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Why the Rams Were Right to Roll the Dice on Stafford

By: Nicholas McGee

The Los Angeles Rams’ brass didn’t say much when pressed on the future of Jared Goff in the wake of the team’s divisional-round defeat.

They didn’t need to. The brevity head coach Sean McVay and Les Snead displayed and their unwillingness to express confidence in Goff as the long-term starter at quarterback spoke volumes.

Indeed, their reluctance to offer vociferous support for the quarterback proved a harbinger of an offseason blockbuster, which was agreed with the final chapter of the 2020 season still to be written in Tampa.

Los Angeles paid a steep price to move on from Goff, sending him to the Detroit Lions along with a third-round pick in this year’s draft and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 to acquire Matthew Stafford. The Rams have not made a first-round pick since selecting Goff in 2016 and, through this latest aggressive move, are not scheduled to do so until 2024.

It is a move made with the intention of realizing the potential of a championship-caliber offense that has too often operated with the handbrake applied during Goff’s time with the team.

“I’m just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me,” Goff told NFL.com of his trade to Detroit.

But were Goff’s contributions underappreciated in Los Angeles? And will Stafford, himself one of the more underrated quarterbacks in football, unlock McVay’s offense in a way Goff couldn’t?

McVay’s Influence on Goff

There are raw numbers that would indicate Goff is, in some ways, Stafford’s equal.

Goff will look to revitalize his career in Detroit. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Since McVay took over for Jeff Fisher in 2017, Goff has thrown 102 touchdowns, seven more than Stafford and 10th in the NFL in that span.

His yards per attempt average of 7.7 is also superior to Stafford over the past four seasons, albeit by a narrow margin, Stafford having gained 7.6 yards per pass in the same period.

In the 2018 season, when the Rams were defeated by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, Goff was third in yards per attempt with 8.4 compared to Stafford’s 6.8.

Only Patrick Mahomes (52) managed more passing plays of 25 yards or more than the 40 produced that year by Goff, who was also third in percentage of throws that went for a first down (41.5).

Yet those statistics must be looked at through the prism of him operating in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in football.

Set Up for Success

Though the two attacks have their differences, a useful way to judge Goff’s performance in McVay’s offense is to compare his performance to the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks in Kyle Shanahan’s system.

McVay hopes Stafford can help the Rams get over the hump. (AP Photo/Jennifer Stewart)

Both offenses are based heavily on play-action and passing concepts designed to maximize their receivers’ ability to pick up yardage after the catch.

Playing without starter Jimmy Garoppolo for 13 games in 2018, 49ers third-stringer Nick Mullens averaged 8.3 yards per attempt over his eight weeks as a starter.

That negligible difference between Goff and Mullens is reflective of the assistance schemes such as those of McVay and Shanahan give to quarterbacks.

Stafford has had no such help in recent times in Detroit and yet, over the last four seasons, he comes out as the superior signal-caller in a series of categories.

Stafford’s Downfield Dynamism

While Stafford has been recognized as more of a gunslinger than Goff, he has done a superior job of taking care of the football.

Since 2017, Goff has a touchdown to interception ratio of 2.13, putting him 21st in the NFL. Stafford, meanwhile, is 12th with a TD-INT ratio of 2.64.

Stafford has also been the more accurate passer in that timeframe, completing 65.2% of his attempts compared to 64.3% for Goff, while his greater aggressiveness downfield is reflected by their respective air yards per attempt averages across the past four seasons.

Goff has averaged 7.4 air yards per attempt, as opposed to 8.4 for Stafford, who has been substantially more successful and aggressive when pushing the ball downfield.

Indeed, Stafford has completed 40.8% of throws of 20 air yards or more since 2017, putting up 3,449 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 106.7.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to Goff, who has connected on 35.8% of such passes for 2,639 yards, 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 89.3.

Stafford has also fared better in an area of the game this is pivotal to the Rams’ offense under McVay.

Play-Action Production

Goff attempted 768 play-action passes during his time with McVay, completing 65.1% of them for 6,861 yards, 38 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating.

Those are excellent numbers but they are inferior to those of Stafford. In a smaller sample size of 470 play-action throws since 2017, Stafford has a completion percentage of 69.4, passing for 4,364 yards and 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 111.0.

Play-action is a tremendous tool for slowing down aggressive defenses and negating pressure, but the Rams can afford to have more confidence in Stafford’s ability to handle pressure than they did with Goff.

Stafford (9) looks to throw a pass against the Chicago Bears. (Photo by Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

Goff made his first start in Week 11 of the 2016 season. Since then, he has completed 46% of his passes when under pressure – compared to 72.5% when the pocket is kept clean – for 4,907 yards, 26 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Over the same span, Stafford’s completion percentage dropped to 51.7 when pressured as opposed to 70.8 from clean pockets. He threw for 4,777 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions when under duress, his passer rating of 65.6 well above Goff’s 55.3.

There is no question Goff has previously flourished in McVay’s offense. The numbers and the playoff wins speak to that, but the fact he ranks fifth in the NFL in yards after catch per reception (6.0) since 2017 is evidence of him being aided by a play-action heavy system that can keep pressure off him and puts the onus on receivers to make plays in the open field.

Stafford, who got an average of 5.5 YAC per reception in the last four seasons, has not enjoyed the perks of playing in one of the most innovative offenses in football, yet the data paints a clear picture of why the Rams made the trade.

One area of McVay’s offense that Stafford will need to improve at in Los Angeles will be on bootlegs. The Rams run the most designed bootlegs in the NFL, while Stafford ran very few bootlegs in Detroit this past season (only 17 throws) and was notably less successful than Goff. Goff had an 84.1 completion percentage on 69 bootleg attempts, while Stafford was below league average with a 64.7 completion percentage on those 17 bootleg attempts.

The veteran can add a downfield element to the passing game that has been sorely lacking with Goff. He has the ability to improve the Rams’ play-action game while also giving the team the option of leaning more on straight drop-back passes without as much fear of what will happen when the pocket breaks down.

Goff is worthy of credit and, yes, appreciation for his early success in McVay’s scheme. However, in recent times he has drastically limited the ceiling of the Rams’ offense. Stafford can remove those limits and help the Rams finally cash in after years of throwing their chips to the middle of the table.

 

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