It all seemed to be going so perfectly for the Los Angeles Rams. On the afternoon of Sept. 26, they dismantled the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to raise their record to 3-0 on the young season.
It was everything the Rams had hoped for eight months earlier, a week before the Buccaneers won that Super Bowl title, when they made their stunning, blockbuster trade with the Detroit Lions to bring in quarterback Matthew Stafford and prepare for a second straight Super Bowl played by the home team.
In defeating the Buccaneers — who had won their Super Bowl in Tampa as the first team to ever play a Super Bowl home game — behind Stafford’s four touchdown passes in a 34-24 victory, the early verdict was in: Trading away Jared Goff, as well as a slew of choice draft picks over three seasons, was worth every penny for the Rams, who found the missing piece to a championship puzzle in the veteran quarterback.
The Rams cruising to the NFC West title simply wasn’t in the Cards
But a funny thing happened on the way to their own Super home game this upcoming February at SoFi Stadium. The week after the Rams’ convincing win over the Buccaneers, the Arizona Cardinals brought them crashing back to earth in a 37-20 victory that put Arizona in the lead in the NFC West.
Flash-forward 10 weeks and the Cardinals’ division lead has only grown, now up two games over the Rams with five to play. And thus, the verdict remains out on the success or failure of the Stafford trade.
But the jury is poised to make a final judgment. On Monday night, the Rams travel to Glendale, AZ, for the rematch against the Cardinals with the division, and playoff positioning, on the line.
Mid-season slump left Los Angeles questioning if Matthew Stafford was the answer
The Rams (8-4), who lost three games in a row in the middle of the season, coinciding with the loss of Robert Woods to a season-ending knee injury, have one final chance to make a push for the NFC West title, and it must begin with a victory on Monday night. Otherwise, the Cardinals can claim not only a stranglehold on the division but also a likely No. 1 seed and first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs.
This was hardly the scenario Sean McVay and the Rams envisioned when they made the trade at the end of January, and certainly not in those glory days of September, when their 3-0 start seemed to inform the league that all they needed was the trustworthy signal-caller Goff no longer appeared to be.
Stafford hasn’t been the same since his hot start to the season
But the numbers are telling a different story. In going 3-0, Stafford completed 70.2% of his passes and had nine touchdowns against just one interception.
In the nine games since, the Rams are just 5-4, and Stafford has a 21-8 TD-interception ratio while completing just 65.6% of his passes.
With five weeks to go, the time has not come to hit the panic button in Los Angeles. Stafford looked much more like the quarterback the Rams traded for last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, completing 26 of 38 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in a 37-7 victory.
But how Stafford performs on Monday night, with all eyes upon him, will give the clearest picture yet of how to judge the success of a trade that once seemed a no-brainer.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference