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The Rams Have Matthew Stafford and No Margin for Error

Pairing Stafford and Sean McVay is a fascinating proposition for a team that has no problem investing future capital into its present-day roster

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a week full of risky trades, the Rams showed hedge fund managers how to get out of a bad deal: attach a first-round pick.

The Rams and the Lions pulled off the biggest NFL trade in years on Saturday night when Los Angeles sent Jared Goff, two first-round picks, and a third to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. Both teams helped solve a lot of each other’s problems, at least on paper: Sean McVay gets a quarterback with a higher ceiling in his offense; Detroit receives picks to help kick-start its rebuild; Stafford gets to play for the best offensive coach he’s ever worked with; and the Rams found a home for Jared Goff’s contract, which still has over $100 million left on it, with over $40 million guaranteed. The deal is, in theory, a win-win for everyone except perhaps Goff, who leaves one of the best offensive minds in football for a rebuilding team in cold weather, though as a consolation prize, he still gets to keep the $27 million in salary owed to him in 2021. The Rams have a better quarterback now than they had on Friday. The entire NFC is riding on whether it cost too much to acquire him and whether the Rams’ strategy of betting big on every season will eventually end with them holding the bag.

Conventional wisdom holds that McVay’s offense has been held back by an average quarterback and Stafford has been held back by an average franchise. If so, McVay and Stafford not only deserve each other but will thrive together. “What would happen if he had a Sean McVay or a Sean Payton?” Stafford’s former teammate and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky told me in my September 2019 profile of Stafford. Those questions never have to be asked again.

Did the Rams or Lions win the trade? Yes.

When I asked Stafford about his ideal offense, he mentioned Kansas City, where the Chiefs operate with a mix of deep shots and swing routes out of the backfield. He wanted “a healthy mix” of both. Goff did not make McVay’s life easier. Stafford will—he’ll be able to add a deeper passing element to McVay’s offense. He’s not a top-five quarterback, but he’s worlds better than Goff, and if the Rams believe the difference between the divisional round and the Super Bowl is the difference between Goff and Stafford, this trade was the only way forward. The Rams did not overpay when you consider the entire deal: They essentially had to pay one first- and one third-round pick for Stafford, and then another first to get out of Goff’s contract. This was a quarterback upgrade with a salary dump on the side. The Rams inherit the two years and $43 million left on Stafford’s deal, including $22 million in dead cap money next season. The Lions will take a $17.8 million dead cap charge for Stafford.

The NFL Network’s Steve Wyche reported that Goff and McVay’s relationship at the end of this season had deteriorated to the point they “need[ed] marriage counseling.” It was expensive to get rid of Goff, but it would have been a hell of a lot more costly to run it back with him as the starter. There is really no such thing, within reason, as overpaying for great quarterback production. The Lions, meanwhile, are looking for talent any place they can get it, and they can afford to clog up their cap room in search of it. This appears to be a big swing for both teams because of the names and haul involved, but it’s basically common sense.

In January 2019, at Super Bowl media night, I asked Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer, about the Rams’ aggressive approach to, well, everything. He mentioned that Goff, who at the time was six days away from starting in a Super Bowl, had just become eligible for an extension. We talked about that season—the Rams’ so-called all-in season, which proved to be an overstatement because they weren’t just all in for that season, they were all in for every season. “I think in the sports world right now, there’s been—whether it’s the tanking phenomenon or the draft-pick phenomenon—everyone wants this really long window,” Demoff told me that night. “And you can’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, ‘You know what, this happened a little faster than we thought.’”

Things happen quickly with the Rams. They have now traded seven years’ worth of first-round picks in various deals that netted them Goff, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, and now Stafford. (One of the deals involved trading back with Atlanta.) The star-stacking strategy that started with general manager Les Snead comparing his team to the Warriors has lasted for so many seasons that the Warriors are no longer a team you want to compare yourself to. Going for broke at all times is risky—the Rams gave huge money to Goff and running back Todd Gurley—but that risk diminishes if you can maneuver enough picks and money to keep the train on the tracks. The Rams appear to be the only team that lives life a quarter mile at a time.

They are betting against draft picks and dead-cap charges being significant impediments to winning a Super Bowl. When I wrote that piece about the Rams, they were preparing to play the Patriots, whose long view on almost everything made their championship window last for 20 years. The Rams are trying something different: constantly pushing the limits of the cap every year. The only rule is that it has to work.

The Rams have been announcing to the world for the past four or so years that they simply don’t care about draft picks or the salary cap. “I can distinctly remember the days when it was almost every year, you had to let people go because of money,” Snead told me in 2018 in a piece about the rising salary cap. “Nowadays, I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, we’re up against the books here.’ Now, it’s more of a strategy. ‘If we keep this guy, what does it keep us from doing?’ It’s not, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do some things just to get legal.’ I think that’s what has allowed you to make, let’s call it ‘strategic football decisions.’”

Those strategic football decisions have included one of the most interesting roster constructions in football. It is as close to a stars-and-scrubs fantasy strategy as a team can get. The ability to hit on cheap, cost-controlled draft picks will be crucial. So, too, will low-cost veterans. For instance, Darious Williams made $750,000, and Troy Hill made $4.4 million this season. Both talented cornerbacks came to the Rams via waivers and were on manageable deals, contributing to the league’s top-ranked defense. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer points out that the hiring of a talented special teams coach comes into focus because there simply won’t be much money to spend on role players.

In short, this means the Rams have little margin for error, the same as every other year. But what I find fascinating is that the Rams’ ability to take big swings is a small competitive advantage. They are one of the few teams, along with, notably, the Saints, who live by the credo that there’s always a way out of mistakes. That the cap is an illusion, draft picks are overrated, and most of the norms of team-building should be scrapped. The Rams are not maximizing their window, they are propping their window open with a broomstick and scotch tape and, dammit, they’ve made the playoffs three of the past four years. This speaks to the genius of McVay, a uniquely gifted coach, but also how much a superstar can make a difference. Aaron Donald wrecks games. Jalen Ramsey shuts one part of the field off. This is not a perfectly constructed football team but somehow it all makes sense.

In an offseason when the number of quarterbacks expected to change teams might reach double-digits, we saw the first evidence of their market value. Texans reporters say the Lions-Rams trade won’t influence Houston’s asking price in a possible Deshaun Watson deal, but it will surely have some impact on the value of passers this spring. It also sets the cost of getting rid of a megacontract like Goff’s as one first-rounder. That information isn’t valuable to every team, but if, say, Philadelphia wanted to move Carson Wentz, it’s good to know. It opens the door for full, NBA-style salary dumps that began when the Texans sent Brock Osweiler and a second-rounder to the Browns in 2017 and will probably only get more common. If the cap kept rising—and it was supposed to until COVID-related revenue shortfalls this year—we could have seen even more of these types of deals.

For Stafford, this is one of two fitting destinations—the other being San Francisco—after exiting the slog of the Matt Patricia years in Detroit. The Lions reportedly had multiple deals on the table that included first-round picks, but Stafford wanted to be in L.A. and they wanted Goff in return. Stafford deserves something good.

Stafford gets a chance that very few aging quarterbacks do. The obvious comparison is Carson Palmer, who escaped Cincinnati only to find himself in Oakland, then finally escaped again at age 34 for Arizona, where he teamed up with Bruce Arians, made a deep playoff run, and capped off a nice career by putting up big numbers in big games. Now we will get to see whether Stafford and McVay are the quarterback and coach we think they are. When you devote this much future capital to a roster, the goal is the Super Bowl—not getting close would be a failure (and the Rams’ failings would be doubly important because the Lions have their first-round picks). We are about to see the full effect of McVay’s influence: A very good quarterback hampered by an average system arrives, while a quarterback who benefited greatly by playing in his system goes to play for a first-time head coach on a less talented team. This sounds simplistic but we are about to get some pretty good evidence on just how much better McVay makes a quarterback.

I thought about the bump Stafford’s career will get in McVay’s offense today. He took pride his entire career in never leaving Detroit, but I also think he wants to win. That wasn’t going to happen any time soon in Detroit. “Hopefully it’s with a ring or two,” Stafford once said when I asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “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.’”