Matthew Stafford's right elbow is becoming a bigger concern with each passing day.
A little offseason fatigue is one thing, especially after a Super Bowl run. A team structuring its practice schedule around what its franchise quarterback can and cannot do is something entirely different, though.
"I felt like I could make any throw I wanted to, but I’m just trying to be smart," Stafford told NBC Sports' Peter King on Saturday.
The ability to threaten every blade of grass on the field is what made Stafford such an attractive acquisition for the Los Angeles Rams last offseason.
Former Rams quarterback Jared Goff operated within the confines of head coach Sean McVay's offense. He was good enough to help the team reach Super Bowl LIII, but he lacked the ability to expand the playbook.
Unlike Goff, Stafford entered the league with elite arm talent. The ball exploded out of his hand. Stafford also showed throughout his career that he could change arm angles and do things a little bit differently than everyone else at the time.
Unfortunately, Stafford became a victim of circumstances. He had three different head coaches (not including interim coaches) and four different offensive coordinators during his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions. The Lions finished 79-112-1 during that stretch, though Stafford helped reach them playoffs on three different occasions.
Stafford had eight 4,000-yard passing seasons during his 12 years in Detroit. The Rams were downright giddy to land a passer of his caliber last offseason.
"There is a lot of love in the air and it’s because he thinks he’s getting a top quarterback," NFL Network's Peter Schrager reported last February, before the trade even became official. "There is a lot of love in the air and it’s because he thinks he’s getting a top quarterback. McVay has gone back and watched just about every pass Stafford has thrown in the past few years and I can tell you after speaking with him, saying on the record, he is giddy to get excited–cannot wait. ... But I believe Sean McVay and that Rams offensive coaching staff feels they can run their offense in its ideal form–the way it was meant to be run with Matthew Stafford at the quarterback position."
A month later, McVay described the Stafford as an "elite thrower of the football" and "a leader on and off of the field."
His excitement was even more palpable during an April interview on The Rich Eisen Show.
“When you’re really playing that position, when you’re asked to get through progressions, recognize, read, solve problems protection wise, you’re seeing him do a lot of those things," McVay explained. "And to be able to work together, to collaborate, I’m really excited about that collaboration because he’s got a lot of good film and a lot of exposure to different systems that ultimately, you’ll see us bring into our arsenal because it starts with the quarterback always in everything we do."
Once the coaching staff began working with Stafford, a sense of jubilation enveloped the organization.
"Bro, this dude’s a bad MF-er,” McVay told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer in June. “Whatever people say about him, as good as it can be, he’s even better than advertised. It makes sense to him. The guy’s ability to see the game, his ability to draw on his experiences, the feel that he has, it’s pretty special and unique. And man, his feel for people, his authentic way of connecting with his teammates, his coaches, this guy, it’s great being around him."
One year later, Stafford is now suffering from what NFL Network's Ian Rapoport described as "thrower's elbow," which is normally reserved for baseball pitchers. McVay stopped short of calling Stafford's injury tendinitis, but he did tell reporters last week that "it's a tricky deal" and "abnormal for a quarterback."
The issue continues to linger even though Stafford received an anti-inflammatory shot in March, according to The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue.
"Really when we look at it, we've got five weeks until Sept. 8," McVay said last week. "He's still feeling a little bit of pain; he could push through it. ... We felt like the smart thing was let's really just take it a week at a time. He ended up getting about 40 to 50 throws in individual. We didn't take part in the team activities, and that's really more a result of he's got so much experience."
Although Stafford is an experienced quarterback coming off a Super Bowl-winning season, he's missing valuable reps during team sessions and not getting in as many throws with his wide receivers. The Rams aren't in the same position that they were a year ago.
Allen Robinson II replaced Robert Woods at wide receiver. Left tackle and right guard are going through a transition after Andrew Whitworth retired and Austin Corbett left for the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Third-year running back Cam Akers is now healthy, which he wasn't during last year's training camp.
Robinson's acclimation might be the most important aspect of what's potentially missing right now. Much like Stafford last season, the 28-year-old target creates more flexibility within the Rams' offensive scheme.
"The staff here is in love with Robinson," Robert Mays of The Athletic reported in late July. "From his approach in meetings to what he can give them in this offense. His route tree and where he can line up are more varied than they’d even hoped."
Robinson is at his best when he's working down the field along the sidelines. He gives the Rams a true X-receiver to go with Cooper Kupp in the slot and the recovering Van Jefferson, who underwent a minor knee surgery last week, per Stu Jackson of the Rams official site.
Stafford has continued to throw during individual sessions and supposedly looks good when doing so. Problems could arise if the elbow soreness lingers, though.
Between the regular season and the playoffs, Stafford attempted a career-high 741 passes last season. His elbow issue could limit how far he can drive the ball down the field, which would affect some of the routes that the Rams receivers run. Robinson could need extra time to get on the same page with Stafford, too.
The Rams are making Stafford's health a priority during training cap and the preseason, which they should. But McVay even admitted that they're trying to make sure he's ready for Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. That isn't guaranteed at this point.
Stafford has played through pain during portions of his career. His throwing elbow is a little different, though, especially since he's now in his mid-30s. Inflammation and fatigue could lead to further injury if not properly handled.
As the Boulder Centre for Orthopedics & Spine stated, "The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is the most commonly injured ligament in throwers. Injuries of the UCL can range from minor damage and inflammation to a complete tear of the ligament. Athletes will have pain on the inside of the elbow, and frequently notice decreased throwing velocity."
The Rams haven't revealed the exact nature of Stafford's injury. The mention of it being along the lines of baseball pitchers, coupled with the sheer velocity and distances Stafford throws, makes it difficult not to speculate about something more severe.
Maintenance may be necessary over the next few months until Stafford can properly rest his elbow. By doing what's best for Stafford, though, the Rams may be hurting their chances to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
The Rams must walk a fine line to get the most out of this year's squad. They're still among the most talented teams in the entire league, but Stafford is a difference-maker.
If last season taught us anything, the Rams' success largely hinges on what Stafford is capable of doing. He might not be as capable this season as he was last year.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.