Column: Matthew Stafford’s fearlessness is his super power and downfall, but Rams thrive on it

Fans cheer as Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leads the team onto the field.
Fans cheer as Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leads the team onto the field. Teammates say his confidence and leadership has been a key to their Super Bowl season.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

A person’s strengths and weaknesses often share a common origin or, as former Dodgers trainer and part-time philosopher Stan Conte once told me, “What makes you good also makes you suck.”

In the case of Matthew Stafford, it’s his fearlessness.

From the Rams’ secondary to the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line, there are numerous question marks leading into Super Bowl LVI. The emotional state of the Rams’ quarterback shouldn’t be one of them.


For the better or worse, the Rams’ quarterback won’t be afraid.

“No moment’s too big for him,” coach Sean McVay said.

That quality in Stafford is why he could make the kind of throw that he did when he delivered a 44-yard pass into Cooper Kupp’s hands in the final minute to set up the deciding field goal in a NFC divisional playoff win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The same let-‘er-rip approach nearly backfired in the NFC championship game when Stafford threw a deep ball right to San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jaquiski Tartt in the fourth quarter. Tartt dropped the ball, and the Stafford went on erase what remained of the Rams’ 10-point deficit.

There were other mistakes too, but the Rams weren’t punished for them, resulting in Stafford earning the first three postseason victories of his 13-year career and the team returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons.

With football’s greatest prize on the line Sunday, the Rams once again will count on the positives of Stafford’s style to outweigh the negatives.

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He didn’t change after throwing pick sixes in three consecutive losses in November.

“From a decision-making standpoint, I still want to aggressively take what the defense is giving me,” Stafford said at the time. “If they’re giving me chances to go over the top, I want to take those chances.”

This is who he is.

“Probably born with some of it, wanting to be aggressive,” Stafford said this week. “It’s part of playing this position at this level is being confident in yourself, being confident in the guys around you and understanding when it’s an appropriate time to take certain shots and when it’s not.”

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp hauls in a 44-yard catch past Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Matthew Stafford will throw long whenever given the opportunity, including this 44-yard strike to Cooper Kupp past Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. that set up the deciding field goal in the Rams’ NFC divisional playoff win over Tampa Bay.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The Rams are comfortable with how he plays. As Stafford said, his risk-taking reflects his confidence, and that confidence is what established the foundation of this Rams’ offense.

“I think it first kind of started in training camp,” offensive tackle Rob Havenstein said. “The way Matthew came in with [not only] his years of experience but just his style of leadership, his style of competitiveness, you really just understood who he was as a person right away. That’s something that’s an absolute credit to him.”

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Stafford had spent his previous 12 seasons with the losers of all losers, the Detroit Lions, but a move to a franchise with higher expectations didn’t require him to modify his temperament. He was secure enough in who he was to just be himself.

When the season started, he lived up to his reputation.

No quarterback attempted as many passes that traveled 30 or more yards in the air, or 40 or more.

Stafford finished the 17-game campaign with 41 touchdown passes, which were second-most in the NFL. He also had 17 of his passes intercepted, which was tied for the most.

Most frustrated Lions fans don’t hate Matthew Stafford for leaving Detroit. In fact, they’re rooting for the Rams quarterback to succeed in Super Bowl.

What helped offset the mistakes was how Stafford rebounded from them. He could deliver throws while taking a hit. He was one of the league’s most effective passers against the blitz.

“I don’t think he likes being hit,” Kupp said with a laugh. “I think he’s past that point.”

 Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford prepares to throw while on the run.
Matthew Stafford’s ability to throw on the run and in other adverse situations is what makes the Rams quarterback great.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Asked about Stafford’s ability to perform under pressure or in adverse conditions, Kupp mentioned something the quarterback says often.

“He’s like, ‘Let’s go do something cool,’ ” Kupp said. “He wants to be able to do something kind of sweet, you know, being able to change his arm slot, make him move off of his base and throw around someone. I think he enjoys that.

“I don’t think he’d complain if you just made him sit in the pocket and throw the ball. I think he’d be fine with that too. But I think he enjoys doing those cool things and being able to manipulate things like that.”

Stafford’s superb arm strength allows him to make unusual throws. He occasionally delivers passes sidearm. He made several no-look passes.

In offensive lineman Austin Corbett’s opinion, Stafford derives his swagger from his preparation.

“He steps into that huddle, and he looks you in the eye and you know he has control,” Corbett said. “It’s just an incredible testament to who he is within his game-day preparation every single week and just how much he works and how much he grinds through his preparation to make sure that he’s on top of every single thing.

Rams listen as quarterback Matthew Stafford gives instructions in the huddle.
Rams listen as Matthew Stafford gives instructions in the huddle, a place teammates say the quarterback commands with confidence.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s seen every single rep, he knows what to expect and you can just feel that coming off him when steps into the huddle. To be in a huddle with him, to be in the same team with a guy like Matthew is an honor and a special part of why we’re in this spot.”

Corbett said he has never been around a player as confident as Stafford.

The quality has been especially notable in these playoffs.

“I mean, he’s calm,” receiver Van Jefferson said. “Every play. He’s always ready to go. He’s ready to launch it. He has complete control of the huddle. He’s calm so everyone can hear him. He’s the leader of this team and we ride behind him.”

Rams punter Johnny Hekker is grateful to be playing in the Super Bowl against the Bengals after nearly losing job before the start of the regular season.

Especially in the critical stages of a game.

“He’s a true ultimate competitor,” Havenstein said “It really shows up when it gets in crunch time. You can tell there’s no waver, there’s no falter. There’s no doubt, anything like that. That just kind of spreads out through the guys in the huddle.”

The Rams will lean on him again Sunday when they take the greatest stage in American sports.

Stafford’s spirit can carry them to the most important win in franchise history — or send them crashing to the most painful of defeats.