The Rams, just starting to move on from their miserable plunge from Super Bowl champions to an also-ran last season, have one of the NFL’s youngest teams.
But it was quarterback Matthew Stafford, their oldest player, who engineered their intriguing 30-13 upset of the Seahawks on Sunday at noisy Lumen Field, offering a promise they might not be as terrible as their massive roster turnover, lack of experience and injuries suggested they were certain to become.
Stafford, seven months past his 35th birthday and playing his first game since a spinal contusion ended his season last Nov. 20, was sharp, effective and quick to adapt to a reconfigured receiving corps that lacked the injured Cooper Kupp.
Protected surprisingly well by an offensive line that was formed late in preseason play, Stafford completed 24 of 38 passes for 334 yards. It was his first 300-yard-plus game since he racked up 308 against Dallas last Oct. 9 and his best total since he threw for 337 yards against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game on Jan. 30, 2022.
In the first game of his 15th NFL season, he recorded his eighth season-opening game with at least 300 passing yards, tying him with Matt Ryan behind only Drew Brees (10).
The old guy, the one whose beard is increasingly gray, still has it. That’s one less worry for the Rams as they get deeper into the challenging early part of their schedule.
“He played like the guy that we all know and love and I’m sure happy to be able to see him out there competing the way he is with his teammates,” coach Sean McVay said Sunday. “He elevates everybody.”
There was no single "aha" moment that proved to Stafford — or any of his doubters — that he was back in form after injuries shortened his previous season to nine games of their 5-12 season. His teammates didn’t need evidence Sunday, anyway. They had seen it in practice and never lost belief in him.
“We always knew, ever since he came back, that he was on it. He looked good. He looked great,” said receiver Tutu Atwell, who was targeted eight times and caught six passes for 119 yards Sunday.
The most impressive aspect of his performance was his overall sustained command, his many quick reads, and his ability to adapt when McVay came up with plays the coach admitted he sent in late. Stafford took it all in stride — comfortably and confidently.
“There was a couple plays that, you show me a great quarterback, I’ll show you a guy that’s always going to want a couple plays back,” McVay said, “but I thought he was at his best in those biggest moments.”
The key was that Stafford felt healthy and whole. He even ran the ball on two consecutive plays to end the third quarter, scrambling nine yards and then gaining two more to sustain a drive that ended with an easy one-yard touchdown run by Cam Akers. That expanded the Rams’ lead to 24-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Stafford joked afterward that hitting the ground after the scramble “reminded me why I don’t run.”
He doesn’t have to, if he can continue to throw as well as he did Sunday in a game that should give the Rams confidence that they can compete each week.
“I want to come out and play good football. I know I can when I’m healthy and I feel good, and I felt good today,” he said. “I feel good leaving here, so that feels nice.
“Our guys up front did a hell of a job keeping me clean and our guys on the outside made some plays. I still have some things that I can be better at and I’ll continue to try to be better.”
Defying the low expectations widely set out for the Rams didn’t provide special satisfaction Sunday, he said.
“I think we’re excited because we put the work in. I think the cherry on top is getting to see you all’s reaction to it,” he said to the crowd of reporters gathered around his locker.
“I think the big thing for us is that we care about it because we put the work in. it wasn’t given to us. We’ve got a bunch of guys that earned a bunch of spots on this team no matter what their status was — draft status, age, it doesn’t matter. Guys put the work in to go get the win and we’ve got to go out there and do it again.”
There’s the real test: for Stafford and the Rams to play this well again and again and again. “He looked very good,” Atwell said. “Keep it like that.”
If only it were that simple. It won’t be. And predicting the course of a season based on the outcome of one game makes no sense.
“I’m so proud of this team, so proud of this group. It was awesome to be able to see a lot of the work that they’ve put in come to fruition,” McVay said. “But it’s one game. And they know that. And we’ve got to continue to keep it rolling. We’ll enjoy this and then we’ll move forward toward a phenomenal football team next week.”
Stafford took the same approach.
“It was a good start,” he said.
Next, with the talented San Francisco 49ers coming to town in Week 2, we'll see if this good beginning leads to something more than the terrible season that has been predicted for them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.