It took three plays to make seven months of waiting worth it. When Sean McVay’s Rams agreed to trade two first-round picks and Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford in late January, both sides foresaw a bright future. Football’s sharpest offensive mind had armed himself with a quarterback capable of playing beyond the structures of his play-calling. The possibilities seemed endless, but no one could guarantee it would work. Los Angeles didn’t unveil Stafford during the preseason, so hardly anyone knew what to expect.
Then, on just his second pass as a Ram, Stafford ripped a 67-yard touchdown, setting the stage for what was to come that night—and what Stafford and McVay look to continue into the season.
This Stafford guy can SLING IT— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) September 13, 2021
His first touchdown as a Ram to @VanJefferson12! pic.twitter.com/t1938rUAJ0
Los Angeles’s explosive 34-14 victory over the Bears on Sunday night lifted the curtain on a new era of Rams football. What for so long was simply on-paper potential is now on-field results—and they were as impressive as anyone could have hoped. Stafford tidily completed 20 of his 26 attempts for a monstrous 321 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went for 50-plus yards. (The Rams had only two TD passes of 50 yards or more throughout the entire 2020 season.)
That first touchdown pass perfectly matched McVay’s efficient scheme with Stafford’s big arm. It came on a two-man route concept featuring a heavy-sell play-action, where receiver Cooper Kupp delivered a crack block to a Bears edge rusher, preventing him from reaching Stafford as the QB rolled away from the pocket. Stafford reset his footing outside the left hashmark and unleashed a deep pass down the far right side of the field toward second-year widout Van Jefferson. Jefferson stumbled over himself as he caught Stafford’s throw inside the 15-yard line, then somehow rolled up to his feet and outraced three Bears defenders to the end zone.
The 70,445 fans inside of SoFi Stadium—the first fans to attend a non-preseason game there since the venue opened last year—erupted. Stafford sprinted downfield and strutted in celebration. The Rams’ sideline went crazy. In an instant, Los Angeles’s offensive potential had been realized.
“You could just see there was a look in his eye,” McVay said of Stafford after the game. “He had confidence in his teammates, he expected to play well, and he did a great job.” The fifth-year coach lauded Stafford’s steady demeanor, although he couldn’t pinpoint one specific thing about Stafford’s performance that impressed him, because he “loved everything that he did tonight.” McVay smiled so bright at the podium Sunday night that he could’ve lit the 69,000 LED cards comprising SoFi Stadium’s humongous video board.
What sets Stafford apart from Goff is not only his arm talent, but also how he uses it. Over the past three seasons, 18.7 percent of Stafford’s attempts have been into tight windows, where defenders are 1 yard or less from intended targets, according to Next Gen Stats. Goff averaged 12.9 percent over that same span. In pure dropback situations in which QBs have to process more, Stafford has been above average, whereas Goff has been subpar. Furthermore, Stafford has been one of the NFL’s best play-action passers in recent seasons—and the Rams offense ran the most play-action plays in 2020, per Pro Football Reference. Stafford went 8-for-8 with 155 and two TDs on play-action calls on Sunday, according to Next Gen Stats.
“He’s gifted,” McVay said. “He’s got a great ability to be able to change his arm slot and make all types of throws, whether it be short, intermediate, or down the field. But you’re not limited in anything you can do with him in the pass game.”
From a schematic standpoint, Stafford was a choice fit for McVay. On Sunday night, Stafford showed why over and over again. He led scoring drives on six of the Rams’ seven offensive series (not counting one short possession that ended with halftime and another that ended with the final whistle). Los Angeles ran only 48 total plays against the Bears and scored 34 points. The Rams recorded first downs or scored on 13 of Stafford’s 26 pass attempts, including a 56-yard TD pass to Kupp early in the third quarter. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Stafford’s 156.1 passer rating is the highest of any player debuting with a new team in NFL history. It was also a career high for Stafford. He completed passes to six different receivers, a distribution that McVay said was exactly what he wanted.
“It was a great job all the way around,” Jefferson said. “Matt did a great job of facilitating the ball to everyone. This offense can be explosive. We’re just following Matt.”
Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey didn’t need to see the numbers to assess that Stafford’s performance was, in his own words, “amazing.”
“His command, his swag—like, everything was great,” Ramsey said. “That’s a debut that probably should go down in history. Just the way he played with swag.” (That’s a big shift since 2018, when Ramsey, then with the Jaguars, assessed Stafford’s abilities in GQ: “I don’t think he the best quarterback out there. But he do what he gotta do.”) Ramsey speaks plainly, and his public appraisal of Stafford wasn’t the only instance in which Ramsey showed his new QB appreciation on Sunday. On the touchdown to Jefferson, Ramsey sprinted on to the field to celebrate with the QB.
“It was cool for him to be out there celebrating with me,” Stafford said. “I was having fun. He seemed like he was having a good time.”
“It just looked good,” Ramsey said of the play. “I mean, they practice that [play] and they came out and did it in a game, connected, and it looked great.”
The rapport displayed Sunday took time to develop. Stafford, 33, had previously quarterbacked the Detroit Lions for 12 years. He found transitioning from one team to another—from one city to another—challenging. He’d been selective about where he’d play after deciding to leave the Lions, but even when considering how talented the Rams are, how QB-friendly McVay’s system is, and how beautiful the weather is in Southern California, Stafford needed time to adjust.
“It’s tough,” Stafford said of the transition. “It’s a lot of work for me, but really, it’s a lot of work for everybody.” Stafford spent the offseason poring over the playbook with McVay and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Stafford was the new guy on an offense mostly made up of returning players, but he diligently worked to understand the system, and that effort paid off on Sunday.
“It’s a new experience for me,” Stafford said. “A new place, new stadium, new fans, the whole deal. But this team has embraced me and I really appreciate that. I’ve done everything I can just to work as hard as I can to get myself in this team and they’ve wrapped their arms around me and it felt good to go out there and play with them tonight.”
Earlier in the week, Stafford had alluded to how incredible his teammates were on the field, noting that Rams practices are competitive. Los Angeles’s defense touts both Ramsey and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (the reigning Defensive Player of the Year), two of the game’s biggest stars. Practices, which were intense when former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was around last year, remain a battle under new DC Raheem Morris, who fields what has the makings of another top defense. Last season, the unit ranked fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. Morris’s defense got off to a decent start on Sunday, despite Chicago’s David Montgomery breaking loose for 108 rushing yards. Los Angeles held the Bears offense to 14 points, recording three sacks and forcing two turnovers, including a red zone pick on the opening drive.
The Bears’ defense, too, is impressive. The unit has a first-time coordinator in Sean Desai, but it ranked eighth in DVOA last season and is led in the front seven by Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, and Robert Quinn. Yet the Bears registered only one sack and four QB hits.
Stafford will drive the Rams’ success this season. L.A. is three seasons removed from scoring just three points in Super Bowl LIII, with some pointing to the Rams’ QB situation as the reason the team fell short that year. It doesn’t appear that Los Angeles would face the same issue again this season. But the Super Bowl is too far down the line to worry about now; the NFC West remains a gauntlet, following a 4-0 start for the division this week. The Rams entered the season with the 10th-most difficult schedule. L.A. still has a long road ahead of it.
For now, though, the seven-month buildup to Stafford’s Rams tenure—as well as the draft capital L.A. gave up to acquire him—looks well worth it. If everything goes accordingly, five months from now the franchise’s gamble will still be paying off. Stafford, who hasn’t been to the postseason since the 2016 season and has never won a playoff game, is determined to do his part. “[I] was at a place for a long time,” he said, “and getting to a new place and being able to come out Week 1, night one, and get a win and play the way we did, it feels good. A lot of work to be done, but it’s definitely a good start.”