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Matthew Stafford Gave The Rams A Shot At A Title. The Rams Gave Stafford A Shot At Canton.

The trade that brought quarterback Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles last year was a fresh start for both player and team. The former No. 1 pick desperately needed a change in scenery after 12 years in Detroit, and the Rams desperately wanted an upgrade over Jared Goff at QB. But Stafford and his new team were already running out of time: The Rams had traded away numerous future draft picks with a single-minded focus on winning right now, while their new QB had just turned 33 — with a lot of extra mileage — days after the trade was announced. With so much riding on it this year, the Stafford Experiment in L.A. could not afford to fail.

Fortunately for the Rams, it didn’t — and now Stafford and company are a win over the Cincinnati Bengals away from making it into the ultimate success story. Along the way, Stafford may also have reshaped his entire legacy and even helped us learn something about the effect coaching systems can have on a new quarterback (and vice versa).

It’s not as though Stafford’s Lions career had been a disappointment. Indeed, his pre-2021 career Approximate Value (AV) of 133 had already far exceeded the number we would expect from a No. 1 overall pick (73). Back in 2011, the so-called Year of the Quarterback, Stafford was front and center, alongside future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as one of three passers with at least 5,000 yards, the first time any season had ever seen such prolific passing. (Stafford remains one of just six QBs to surpass 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes in a single season.) Over his career, Stafford was easily the winningest quarterback in the history of the Lions, one of the NFL’s oldest teams, and the second-best player in franchise history according to AV — trailing only the incomparable Barry Sanders.

But although Stafford made the playoffs three times with Detroit — its only three postseason berths this century — the team bowed out in the wild-card round each time. And despite playing with fellow stars such as Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson and dominating defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh for many of his Lions seasons, Stafford left Detroit with a losing record (74-90-1) and facing questions about whether his individual stats could foster team success. While the Lions’ defense was largely ineffective during Stafford’s seasons as a primary starter, allowing an average of 2.4 more points per game than the typical NFL team, the team’s offense was also surprisingly mediocre — scoring 0.3 fewer points per game than average over the same span.

That all changed with the Rams this season. Between the regular season and playoffs, Los Angeles is averaging 27.2 points per game, which ranks sixth in the league and is 4.2 points better than the NFL average. That was the best offensive output (relative to average) for a Stafford-led team since the Lions were +7.3 points per game in 2011, and just the second time after 2013 that a Stafford-led team scored more than the league average. Unsurprisingly, Stafford had one of his finest individual passing seasons as well. This was the second-best performance of his 13-year career by adjusted net yards per attempt index, second-best (in a tie) by AV, third-best by QB value over replacement, fourth-best by Total Quarterback Rating and fourth-best by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.

Perhaps most importantly, Stafford has provided important new elements to coach Sean McVay’s offense that Goff couldn’t last season. In 2020, Goff ranked just 33rd out of 35 qualified QBs in air yards per attempt, 26th in touchdowns per attempt, 26th in first downs per attempt, 22nd in yards per completion and 28th in the share of attempts going for positive air yards. This regular season, by contrast, Stafford ranked fifth in air yards per throw, second in TDs per throw, fifth in first downs per throw, third in yards per completion and fourth in the share of attempts with positive air yards. While Stafford wasn’t perfect in his Rams debut — he tied for the league lead in interceptions, with a per-attempt pick rate (2.8 percent) slightly higher than Goff’s last year (2.4 percent) — he offset those risks with far greater rewards throwing downfield.

Stafford also performed much better under pressure — both literal and metaphorical — which in turn affected how defenses responded to L.A.’s attack. In 2020, Goff had the NFL’s sixth-worst QBR under pressure and sixth-worst QBR against man-to-man defenses, which encouraged opponents to load up on extra pass-rushers without fear of repercussions. Last season, only five QBs faced more blitzes per dropback than Goff’s 32.2 percent rate. But since Stafford handled the heat better (he ranked 14th-best in QBR under pressure) and posed more of a threat to burn any defenders left exposed in coverage — he led the NFL in QBR against man-to-man this year — opponents backed off and blitzed him at the fifth-lowest rate (21.8 percent) of any qualified QB, which helped give McVay’s play designs more time and space in which to operate. Only four other QBs this season threw to receivers who were less tightly covered, as defined by the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, than Stafford did.

Stafford earned even more respect from the defense in big moments, as the Rams went from having the NFL’s 10th-worst fourth-quarter passer by QBR with Goff in 2020 to its No. 1 fourth-quarter passer with Stafford at the helm in 2021. All of these factors helped to elevate the Rams’ offense from 21st in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game — and 23rd in passing EPA, specifically — last season to sixth on offense (and fifth in passing) this year. When given the opportunity to better harness his skills and lead a winning attack, Stafford did not squander it.

Such second acts are rare for Super Bowl quarterbacks, historically speaking. The average QB making his first Super Bowl start has been 28.4 years old during the season in question,1 much younger than Stafford (who was 33 for most of this season and turned 34 on Monday). The average debut Super Bowl starter was also usually playing for his first NFL team (71 percent of first-time starters), or at least the team with whom he generated the majority of his career QB value over replacement (84 percent). But Stafford bucks all of those trends. He is one of just five quarterbacks to make their first Super Bowl start at age 30 or older, with a team for whom they generated less than half of their career value:

Stafford is in an exclusive club of journeymen

First-time Super Bowl starting QBs who were at least 30 years old during the season and had earned less than half of their career value with their Super Bowl team

QB Value Over Replacement
Quarterback Season Team Age* w/ Team Share of Total Won SB?
Brad Johnson 2002 TB 34 2,851 37.0% 💍
Jim Plunkett 1980 OAK 33 2,848 41.7 💍
Chris Chandler 1998 ATL 33 2,702 46.0
Matthew Stafford 2021 LAR 33 1,320 12.6
Doug Williams 1987 WSH 32 1,269 26.7 💍

*Player’s age on Dec. 31 of that season.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Most of the other names on that list had surprising success in the big game itself, which Stafford can hope to emulate Sunday. Of the winners, Doug Williams was on his second NFL team — and third pro team, if we count the USFL — when he won as a Super Bowl rookie in 1988, while Brad Johnson and Jim Plunkett were on NFL team Nos. 3 apiece at the time of their victories. Plunkett and Williams were each named MVP for their efforts as well, providing a rich template for the type of journeyman success Stafford is aiming for against the Bengals.

And if he and the Rams do pull off the win, it would do wonders for Stafford’s legacy. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame monitor statistic, which uses AV and many other measures to judge a player’s suitability for enshrinement in Canton, Stafford currently ranks 41st among all-time quarterbacks with a monitor score (58.4) — well below the average for QBs already in the Hall (109), in addition to trailing contemporaries such as Aaron Rodgers (174.8), Matt Ryan (102.6), Russell Wilson (80.3) and Cam Newton (70.5). A Super Bowl appearance will automatically boost Stafford’s score some, but he could gain as many as 10 extra points for winning the game (and also thereby eradicating his penalty for never winning a championship). That still wouldn’t put Stafford in clear Hall of Fame territory, but it would elevate him from a tier alongside Drew Bledsoe, Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer into the company of Joe Theismann, Boomer Esiason and HOFer Len Dawson — and ahead of Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman.

Cincinnati will have a word or two to say about how history views Stafford before Sunday’s contest is all said and done. Time and again this postseason, the young Bengals have diagnosed how opposing passers are finding success and adapted to stop it with suffocating second halves. Even Stafford’s fourth-quarter dominance might not be immune to Cincy’s defensive scheming. But if he is able to crack that code, Stafford will have delivered to the Rams exactly what they were envisioning when they traded for him: a championship-caliber quarterback performance in a season when failure — for both player and team — was not an option.

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Footnotes

  1. Age given as of Dec. 31 of that season.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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