sunday. The Bengals relied on a quick passing game and Burrow still got rocked. He limped badly at times, especially in the second half. It was shocking to see him driving with a minute left and not winning the game—a testament to his Mahomesian ability to solve any problem—but the Bengals are early in their roster-building and they will, more than likely, be a playoff team next year. Burrow said after the game that he’d watched Kurt Warner’s A Football Life documentary last week and said Warner made the point that he never celebrated the accomplishments of a team that he was on that lost a Super Bowl, so Burrow will do the same.

The bar for the Bengals to clear is obvious now: They must build out their offensive line to protect the most valuable player the franchise has had in decades. There were two teams at SoFi Stadium who took nearly opposite approaches toward building a football team, and they need to get closer together for Burrow to thrive. If you are a middling NFL team, you are gleaning exactly zero from what you saw on Sunday.

The Rams had a handful of hard-to-replicate competitive advantages. One of them is that stars want to play in Los Angeles and want to play for a winner. They have Sean McVay. They have a nice stadium that cost billions of dollars and looks cool. They started building their team the right way by drafting stars like Donald and Kupp, and then throwing draft picks into the engine like it was fuel: Stafford cost two firsts and a third, and Miller was worth a second and a third to convince Denver to pay more of his contract. The Rams picked right in free agency. The Bengals, on the other hand, hit on draft picks Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, two generational talents who played together in college, and let everything flow through there. There are no blueprints to glean from these two teams except that there are a hell of a lot of ways to get to the Super Bowl.

Stafford knows this better than anyone. He has played on talented rosters and extremely untalented ones. Unlike Burrow, he did not miraculously pull a 10-win team to the Super Bowl with little more than willpower and some quick throws. But Stafford has won and he has paid his dues. “I love playing this game. I love playing this game for the competition, for the relationships, for the hard times, for the good times, for all of it,” he said when asked late Sunday night about his time in Detroit.

Last winter, a handful of teams could have acquired Stafford, a group that includes the 49ers, who tried to get him and lost the NFC title game because they did not have him. The Rams did what they’ve done so often in recent years. They wanted something and they went and got it. There’s a lot of that going around.