Hernández: Rams fans better hope Matthew Stafford is no Jared Goff

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  • Los Angeles Rams
    Los Angeles Rams
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  • Matthew Stafford
    Matthew Stafford
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  • Jared Goff
    Jared Goff
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Los Angeles Rams' Matthew Stafford fumbles the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers recovered the ball. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
Matthew Stafford fumbles the ball during the first half of the Rams' road game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. (Matt Ludtke / Associated Press)

The interview room at the Rams’ practice facility is smaller than it used to be, but everything else feels familiar, down to the words coming out of the quarterback’s mouth.

Matthew Stafford sounds like Jared Goff.

That’s not a bad thing, as the since-departed Goff was a model of accountability with the Rams, shouldering the blame for every turnover he made and every game his team lost.

The problem for the Rams is that Stafford is now throwing the football like the quarterback for whom he was traded.

Stafford had a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown in each of his last three games, something the turnover-prone Goff never did in his five seasons with the Rams. Coincidentally or not, the Rams are on a three-game losing streak. Stafford, who has committed six turnovers during the stretch, has gone from being a most valuable player candidate to, well, being compared to Goff.

“Just doing everything I can to look in the mirror,” Stafford said.

Stafford, who reiterated Wednesday that he isn’t injured, will have to do more than that, however. He must play better, starting Sunday against the two-win Jacksonville Jaguars at SoFi Stadium.

Slow starts by Stafford in each of the last three games have created early deficits for the Rams, presenting major obstacles for a team that can’t defend the run.

“We for sure have played from behind a little bit, which is not fun in the NFL,” Stafford said. “It's obviously a whole lot easier when you get out to a big lead and let our defense that's got great pass rushers really get after the other team's quarterback. Being able to start faster, that's something that is definitely a big goal of ours.”

In the loss at Green Bay last week, Stafford lost a fumble on the Rams’ second possession, leading to the Packers’ first touchdown. With a familiar pattern taking shape, a desperate McVay elected on the next drive to go for it on fourth and one from the Rams’ 29-yard line. Darrell Henderson was stopped short of the first down, the Packers kicked a field goal and the Rams were suddenly down by 10 points.

Coach Sean McVay has fiercely protected his new quarterback. He continued Wednesday, saying, “Not all of those interceptions are exclusively on him.”

In Stafford’s defense, the team around him has sustained major losses. With Robert Woods out for the season, opponents have double-teamed Cooper Kupp with greater frequency. With Johnny Mundt also out for the season, the Rams have only one legitimate tight end in Tyler Higbee.

A weak interior line, coupled with the preseason Achilles injury suffered by running back Cam Akers, has virtually wiped out their ground game.

These explanations shouldn’t count as excuses. The Rams are paying Stafford $20 million to be a franchise quarterback. They packaged two first-round picks with Goff for Stafford thinking he could navigate them through stretches such as this. Stafford has to perform, period.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford talks with coach Sean McVay before a game against the Green Bay Packers.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford talks with coach Sean McVay before a game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in Green Bay, Wis. (Aaron Gash / Associated Press)

The real question is whether the old gunslinger from a perennial loser in Detroit can transform into a more responsible custodian of the ball required by a Super Bowl contender.

“From a decision-making standpoint, I still want to aggressively take what the defense is giving me,” Stafford said. “If they're giving me chances to go over the top, I want to take those chances.”

Stafford pointed to his 79-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson in Green Bay, which came on a third-and-eight play.

“Do we have maybe a chance to get something at the sticks?” Stafford said. “Absolutely. But Van Jefferson one on one with no safety help over the top, I'm going to take that shot. So I don't ever want to lose that, I don't think I will.

“I've been playing this game a long time, been throwing it down the field a long time, so I want to continue to do that. But when defenses do a good job of playing you deep to short and force you to take the underneath stuff, I want to make sure I do that as well.”

McVay has a lot riding on him finding the right balance. The Rams do too.

Trading Goff was an implied endorsement of McVay on the part of the Rams. The indirect message was that McVay’s offense could once again thrive with an upgrade at quarterback. The first eight games supported that theory. The last three offered evidence to the contrary. How Stafford and the offense finish the season will have a significant effect on McVay’s reputation.

Stafford’s performance also will determine the viability of the Rams’ greater ambition, which is to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium. They are counting on Stafford to do what they determined Goff couldn’t.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.