The ‘messiah’ has arrived: Why LA loves former Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford

Detroit Free Press

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — In the sprawling region known as Greater Los Angeles that stretches from the desert to the ocean, from the mountains to the valleys, where nearly 19 million people live and work in communities as diverse as their topography, there is one person who may be uniquely qualified to make a true assessment about Matthew Stafford.

Before the Los Angeles Rams’ new star quarterback arrived this season following 12 years of statistical superlatives but not much else with the Detroit Lions, Rob Parker had a 20-year career as a columnist, radio and television host in Detroit as a flame-throwing provocateur with a caustic wit.

He observed Stafford from press boxes and locker rooms until five years ago, when he moved to L.A. to work for Fox Sports 1 as well as other media outlets, including sports-talk radio station KLAC. When Stafford arrived in L.A. this spring, after having his request for a trade granted, Parker began to watch Stafford closely again.

“The messiah has arrived,” Parker said. “That’s where (the fans) are. They are all the way in, he’s the missing piece, we finally got our quarterback, we’re going to win the Super Bowl. The L.A. fans are in love with Matthew Stafford.”

‘He has been better than I thought’

The Rams’ practice facility, like most things in L.A., is far-flung among the sprawl. It’s nestled on the suburban hillside campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, 40 miles west of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. It’s an isolated environment and a temporary one until the Rams build a permanent headquarters.

But on the practice field, Stafford might as well be back in Allen Park because he carries himself with the same ease, poise and command of a franchise quarterback. It’s clear teammates respect him for his talent, experience and leadership — and surely for the promise he brings.

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Defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day was surprised at how early Stafford gets to the facility each day, though in Detroit it was a well-known habit. When the 2011 NFL lockout ended, Stafford waited outside the facility’s main gate in his black Mercedes sports sedan until the exact second he could enter.

“When I pull in and I see a guy and his car’s always there first, it’s like wow,” Joseph-Day said. “I’m a professional guy and that just shows why his hard work does come to fruition, how he’s been playing so well.”

But it was the opinion of coach Sean McVay that interested me most. When I arrived at the Rams’ facility Wednesday, my first question for McVay was whether Stafford was as good as he had hoped.

“He has been better than I thought,” McVay said, “and I thought he was going to be really good. I’ve been really impressed with his body of work in his resume over the course of his career.

“I think he’s doing a great job. I think the best players elevate those around them. I think guys are playing better around him. I think he’s seen the field really well.”

Stafford is playing at an MVP level with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s on pace for 45 TDs and 5,200 yards. His completion percentage, his touchdown percentage and his passer rating are at career highs.

But more than that, yes, he is elevating his team. Cooper Kupp leads NFL receivers with seven touchdowns and is likely on his way to his first Pro Bowl. And Stafford helped make up for defensive insufficiencies while leading the Rams to a 5-1 record.

Then McVay said something that’s at the very crux of why Stafford has played so well leading into Sunday’s matchup against his old team, the 0-6 Lions.

“I think he has great ownership and autonomy of what we’re really trying to get done,” McVay said.

That sentence contains the very essence of why many people believe McVay had to move on from Jared Goff and had to acquire a player like Stafford to fully realize his offensive vision. Stafford became the collaborator Goff never could.

“I think he’s able to really apply all that experience,” McVay said. “He’s had a lot of great experiences, a lot of great coaches, a lot of great teammates that he’s played with in Detroit, so he’s able to take that, apply it in the right ways.

“He’s playing with 10 really good players around him on a regular basis. I think he’s doing an excellent job. … I can’t say enough about the leadership that he’s displayed. I think the best make everybody around you better and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Lions never surrounded him with talent?

I’m not sure where, how or why this narrative started, though my best guess is it comes from people who never watched the Lions closely. But the idea that Stafford was never surrounded by enough talent to win in Detroit is complete and utter equine excrement.

For the record, I wanted to know where Stafford, now that he had moved on and perhaps had a different perspective, stood on this theory.

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“Oh, I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Stafford said. “When I was in Detroit, everybody was doing everything we could to try and make the team as good as we could, myself included.

“I’m in a new place now. I’m here in LA. I’m lucky to be surrounded by the people I’m surrounded with, there’s no doubt. … But I don’t spend too much time thinking about it or reading that narrative to be honest with you.”

Stafford wasn’t willing to debunk that narrative, but I can assure you that Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, T.J. Hockenson and Marvin Jones played with Stafford. And the run game was never a dominant force, but Mikel LeShoure had 1,012 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns in 2012, Reggie Bush rushed for 1,006 yards in 2013 and Joique Bell had 2,379 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs in 2013-14. On defense, the Lions gave Stafford support with Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah, Glover Quinn, Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs and Cliff Avril.

It still added up to just four winning seasons during Stafford’s time with the Lions.

What’s made the difference so quickly in LA?

Sure, the Rams have good players. But DeSean Jackson is the only Pro Bowler among skill-position guys. And the Aaron Donald-led defense that’s supposed to play co-lead to McVay’s offensive genius? It’s ranked 21st overall and has been a disappointment without coordinator Brandon Staley, who took the Chargers’ head coaching job this year.

Could the difference be organizational? The Ford family has been the one constant through the Lions’ decades of struggles. But I surely didn’t expect Stafford, considering his  strong relationship with Martha Ford and Sheila Ford Hamp, to insult his former employer who also granted him permission to leave. Even when I limited my question only to how the Rams’ leadership structure plays a role in strengthening the team, he balked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. I don’t have a ton of interaction with (owner Stan Kroenke) and some of the guys in the upper — general manager, president, all that kind of stuff.”

Then I turned to an unlikely source, another former Lion, who shed more light on the subject than I could have imagined.

“Coach,” defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson said. “Coach McVay, he runs a great ship here. I can’t complain. I love him. He’s a great coach. He really cares about us and everything that we do and our game and our craft and our bodies and everything. So I can only respect the man.”

Robinson, a 2016 second-round pick who left Detroit after four seasons, was reluctant to criticize his old team. Yet he did what Stafford wouldn’t do. He singled out what the Rams management does so well that inspires him and other players.

“I’m not going to bash anybody in that organization,” he said of the Lions. “It’s a beautiful, great organization. We just didn’t put it together as a team because it’s more than just the players. The coaches got to put in their thing, the GM, it’s all cumulative. As a team, we’re all working together as one. I feel like as a whole team we didn’t put together.

“Here, coach McVay, (GM Les Snead), they have a great ship, they know exactly how they want the ship to be ran and everyone’s bought in to that. So you can’t do anything but buy in and want to be great for these guys because they’re laying it out here on the line. So why not just go put everything on the line for these guys?”

Not everyone’s convinced

Parker understands the hype in L.A. a place  that sees star free-agent athletes come through town as often as Detroiters see potholes on their roads: LeBron James, Max Scherzer, Shaquille O’Neal, Wayne Gretzky, Reggie Jackson.

But he’s not convinced about Stafford, because he’s seen good starts before from him. What Parker wants to see what ultimately will define the season Stafford has: playoff success.

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“The jury’s out when it comes to me because it’s not about putting up regular-season stats,” he said. “To be fair, Jared Goff with this coach and some of these players a couple years ago (in 2018) had like the (12th-highest) offense in the history of the NFL. Jared Goff made the Pro Bowl a couple times. They averaged 32.9 points a game.

“Even starting 3-0 this year, people were making it this big, ‘Oh, Stafford! They finally got their guy!’ They’ve started 3-0 three of the last four years, including Stafford’s year. So none of that has really changed. And I get it, the coach is all the way in and he’s got to talk Stafford up because he’s given up all these draft picks and the future. And if this guy doesn’t deliver for them, then their goose is cooked.

Whenever I brought up the idea of winning the Super Bowl, especially this year, it made some people uncomfortable at the Rams facility.

My guess is that, if Stafford doesn’t at least take a healthy Rams to the NFC championship, much of the regular season will be discounted, because fans and media might suddenly remember L.A. had a quarterback who took them to the championship game recently.

“And that’s not to take anything away from what Stafford’s done,” Parker said, “and playing against the teams that he’s playing because you’ve got to play who’s in front of you. So I get all that.

“But I’m just not ready to crown anybody because I ultimately think it comes down to Stafford winning a Super Bowl. This team has already been to a Super Bowl with the quarterback they got rid of.”

They are asking him to do a lot

Diante Lee is an NFL analyst for Pro Football Focus who has studied Stafford closely. He played linebacker at Sacramento State for current Boise State coach Andy Avalos and he has also coached high school football.

“I always felt as though there’s certain quarterbacks that you can see that reach, a certain kind of talent threshold,” he said. “And I’m always confident that those kinds of quarterbacks will figure it out because it’s just so rare to come across the ones that truly have the arm and the mind in order to be a high-level NFL quarterback.

“Toward the end of his tenure in Detroit… you could tell he had really become the veteran quarterback that I think we’re seeing at its peak in Los Angeles. (That) was really when I felt confident that if he just had a winning situation around him, if all the pieces were in place, that that was a quarterback that was capable of being a Super Bowl-contending type of player.”

Lee’s also seen plenty of Stafford’s poor decisions, including this year, when he threw an interception way over Kupp and into three Colts defenders. Or when he was trying to throw the ball away through the end zone in Seattle and was picked off by Diggs.

“But there are some things that we have to be honest about,” Lee said. “And he will cost you games at times with some of those decisions. And I do think with the way that things are trending, because their defense hasn’t fallen off a cliff with Brandon Staley leaving, that if something is going to happen that’s going to cost them a chance to win a championship, it would be Matthew Stafford making those poor decisions.”

I spoke with Lee before I spoke with McVay, yet Lee touched on the idea McVay presented a few days later about Stafford’s ownership of the offenseand why that matters so much .

“They are asking him to do a lot,” Lee said. “The Rams don’t run the ball the way they used to. They don’t run play-action the way they used to. There is a large share of the offense that’s being placed on the shoulders of the quarterback.

“So when it’s great, it’s great. When they play a team later on in the year after you get all this tape and you’re able to make adjustments and maybe take away some of his favorite throws, I’m fascinated to see what it looks like in a high-stakes situation because that is the one thing that he has not had a lot of exposure to in his career.”

The casual fan might not pick up the difference as easily, other than to marvel at some of Stafford’s prodigious throws, like his first touchdown pass of the year: a 67-yard bomb on play-action against Chicago where he rolled to left then dropped a dime to Kupp, like 10 pennies from heaven.

It was a throw that wasn’t seen nearly as often from Goff. Lee believes McVay and former passing game coordinator Shane Waldron didn’t have much trust in Goff to work through a progression or navigate a tight pocket.

“So they would always get into empty (sets),” Lee said, “or throw a screen and run a bunch of quick-passing concepts just to get the ball out of Goff’s hand and hope that the receiver could go convert a first down for them.

“The big difference now is that when they’re in those situations with Stafford they’re calling way more downfield passing concepts and trusting that Stafford can throw the ball into tight windows and work through a complete passing progression to find an open receiver.”

In the right mind space

Robinson used to sit a few lockers away from Stafford in Allen Park. They spent four years together and while Stafford seems like the same person — with all his intrinsic qualities intact — there’s something a little different that Robinson has noticed.

“I guess he’s in the right mind space,” he said. “Everybody says it’s different here. It’s a different brotherhood, we’re all tight and everything, so he’s a little happier.

“Like I said, the years in Detroit we were connecting he was happy, but if we weren’t he wasn’t happy. And that goes for everybody because when you’re not winning, you’re not happy. When you’re losing, everybody’s, ‘What I gotta do?’ Then it starts turning into people doing other stuff that’s out of character that doesn’t need to be done.”

Robinson had a poor relationship with reporters in Detroit. We could never figure out why. No one could pinpoint a specific moment or criticism. When I spoke with Robinson, he seemed like an entirely different person willing to show me his thoughtful, introspective, happy and charming side. L.A. reporters were surprised by my trepidation about interviewing him.

As Robinson stood there speaking with me on a perfect California afternoon in the mid-70s, a steady, gentle breeze came off the Pacific Ocean. He looked out at the surrounding foothills pock-marked by modest four-bedroom homes that cost $1 million, the overpriced going rate for stucco structures with flimsy roofs that have never tested by any serious weather.

“Hey, at least you’re in California,” Robinson said with a smile. “You’ve got better weather, so you can smile about the weather. It’s about the weather. It’s a little bit sunnier, not as gloomy. The sun’s out a little bit. Get a nice little vibe going. It’s different out here.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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