The last time most in Los Angeles saw Matthew Stafford with his teammates, he appeared drunk.
The last time most in Los Angeles heard from Matthew Stafford, he was talking about his sore arm.
The last time most in Los Angeles checked out Matthew Stafford’s name in a quarterback poll, he was ranked in the second tier.
The next time Los Angeles will cheer for Matthew Stafford, on Thursday night at SoFi Stadium, he will be throwing meaningful passes for the first time in seven months against the Super Bowl-favored Buffalo Bills.
The boozy speech at a post-Super Bowl celebration probably will be mentioned during the television broadcast. The elbow tendinitis will be dissected. The odd rankings will be scrutinized. The heat again will be on the Rams’ most important star to prove his greatness.
The Rams start prep for their season opener against Bills and should have all the starters ready to go, with the exception of Van Jefferson. The receiver’s status is unknown as he recovers from knee surgery.
What a difference a year doesn’t make.
Shouldn’t all these questions have been answered?
With Jared Goff, they couldn’t win. With Stafford, they won it all.
His 17 regular-season interceptions were his most in nine years, but he was unbeatable in the playoffs, carrying them through their journey’s most difficult moments.
With Stafford hitting Kupp on two long passes, the Rams charged downfield to beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final seconds of an NFC divisional-round playoff game.
With Stafford connecting on all five passes, the Rams engineered a last-minute drive to beat the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC championship.
With Stafford keeping his cool amid the thickest pressure of his career, he drove the Rams 79 yards for the winning touchdown in the final minutes against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
“It’s poetic, man,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Yet for Stafford, the poem was but one verse.
The Rams defense was already good, thus a Super Bowl LVI title, but the addition of linebacker Bobby Wagner supplies a star on all three levels of the unit.
You’re a champion, but what about all those interceptions? Could you have won it if the 49ers’ Jaquiski Tartt didn’t drop that fourth-quarter pick? Could you have won it without McVay? Can you win it again?
Though Kupp was the homegrown Super Bowl MVP, and Donald was the homegrown Super Bowl star, Stafford was the transplant Super Bowl sidekick.
Kupp got the votes, Donald got the fame, and Stafford got the shrugs.
Part of it is surely because many still associate him with Detroit. Just check out his recent endorsements. He stars in a national phone commercial, but, with one wink, it was as much about his 12 years with the Lions as his one year with the Rams. In another commercial, he shouts, “Pizza! Pizza!” for a company based in — you guessed it — Detroit.
Like another local transplant named LeBron James, even a championship hasn’t assured Stafford’s place here.
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp will again be at the forefront of a Rams offense that has undergone some notable changes since winning the Super Bowl.
His offseason started inauspiciously in February when, like many of his teammates, he was understandably partied out by the time he took the stage during the Rams’ victory parade. Give him points for graciously agreeing to take the microphone under those conditions. But his loose tongue made social media cringe.
“I’m damn happy to be standing up here with you guys, celebrating this s—-,” Stafford shouted. “C’mon! Let’s go y’all! I’m going to bring a little southern hospitality to this. I appreciate y’all so much. You guys have been unbelievable. Unbelievable all year. And you know what? We appreciate ya! ... Let’s go!”
Before the “Let’s go!” he took a big swig out of a long dark bottle as the crowd roared.
It got worse. Later, while clearly still in an inebriated daze, Stafford casually walked away from photographer Kelly Smiley after she fell off the stage and suffered a fractured spine. The furor was so great that a day later, Stafford and wife Kelly, who attended to the injured Smiley, issued a joint statement.
“We have been in communication with Kelly Smiley since yesterday’s incident and we are sorry for what happened,” the statement read. “As we told Kelly, we will be covering all her hospital bills and replacing her cameras. We wish her a speedy recovery.”
“I feel good, I feel like I can make all the throws.”
— Matthew Stafford, Rams quarterback, on concerns about his elbow issues
The next time most people heard from him wasn’t that much more pleasant. It was this spring when the 34-year-old acknowledged he had received an injection in his right elbow to combat the discomfort he felt last season. During training camp, McVay referred to the lingering condition as “abnormal for a quarterback” and said, “Some of this stuff is things that MLB pitchers deal with.”
Wait a minute? Is Matthew Stafford suddenly Walker Buehler?
Stafford quickly quieted the alarm bells, saying he was going to be fine, noting, “I’m just going through something that’s irritating at the moment, but I’m working through it.”
He then showed it during a recent practice with the Bengals by connecting on every pass during the first 45 minutes of the workout.
“I feel good, I feel like I can make all the throws,” he said.
There are still many nonbelievers, witness the Athletic’s annual poll of 50 NFL coaches and executives. Stafford was rated in their second tier of NFL quarterbacks, seventh best by their scale, even though he has top-five credentials.
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Stafford ranks behind the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, whom he beat in the Super Bowl. He ranks behind the Bills’ Josh Allen, who has never been in a Super Bowl. He ranks behind the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, who has never won a playoff game.
That perception can’t be based on career stats. It can’t be based on impact victories. Some of it surely must be based on personality. Stafford is not flamboyant. He’s not a rock star. Like his high school teammate Clayton Kershaw, he goes out of his way to blend in.
Stafford is so soft-spoken, he often gets lost in the shuffle. When asked by reporters this summer about his success, he talked about it only being the first step.
“Yeah, I’m just trying to build on it,” he said. “Obviously had some success last year and want to continue my growth within the offense. I’m just trying to make sure that I can continue to find ways to be better both physically and mentally. How I can help the guys on our team.”
Right or wrong, there are questions about whether he can be better. Fair or not, there are doubts.
Was last season a brilliant fluke? Can he connect with new receiver Allen Robinson in the same manner in which he connected with free agent Odell Beckham Jr.? How well can he function behind an offensive line missing anchor Andrew Whitworth? Can he cut down on all those picks?
Matthew Stafford has shown he is one of the champions. Now he needs to prove he’s one of the greats.
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