THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — After Matthew Stafford, the Los Angeles Rams’ new quarterback, threw three interceptions this month in a joint practice with the Las Vegas Raiders, he and his teammates remained calm. Instead of pouting or slamming his helmet, he convened with his coaches to discuss what went wrong.
Les Snead, the team’s general manager, also looked relaxed as he watched from afar on a cloudy, rainy afternoon. He had orchestrated the January trade to acquire Stafford, sending the team’s starting quarterback, Jared Goff, and three draft picks, including two first-round selections, to the Detroit Lions.
By adding one of the most productive quarterbacks in the N.F.L. (Stafford’s 45,109 career yards rank him fifth among active passers) but parting with the chance to draft in the first round until 2024, the team drastically raised its fans’ hopes for the immediate future. Stafford’s practice turnovers, however, had many of them expressing angst on social media. According to Snead, they included one of his children, a teenager, who texted him asking if “Stafford had a bad day.”
The interest in the team makes sense. Until the trade, the Rams had risked languishing in one of the N.F.L.’s toughest divisions. Now they have a 33-year-old quarterback who asked out of the only franchise for which he had ever played for a better shot at football glory. The Rams’ window opens now.
“I think Matt’s at that point in his career where he’s played a lot of football, he’s made a lot of money and we’re now at that chapter of ‘OK, let’s do something special,’” Snead said in an interview. “I think he’s looking at it like, ‘This is a good place to write my farewell chapters in this league.’”
The off-season had the potential to be defined by high-profile quarterback changes. In an era in which Stafford’s peers have been emboldened to use their star power to gain leverage, either to seek trades or to influence rosters, his requested breakup with the Lions stands out for being resolved peacefully, and privately. He believes his relationship with the team’s ownership allowed the process to move smoothly.
“This could’ve gone a bunch of different directions, and I’m glad it went the way it did,” Stafford said.
Despite losing in the first round in all three of his playoff appearances over 12 seasons in Detroit, Stafford threw for over 4,000 yards eight times and completed 38 game-winning drives. He knew he could still produce at an elite level and wanted to compete with a contender. Detroit finished 5-11 last season. Had he stayed for 2021, Stafford would have played for his fourth head coach and third general manager. He quietly requested a trade and the Lions agreed, something he knew was not a guarantee.
“I have to give them a ton of credit for how they approached it,” Stafford said. “I think they knew, from 12 years of dealing with me, if I told them something, that was my word, and I knew I felt the same way about them.”
Other quarterbacks who had looked for a change had different outcomes this off-season. Rumors swirled that Aaron Rodgers wanted out at Green Bay. Deshaun Watson reportedly requested a trade from Houston. Russell Wilson asked for more say in the Seattle Seahawks’ personnel decisions. His agent, though, publicly disclosed a list of teams Wilson would consider joining in a trade.
When training camps opened, those quarterbacks rejoined their teams. In his circumstance, Stafford said that he wanted an open discussion with the Lions and that he was grateful they agreed with his point of view.
“I wasn’t in a mode of trying to be empowered, I just wanted to be honest,” he said. “I just wanted to let them know how I was feeling, and it was really great for them to respect that and work with me on it.”
Initially, it seemed unlikely that Stafford would join the Rams. They had signed Goff to a four-year contract extension worth $134 million in 2019 after he led them to a Super Bowl. But over the past two seasons, Goff regressed, throwing 29 interceptions, causing Snead and Coach Sean McVay to seek an upgrade. Stafford’s availability piqued both men’s interest.
“We felt maybe it was the right time, and this might be the right place to add all of those sets of variables together at that very, very important position,” Snead said.
Stafford should solve a lot of what ailed the Rams in 2020, when the team was 10-6 and lost to the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs. They had one of the N.F.L.’s best defenses, anchored by lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the offense did not regularly threaten downfield strikes and finished with only 50 passing plays of at least 20 yards, ranking 14th.
In training camp and in practices, Stafford delivered impressive passes to receivers on throws with velocity and touch. Two of the interceptions in that scrimmage against the Raiders came on tipped passes, mistakes that McVay said could be corrected as Stafford learned the new offensive system and the receivers adjusted to his timing.
“He’s one of those guys that elevates everyone around him,” McVay said. “When things don’t go our way, I just like how even-keeled he is. He’s consistent.”
Unlike other stars on less complete teams, Stafford has not issued a list of his wants or asked to weigh in on roster decisions, though McVay and Snead said they would welcome his input if he offered it.
“I’m the new guy here,” Stafford said. “I’m just trying to show up and get my job right as best I can. I trust those guys and they’ve done a great job of building a program here that has a great atmosphere.”
With a roster stacked for a postseason run, Stafford can focus on what lies ahead. Despite his numbers in Detroit, Stafford was selected to just one Pro Bowl. This month, he watched as his former Lions teammate Calvin Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Being in Canton, Ohio, and seeing the history around him made Stafford think about his own legacy and what kind of career ending he could write in Los Angeles.
“I just want to play meaningful football and get to know these guys as well as I can and play for as long as I can here,” Stafford said.