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Matthew Stafford embraces chance to shine with joy in Rams debut

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford waits to be introduced before Sunday's season opener.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford waits to be introduced before Sunday’s season opener against the Chicago Bears at SoFi Stadium.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Different place, same Matthew Stafford.

The spirals sharp enough to cut glass. The geometry class of arm angles. The quiet calm while a cyclone swirls around him.

But one of his former teammates also saw something different in Stafford on Sunday night when the new Rams quarterback made his debut against the Chicago Bears in the first meaningful game at SoFi Stadium.

An almost childlike joy.

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“He’s always kind of leaned more toward the reserved side,” said Drew Stanton, one of Stafford’s former backups with the Detroit Lions, watching the Rams’ 34-14 victory from home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He’s got a lot of characteristics to him, and ‘excitable’ wouldn’t be one that I would use to describe him. But this was like a kid getting a chance to go out and play backyard football.

“It was like going back to high school, when you just go out and have fun. That’s what he looked like for me. And for a long time in Detroit when you’re beaten down consistently from a lot of different angles, it can take a toll on you. This looked like a guy that was playing carefree.”

Making his Rams debut, Matthew Stafford passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears at SoFi Stadium.

Stafford completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards with three touchdowns and a stratospheric passer rating of 156.1 — just shy of a “perfect” 158.3.

“We only threw it 26 times, but he certainly made the most of those plays,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.

He threw two touchdown passes of 50-plus yards, which, as noted by ESPN Stats & Info, matched the Rams’ season total in 2020.

On the same night the Rams unveiled their $5-billion home, they watched their new quarterback blow the roof off the place. The Rams traded for Stafford in January, sending quarterback Jared Goff and a pick package of two first-rounders and a third-rounder to the Lions.

“It’s a new experience for me, new place, new stadium, new fans, the whole deal, but this team has embraced me and I really appreciate that,” Stafford said. “They wrapped their arms around me, and it felt good to go out there and play with them tonight.”

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The Bears, meanwhile, struggled to wrap their arms around him, sacking him just once and seldom touching him.

On his second pass of the game, Stafford faked a handoff, rolled left, flipped his hips and unleashed a laser-like long ball to Van Jefferson who had split a pair of defenders down the right side. Tight as a steel bridge cable, the throw sailed 60 yards in the air and actually caromed off Jefferson’s face mask. The second-year receiver rolled to the ground untouched and was quick enough to pop back to his feet and run it in for a 67-yard score.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates with Cooper Kupp.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, left, celebrates with Cooper Kupp after connecting with the wide receiver on a touchdown pass in the first quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The last transplant from the state of Michigan to roll into L.A. and make a pass like that? He played at the Fabulous Forum across the street and answered to Magic.

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Stafford was only getting started. In the second quarter on fourth-and-one, he rolled to his right, patiently waited, then threaded another pass to Jefferson for 13 yards. He had to throw that through a mouse hole.

“He has that extra sense to allow things to develop,” Stanton said. “Then he doesn’t even hesitate and the ball just comes out of his hand like that.”

It’s weird that Stafford has never won a playoff game but less strange when you consider he hardly ever had a running game to set up the pass — the Lions’ last 1,000-yard rusher was Reggie Bush in 2013 — and smothering Detroit defenses were just as rare.

Barry Sanders had three more 100-yard games in a season (14) than the combined total that running backs had for Stafford in his entire 12 years in Detroit.

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It remains to be seen if the Rams can generate a robust ground game this season, especially with Cam Akers suffering a torn Achilles tendon before the start of training camp. But L.A. definitely has a defense.

In the second half, Stafford took advantage of a Bears breakdown with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp, who had no defenders in his ZIP code, and found Robert Woods in the back of the end zone for another score. The game took on the look of a practice with the first-string offense going against the second-string defense.

Rams’ 34-14 victory over the Chicago Bears by the numbers. Rams, Bears individual statistics.

The Rams started the game playing catch-up, considering the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals all won their openers — on the road — earlier in the day. But the performance by Stafford sent a resounding message ricocheting through the NFC West.

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“To be able to answer the bell like that, and do it in prime time, is huge,” Stanton said. “Other than Thanksgiving, we almost never got to play nationally televised games in Detroit. So now the whole country gets to see what he can do.

“He’s been waiting for an opportunity like this, and he deserves it. Everybody who’s in his corner is so excited to see how this plays out.”


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