Analysis

Matthew Stafford, Rams prove the hype is real in win over defending champion Buccaneers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- This was why Matthew Stafford wanted to join the Los Angeles Rams: to play in early-season games that mean something, to have his team mentioned in Super Bowl discussions and not hear snickers, to be a part of something so attractive it commands "must-see" treatment from television networks as well as Hollywood A-listers.

And this is why the Rams wanted Stafford badly enough to trade away a former No. 1 overall pick, two first-round draft choices and a third-round selection to bring him to town: 343 yards passing, four touchdowns, zero turnovers and a 134.0 rating in a showdown against the defending Super Bowl champs.

Playing before a capacity crowd that included luminaries such as LeBron James, Jason Sudeikis, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Dr. Dre, Anthony Anderson and Cedric The Entertainer, Stafford and the Rams showed up and showed out en route to a 34-24 victory at SoFi Stadium that kept them unbeaten at 3-0. The performance wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to confirm that there is substance within the hype.

Just as he was in the opener against Chicago and the following week against Indianapolis, Stafford was everything Los Angeles wanted and needed. He started slowly, misfiring on all but one of his first seven pass attempts, but he was electric thereafter, leading six consecutive scoring drives as the Rams twice built 17-point leads, the last with 8:14 to play.

It was not the first noteworthy performance of his 13-year career, but in previous seasons, Stafford's supremacy was overlooked because it served as the football equivalent of: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Stafford could play out of his mind in Detroit, but no one paid attention because he was playing for the Lions, who last won a playoff game during the 1991 season.

With L.A., he has a supporting cast not only on offense, but on defense. That latter unit made life miserable for Tom Brady and the Bucs, who entered the game leading the league in scoring but only eclipsed 20 points in garbage time. Brady had thrown for nine scores over the first two weeks but managed only one touchdown pass on 55 attempts Sunday. He was consistently harassed, sacked three times and forced to repeatedly throw under duress.

And yet, for all the focus on the players, much of the credit for the Rams' start should go to the front office, which a handful of years ago began its trend of going against the NFL grain when it comes to personnel acquisition. In a league where first-round draft picks are considered more valuable than family heirlooms, the Rams have used them as bounty for established playmakers, preferring the known to the unknown or untested. They surrendered two No. 1s for Stafford, another two for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and a single first-round selection for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who later was traded when the Rams thought they could do even better.

And therein lies the beauty of the Rams' philosophy. They're bold and unflinching, willing to take calculated chances when others would stand pat for fear of being second-guessed. If the move works for the Rams, great. If not, they move on, admitting their mistake through their actions if not their words.

For instance, in 2020 they released running back Todd Gurley two years after signing him to a four-year, $60 million extension because his performance had fallen off, forcing them to carry $20.15 million in dead money on the salary cap. And last offseason, they included Jared Goff in the trade for Stafford, even though they had signed him to a $134 million extension in 2019. The move meant absorbing a cap hit of $22.2 million this season, which reportedly is the largest single-season hit in league history, surpassing the $21.8 million hit they took for Cooks in 2020.

No matter -- the Rams are "all in" from year to year.

"First of all, ego is the enemy," general manager Les Snead said Sunday night by text. "We execute what we call our Warren Buffett approach when it comes to first-rounders: Invest in really good players who are already there, then, with the rest of the draft, we take our venture approach. Trade back to collect more picks, collect (compensatory) picks, try to find our contributors and role players there. And every now and then, we hit on an Uber. This way we have pillars in their prime while the future is still bright because we're young."

That aggressive approach creates a culture in which players believe there is virtually nothing the organization won't do to win. It creates expectations and fosters competition. Ramsey and Stafford each have spoken about the liveliness in practice as each side seeks to win against the other, all the while making the team better in the process.

Initially on Sunday, Stafford looked out of sorts. His passes were high or off target, including underthrowing the speedy DeSean Jackson after he got free deep. But the 33-year-old signal-caller found his rhythm on the Rams' third possession, capitalizing after cornerback Jamel Dean departed with a game-ending knee injury. Dean's absence left the Bucs thin in the secondary, as Dean was playing for Sean Murphy-Bunting, who suffered a dislocated elbow in the season opener.

Stafford completed touchdown passes of 6 and 2 yards, respectively to Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp, then found Jackson for a 75-yard score. It was Jackson's ninth career touchdown of 75 yards or longer, tying him with Hall of Famer Lance Alworth for most in league history. Jackson also had a 40-yard catch-and-run, finishing with three receptions for 120 yards and a score. Kupp had nine catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns; it was his second consecutive game with at least nine receptions and two scores, tying the longest such streak in the Super Bowl era.

The Bucs (2-1), whose defense has struggled against the pass this season, could not marry their coverage with the rush. Injuries were a factor, being down two of their top three cornerbacks and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. But lack of communication was an even bigger issue.

On several occasions, the Bucs failed to make the proper defensive checks when the Rams went with three-receiver sets to one side of the formation, including on the first two touchdowns. There also was a breakdown on the long score by Jackson.

"When I turned around, I just saw the ball in the air," said cornerback Ross Cockrell. "What I do know, as a defense, we prepared for (Jackson) and knowing that he was a deep threat, an explosive threat. We'll have to work on that."

Privately, some Bucs said the Rams did not do anything to catch them off guard. The teams aren't strangers to each other, having played last December, so many of the calls and concepts were familiar to them. The biggest difference, according to one Tampa Bay staff member, was the presence of Stafford.

"Matt is a little riskier; he'll take chances," the person said. "Jared was safer with the screens. The thing you see is that they're playing with more confidence with Matt back there."

It's debatable which comes first, confidence or success. With the Rams and Stafford, there's no need for discussion. The correct answer is … both.

"I don't want to rehash all the years I was there (in Detroit), to be honest with you," Stafford said. "But I just know that I feel grateful to step in the huddle with the guys that I have, both the guys up front that are playing at the level that they're playing at right now and the guys around me in the skilled positions. I'm enjoying every minute of it and trying to make the most of it and seeing where it will take us."

If Stafford has his way, come February, it will take him right back to SoFi Stadium -- the site of Super Bowl LVI.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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