Matthew Stafford Looks Ready to Join NFL's Elite Class of QBs in 2021

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 14, 2021

Los Angeles Rams' Matthew Stafford runs a drill during NFL football practice in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Thursday, May 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

For more than a decade, Matthew Stafford has been stuck on the brink. 

Good, not great. Sometimes heroic, rarely consistent. 

And at the heart of it all during the first 12 years of Stafford's career was a lack of support and stability from the Detroit Lions organization. Four offensive coordinators, three head coaches, Calvin Johnson's sudden retirement at the age of 30.

Stafford had the benefit of playing with a top-10 scoring defense just once between 2009 and 2020 (and was lassoed with a bottom-10 scoring defense in six of those 12 campaigns). Incredibly, he's never had help from a running back that ranked above the league median, and the Lions have ranked in the bottom 12 on the ground in 11 of his 12 NFL seasons. 

But now, here he is in a fresh setting following a blockbuster offseason move from Detroit to the Los Angeles Rams, where he'll work under the innovative and brilliant Sean McVay in a system that has produced top-12 scoring offenses in each of the past four seasons.

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

He'll also benefit from a deeper group of weapons and a defense that features two of the most dominant players in the sport, two-time first-team All-Pro Jalen Ramsey at cornerback and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald on the defensive line. 

It's not too late for Stafford, who at 33 should still be in his prime as a modern NFL quarterback. Drew Brees made seven Pro Bowls after turning 33, Tom Brady has made nine since celebrating that birthday, and John Elway, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers have all had plenty of success beyond Stafford's current age. 

And it wouldn't be the first time a quarterback failed to truly take off until he was around or beyond that age. Warren Moon didn't make his first Pro Bowl until he was 32, Steve Young didn't become a star until he was 31, and Rich Gannon suddenly became a perennial Pro Bowler in a new setting at age 34 and was league MVP at 37.

"I think I've been very happy," McVay said late last week when asked about Stafford's arrival. "Everybody says, 'Man, you just seem like you're in a better mood this offseason,' and I said, 'You're damn right I am.'"

Stafford replaces Jared Goff, who struggled mightily the past two seasons after imploding in Super Bowl LIII. Goff was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and 2018 but hit a wall after that poor Super Bowl performance, despite the fact the Rams remained stacked in the receiving corps and along the offensive line. 

With the championship window closing for Donald, Ramsey and legendary offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, you can't fault them for bailing on Goff and giving a shot to a guy who absolutely has the talent and the moxie to excel in a new environment. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Stafford's led more game-winning drives the past seven years than any other quarterback in football, but it's all been for naught because the Lions simply haven't been good enough to see the light of day in January. 

That could all change in L.A. 

"I think the first thing you can tell, anybody that knows Matthew knows that it's not too big for him," McVay said last week. "He expects a lot of himself. I think he also understands how difficult this game is. In order to do things the right way, it's one week at a time. But it's not too big for him. He's played at a high level for a long, long time. He's going to raise the level of play of everyone around him. Guys are going to play well around him, and our jobs as coaches is going to be able to help bring out the best in these guys as well."

Under McVay, the Rams have put together four consecutive winning seasons, with three playoff victories coming during that stretch. They've gone all-in on this roster and a constant lack of draft capital will likely catch up with them as a result, but that doesn't change the fact 2021 presents Stafford with an opportunity to finally become an elite producer at the sport's most critical position. 

"It's going to be definitely a scary group for defenses and defenders," incoming speedy veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of the offense in general, "because Sean McVay, one thing about it, he's going to figure out how to get people open."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Jackson says he and Stafford are already "dialed in," but he's not even close to the focal point of McVay's offense. Stafford will also lean on productive outside starter Robert Woods, extremely reliable slot presence Cooper Kupp, solid tight end Tyler Higbee and promising young backs Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers. 

Throw in that Whitworth seemingly doesn't age and this could be a lot of fun. 

Among qualified passers dating back to 2015, Stafford ranks 11th in passer rating, 14th in yards per attempt, eighth in touchdowns, 11th in completion percentage, and he actually has the 10th-lowest interception rate. But because he's been stuck in Detroit, he's failed to make a single Pro Bowl or participate in a single home playoff game during that stretch. 

At his best, he's always been a top-10 quarterback. And with the Rams, he should have far more opportunities to be at his best. The stage will be bigger, the lights will be brighter and a player buried by tough circumstances for much of his career now has his best chance to finally live up to his status as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. 

It might not happen. If it doesn't now, it likely never will. But the ingredients are there.

Right now, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are in one elite category. Guys like Stafford, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Ryan Tannehill are at least a level below. 

The football world is watching for younger guys like Mayfield, Murray, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow to make the leap into that top echelon in 2021, but Stafford's uniquely improved circumstances could bring about a shocking leap to better-late-than-never stardom. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.