There was no bigger swing this season than the Los Angeles Rams’ trade for Matthew Stafford. The deal, which came in before last year’s Super Bowl included multiple first-round picks, dead money, and over $40 million in total spent on the quarterback position for the Rams in 2021.
Through 17 weeks, the Rams are 12-4 and a win away from winning the NFC West. Good deal, great success, everyone can go home happy.
Unfortunately, the Stafford equation isn’t that simple. The improvement from Stafford for the offense was evident on Day 1 when the Rams took the field against the Chicago Bears and that lasted over the first half of the season. From Weeks 1-8, Stafford led the league in EPA per dropback by a wide margin, per TruMedia, at 0.38 with the next highest quarterback at 0.22. But since Week 9, Stafford has averaged -0.08 EPA per dropback, which ranks 23rd among quarterbacks in that span.
With the quarterback from the first half of the season, the Rams could easily make a run through the Super Bowl. The other guy makes things a little tougher.
Obviously, the Rams hope the bad plays will go away, but there are a few throws the team might have to live with while Stafford is behind center. The hope then is that Stafford’s ability to create big plays in the offense can make up for some of the mistakes. Stafford has thrown the Rams out of some games, but he’s also thrown them back into others.
One example was just this past week against the Baltimore Ravens. Early in the game, Stafford threw a pick-6 deep in his own territory. The throw was the result of a miscommunication on a wrong route but it was a devastating blow that put the Rams in a hole.
On the next drive, Stafford faced a heavy pressure look from the Ravens with an overloaded left side of the line. But at the snap, the Ravens dropped out and sent a delayed blitz from the slot corner on the right with a free path to the quarterback. Stafford read the rotation and found Cooper Kupp crossing the middle of the field for a big play.
His next throw, a few plays later, was an ill-advised deep attempt to Odell Beckham, who was surrounded by three defenders. It was a fairly easy interception.
In the second half of the game, Stafford went 14-of-14 and averaged 0.42 EPA per dropback as the Rams came back and won with a back-to-back fourth down conversion and touchdown to Beckham with just over a minute remaining in the game.
Over the course of the season, Stafford has technically been the best at towing this line between the big and negative plays. Per Sports Info Solutions, a league-leading 26.1% of Stafford’s plays have produced 1.0 or more EPA (Boom%). Another 12.3% of his plays have produced -1.0 EPA or worse (Bust%), which still ranks second-best among quarterbacks behind only Patrick Mahomes. Stafford’s gap between his Boom% and Bust% is the best in the league over the full season.
That’s a little different over the second half of the season, but Stafford still has the eighth-best Boom-Bust ratio among quarterbacks since Week 9 — a timespan in which he has negative EPA overall. It’s not necessarily a sustainable way to play productively as an offense, but it’s a testament to the quarterback that the offense hasn’t completely bottomed out.
Even with some of Stafford’s bad games, his floor isn’t much lower than some of the other top quarterbacks in the league. The chart below shows Stafford’s high and low in EPA per dropback this season along with the number of games with negative EPA compared to other quarterbacks across the league.
QB Best & Worst Games, 2021 (data per TruMedia)
|Player||EPA/DB HIgh||EPA/DB Low||Negative EPA Games|
Part of the problem is the Stafford turnovers look really bad. Just the two shown above might be worse than anything these other quarterbacks have done this season. Stafford’s interceptions have the seventh-worst EPA per play among quarterbacks but even that is below the likes of Rodgers, Mahomes, Herbert, and Burrow. Only Rodgers on that list has thrown significantly fewer interceptions.
If Stafford can clean up some of those bad decisions, the big plays are still there and the Rams could be one of the most dangerous offenses heading into the playoffs. Mistakes like the first Baltimore interception might happen, but the second throw into a non-existent window can’t happen.
All of that can bring us to reframing the trade and if the Rams are in a better spot now than they were previously. There’s an argument that well…
Wow, Stafford really finished dead on Goff’s 2017/2018 17 week seasons. That is uncanny pic.twitter.com/JUKiKjBdj1
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 4, 2022
Of course, there are some differences between the Rams are right now and where they were under Jared Goff. With those two seasons that Stafford has matched, the Rams and Sean McVay had the maxed-out versions of Goff. The quarterback was at his peak within a heavily-schemed-up offense that made life relatively easy for the quarterback.
To note that Stafford hasn’t added more value to the offense than Goff is to ignore the last two seasons when the previous Los Angeles quarterback’s performance cratered. The Rams were likely not going to get back to the production levels of 2017 and 2018 with Goff at the helm, so an upgrade was going to be needed just to get back to that place.
For the Rams to get there without the best version of Stafford could be seen as a sign of optimism. Sean McVay was thrilled to loosen the reigns on the offense as go to a more pure dropback passing offense (a turn he maybe made a little too hard early in the season) and that helped guide the early season explosion.
When the offense started to struggle, some more play-action and boot concepts were added to the offense. That’s not a bad thing or a referendum on the quarterback. All offenses should be using those more.
Since the losses to the Titans and Packers, the Rams have won five games in a row. The only playoff team Los Angeles faced in that time was Arizona, but Stafford ranks 11th in EPA per dropback over that span.
The Rams also aren’t hamstrung much next season. The dead cap from Goff’’s contract will be off the books and Stafford will only be owed $23 million. Los Angeles still had a top-leaded cap for next season but has the core in place and moves available to free up more space in the offseason.
There’s also a chance Year 2 will be better, like we’ve seen from quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan adjust in the second year under new coaching staffs. The future outlook is better heading into the coming offseason than it was at this time last year.
Stafford’s upside is enough to win the Rams a Super Bowl this year. The bad plays are also enough to tank any chance of that happening. Stafford has been among the league’s best at balancing those things over the long run, though the gamble is how some of those bad decisions have spiraled.
Given where the Rams are right now and what they could be, it’s hard to imagine the team has any regrets with the chips they pushed in on this deal.