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Matthew Stafford can cement legacy in Los Angeles

Matthew Stafford is going to set career-highs in just about every category this season.

We know this because, if all goes according to plan, he's going to play a career-high 17 games in 2021.

But on a per-game basis, is there reason to believe the 33-year-old's best football is ahead of him in Los Angeles?

Sean McVay and Les Snead must think so.

And for many of the reasons discussed below, so do I.

But the primary reason I'm enthusiastic about the blockbuster move the Rams made before the Super Bowl doesn't have anything to do with Stafford. It has to do with a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Aaron's Era

Aaron Donald will turn 30 before the Rams see the field together again. He's an athletic marvel, and I venture into this discussion very hesitantly and humbly, fully expecting him to earn another six straight First-Team All-Pro honors.

Donald is under contract for four more years, by which time he'll have played his age 33 season, and realistically, I think that horizon is a fair approximation of what can be considered his prime.

Might he wreak havoc into his mid-and-late 30s? Sure.

However, the only man to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year after his 34th birthday was Reggie White in 1998 at 37-years-old.

If you can get better while Donald is still generating MVP discussion, and especially if you can get better at quarterback, I think it's incumbent upon the Rams to do so. Because his replacement isn't on the horizon, and even if he was, the likelihood of drafting said player is slim-to-none.

Clearly, this urgency isn't lost on the Rams.

Postseason Proof

"But Stafford's never won a playoff game," says the peanut gallery.

It's a bit paradoxical for a team that's in a Super Bowl window to be attempting to capitalize with a signal-caller who is 0-3 career in the postseason.

In fairness to Stafford, his last opportunity predates Harry and Meghan's engagement, and all three career chances were as the road team in the Wild Card round.

Andrew Whitworth hadn't won a playoff game before coming to Los Angeles, either, and that's worked out swimmingly.

Kneel Before The Comeback King

Perhaps Stafford's greatest attribute is his ability to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

An astounding 42 percent of his career wins have been earned via fourth-quarter comebacks (31 out of 74), and no player has more such wins since Stafford's name was called atop the 2009 Draft.

While that's a welcome club to have in the bag, the goal for Stafford as a Ram should be to finish more games in victory formation than in the two-minute drill.

The Long Game

It was recently reported that Stafford played through a laundry list of wear and tear last season. And I asked Stafford how it feels to be seen as injury-prone, despite playing 16 games in nine of his 12 professional seasons, including all but one since 2011.

"Everybody out there is dealing with something," he said on the Rams Revealed podcast. "I'm excited to feel good going into this season and hopefully stay clean, stay healthy and help our team score a bunch of points."

Stafford confirmed that he'll be ready physically for whatever off-season program may come, and certainly training camp. To his point, as he joins forces with a contender, it should be stressed that his objective as a Ram is to be available for January and February. If some recalibrating needs to be done to prioritize protecting himself at the expense of a down, here's hoping that a change of scenery reinforces the need to play the long game in Los Angeles.

Great Expectations

So what are fair expectations of Stafford in his debut season in Horns?

To start, I'll take the under on his career-best total of 41 touchdowns in 2011, for a few reasons.

First, Jared Goff's 2018 was the closest approximation of this offense's apotheosis, and he passed for 32 touchdowns that season.

Second, if the Rams defense is even nearly as productive as they were a season ago, time and score may not necessitate putting up 30-plus points to win most weeks.

Thirdly, if Cam Akers and the running game deliver like we expect, 41 passing scores is a big number. Despite being an average offense in 2020, the Rams rushed for more touchdowns (19) than the scoring champion, Green Bay (16). They've averaged nearly 20 per season since McVay was hired.

What I'd be enthused about statistically is if Stafford can keep his interception percentage below 2.0, as he has for five consecutive seasons, and if he can set a new high-water mark for ANY/A (adjusted net yards per pass attempt).

But if I'm making a prediction for his traditional stat line in 2021, assuming 17 games?

67% completion | 4,900 yards | 35 touchdowns | 12 interceptions

Take a look back at Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford's 12 year career in the NFL before joining the Rams in 2021.


Would that be enough to catapult him into the NFL MVP conversation?

Depends on the Rams record, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised.

It's certainly not on Stafford's mind.

"Obviously, at the quarterback position, if you play well, your team's got a better chance of winning games. And when your team wins, people talk about you more," he said. "I'm not worried about all that kind of stuff. I'm just going to go out there and try to play as good of football as I can, put up a bunch of points for this offense, and cheer on what's a heck of a defense."

Best In West?

Whether or not he can outperform Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, it's not an outrageous position for the Rams to feel like they now have the best quarterback in the division.

Russell Wilson is more accomplished and statistically impressive; no one is arguing otherwise.

But Wilson against the Rams and Wilson against the rest of the NFL are two different quarterbacks, and in that context, I think it's perfectly legitimate to say, "Give me McVay and Stafford and I'll take my chances."

As an aside, it's also remarkable that there was a time this off-seasonand that time still might come – when Kyler Murray could have been the only returning quarterback in the West.

Help Him Help You

This isn't just about Stafford making Los Angeles better, though.

I think we all believe that Sean McVay and the Rams can bring out the best the quarterback has to offer.

Mike Golic, Jr. summarized this as succinctly as anyone in the wake of the trade, delineating all the things we know improve the performance of NFL quarterbacks and how McVay's Rams have stayed on the leading edge.

From pre-snap motion to play-action diet to some of the best in the world at scheming and executing yards after the catch, there's ample reason to believe Stafford is one of the off-season's biggest individual winners.

That, as much as anything, is why Stafford's best might be ahead of him, not behind in Detroit.

Can't Spell Legacy Without "L.A."

Which begs the question: How long is the horizon for Stafford and the Rams?

Let's take the optimistic view that the plan comes to fruition and the longtime Lion delivers the best quarterback play the Rams have enjoyed since returning to Los Angeles.

While his contract covers 2021 and 2022, it's hard to imagine both sides wouldn't want to extend the relationship so long as that championship window is open.

Would there be another proven commodity available at quarterback to steward the rest of Donald's prime (and that of Jalen Ramsey, for that matter)? If and when McVay ever drafts a quarterback, would he be groomed and ready by 2023?

Would Stafford want to transition to a new system for his late-30s? Or would the thought of retiring as the all-time passing leader of two different franchises be appealing? What might an All-Pro nod, an MVP honor, and especially a ring do for his standing within this Golden Era of quarterbacks?

Those are questions without concrete answers, of course. But they frame the next two seasons for the Rams, as well as Stafford's opportunity to improve his legacy.

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