TAMPA — Matthew Stafford is the one quarterback Bucs coach Bruce Arians likes to creep close to during pre-game and watch him throw the football. He marvels at the tight spin and velocity. You can hear the ball cutting the air as it’s delivered from various arm angles.
“He’s got such a tremendous arm and I have a ton of respect for him,” Arians said.
After spending 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, Stafford, 33, orchestrated his trade to the Los Angeles Rams (2-0), who enter Sunday’s game at SoFi Stadium against the unbeaten defending Super Bowl champs.
But there is one chilling reality that can’t escape Arians or the Bucs on Sunday: Stafford is just getting warmed up.
In so many ways, this year’s Rams are trying to become last year’s Bucs.
They kicked their promising first-round quarterback to the curb by trading Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder in favor of an experienced triggerman who can process things more quickly and make Sean McVay’s offense spring to life.
They have a trio of pass catchers in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and DeSean Jackson; the latter is the Rams’ version of the Bucs’ Antonio Brown as a third receiver.
They have a stout defense and the desire to accomplish something else the Bucs did last season: win the Super Bowl in their home stadium.
A year ago with Goff under center and being ordered to throw the ball 51 times, the Rams built an early lead against the Bucs and held on to win by a field goal at Raymond James Stadium.
Even though it is only Week 3, there’s a feeling this could be a preview of a playoff game and one that may even determine the NFC champion. In that sense, home-field advantage may be at play. Either way, the stakes are high.
“There are games that feel more important, and I would say this is one of those games,” Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “You kind of have that bitter taste. They came in here and beat us in the last couple minutes on a game-winning field goal (in 2020). They’ve got a very solid team. They’re 2-0, so there is a lot more hype. This is one of those games. That’s the difference — it kind of gets the jitters going with games like this one.”
How Stafford came to the Rams is strategic and serendipitous.
The Lions had been a forlorn franchise long before they made Stafford the first overall pick in 2009 out of Georgia.
In 12 seasons, Stafford led the Lions to only three playoff games, losing all of them.
Finally, he had had enough and followed through on a nearly annual desire to ask to be traded. The Lions obliged, giving Stafford and his agent permission to speak with other teams.
That’s when coincidence turned into opportunity.
The Rams signed Goff to a $134 million extension even after the Rams lost to Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 53 to wrap up the 2018 season. But when the Rams fell to the Packers in the NFC division playoffs last season, McVay wanted an upgrade, an experienced quarterback who could be his partner, not his student.
Stafford and his wife wanted to get out of Detroit and away from the noise about his impending departure.
They considered other resorts, but settled on Cabo where Stafford’s buddy, Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, was staying. Turns out McVay and his fiancé, Veronika, were there as well. The couples got together over drinks and not unlike Arians’ evaluation following the 2019 season, McVay believed the Rams needed a veteran quarterback such as Stafford to lead his team.
Stafford, of course, marvels at what Brady has done in Tampa, especially after changing teams and having to learn a new offense.
“I have a ton of respect for what he’s ben able to accomplish both in New England and now in Tampa,” Stafford said. “What a talented guy. What a great leader to be able to do what he’s done at two different spots and really elevate guys around him. ...
“The guy throws it about as good as anybody in the league still. I mean, coming out of the hand, he throws it great. He’s mechanically as sound as anybody. He’s on time — great anticipation, ball placement. Just got a ton of spin, got a ton of juice on it, still can throw it down the field. I think back to the playoff game in Green Bay, right before the half when he hits (Scotty Miller) down the side. That’s a heave in Lambeau and drops it on himself. He can do it all. You think about it — from the pocket that guy’s as good as it gets.”
A year ago, the Rams came into Raymond James Stadium and McVay virtually abandoned the run in favor of having Goff throw. That game plan of short passes on the perimeter has been copied this season by the Cowboys and Falcons, who combined for 104 attempts against the Bucs.
Stafford — who has thrown for 599 yards and five touchdowns with one interception this season — has a stronger arm, giving the Rams a bigger downfield threat.
“He’s got a little more experience but offensively I don’t think they’ve changed what they’re doing,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He makes decisions. They’ve got some more wideouts in. They’re doing things a lot crisper right now and they’re playing good football. But he’s been a good quarterback for a long time.”
He doesn’t have the resume, to be sure, but in so many ways Stafford is the Rams’ Brady. The guy behind Door No. 2, as Arians said before signing his future Hall of Famer.
Can this year’s Rams be last year’s Bucs?
“The only signature game that you can possibly have is sometime in February or whatever it is,” said Rams defensive coordinator, and former Bucs head coach, Raheem Morris. “Usually, confetti falls around your feet or it doesn’t.”
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