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IT’S SO MUCH EASIER ROOTING FOR STAFFORD THAN RODGERS
After beating Brady and the champs and writing a dreamy new L.A. script, the reborn veteran carries a narrative more appealing than Rodgers’ grudge wars — his latest heroics notwithstanding
He still might be sprinting, his high-on-hashmarks coach alongside him, racing together down the field of a $6 billion battlestar galactica to greet another receiver after another touchdown. Maybe they can just camp out there, Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams. Because they seem destined to play in the same rocking palace on the second Sunday of February.
Juxtapose this joyful scene against the one a few hours later up the California coast, where Aaron Rodgers — the moody, petty hypocrite who believes he’s entitled to opinions but others are not — was rescuing the Packers with a breathtaking drive, 42 yards in 37 seconds without a timeout, and setting up Mason Crosby for the game-winning field goal. Suddenly, the legend who spent the offseason demanding a trade and trying to engineer the ouster of general manager Brian Gutekunst, was playing like an MVP again after a Week 1 stinkbomb … and was positioned to thumb his nose at the world again.
“How can you not be romantic about football?’’ he said amid the stunned silence of Levi’s Stadium. “This plane ride is going to feel incredible.’’
So, why aren’t we feeling romantic about Rodgers? Because it’s much easier to feel romantic about Matthew Stafford.
A Super Bowl appearance for the Rams, in their home stadium, only would confirm the early returns of an NFL season that apparently belongs to Stafford now. It’s about time, given his dozen seasons of hell in Detroit, where the Lions wasted his quarterbacking royalty and diehard loyalty the way they’ve ruined so many careers. His story is refreshing, sprinkled with feel-good elements embraceable for fans everywhere. This is a new narrative for the most compelling ongoing soap opera in sports, “Days of Our QBs’’ — a hybrid of “Billions’’ and “Dynasty’’ and “Total Divas’’ — which has been dominated for years by Tom Brady’s mystical agelessness, Rodgers’ angst and Patrick Mahomes’ superpowers.
Nothing is polarizing or the least bit annoying about Stafford. By all appearances, the guy who hasn’t won a playoff game might not lose one this postseason. His fit within McVay’s offense has been heavenly, as exhibited by the hipster-groomed coach’s sideline histrionics. And the cause is loaded with weapons ranging from unstoppable slot receiver Cooper Kupp to speedy-as-ever DeSean Jackson, an offensive line that rarely allows Stafford to be touched, and a defense led by dreamwrecker Aaron Donald, who might be his biggest competition for league MVP.
“I love you, man,’’ Donald told Stafford, wrapping him in a hug after the Rams surged to 3-0 with a stomping of Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers.
“That’s a whole lot better than when he used to be chasing me. So I’ll take it,’’ said Stafford, who is thrilled to escape the manhandlings and discover love, sunshine and winning in the very antithesis of downtown Detroit. With nine TD passes in three games, three of at least 56 yards, he’s the hottest entertainer in the bosom of show business. Ever think he’d be as big in L.A. as his former high-school football teammate, Clayton Kershaw, who snapped the ball to Stafford in pudgier, pre-baseball days?
“It’s exactly what he wanted,’’ Kershaw said.
Big games, big opponents, big stage. Everything Michigan was not. “I don’t want to rehash all those years I was there, to be honest,” Stafford said. “I just feel grateful to step into the huddle with the guys I have around me. I’m enjoying every minute of it, trying to make the most of it, and we’ll see where it takes us. … There’s so many different guys on our team who are great NFL players, great people. I was the new guy. They embraced me; that was awesome. I want to be myself every single day, bring my best every single day.’’
So wasn’t this, in a way, his greatest day as a pro? It isn’t how he thinks, how he processes life. It wasn’t long ago when Stafford’s wife, Kelly, was wheeled into surgery for the removal of a noncancerous but threatening brain tumor. He’s just taking the days as they come. “Every time we go out there, it’s a big one,’’ he said. “No doubt Tampa is a real good football team — Super Bowl champs, Tom Brady, the defense, a real big challenge for us. We did a real nice job.’’
Those wishing not to be hijacked by Rodgers’ weekly told-you-so referendums — with his latest salvo to critics coming Sunday night, as he beat a 49ers team that tried to satisfy his wishes and bring him home to northern California — now have Stafford to support. Same goes for those asking why Mahomes, who never had thrown a September interception, has sabotaged the Chiefs — poor Andy Reid was rushed to the hospital — with late picks in successive losses. Same goes for those who know what’s coming next Sunday night: “THE RETURN,’’ as NBC already is promoting Brady’s return to New England, where Patriots fans realize Mac Jones might be the next Daniel Jones and likely will shower Brady with louder cheers than their own team.
Like Kershaw, who finally won a World Series after so many misses, Stafford finally has a chance to accompany glittering statistics — he’s pushing 50,000 passing yards and 300 scoring passes — with hardware. You’ll never hear him utter a comment that doesn’t lead with team-first.
“It’s been great. I think Sean does a great job of giving us a game plan that really keeps the defense on their toes. Our guys are just doing what they’re suppsoed to be. I’m getting it to them the best I can. That’s when we’re at our best,’’ said Stafford, who completed 27 of 38 passes for 343 yards. “We threw the ball underneath today, we threw screens, we threw it over the top, we ran the ball, we play-actioned, we did a little bit of everything. So when he's got us going like that, you know, it's fun to go out there and execute them."
After a 75-yard hookup to an embarrassingly open Jackson on a go route, Stafford and McVay raced across the turf like kids to congratulate him. “I think my hamstrings are already sore. I probably pulled them both," McVay said. “I was being in the moment and having fun, enjoying watching these guys do their thing, and there was a lot of reasons to be excited for our team."
As for Bucs coach Bruce Arians, he was knocked on his ass all day — literally, by a player, and by busted coverages in a secondary that was exploited by the big-armed enemy passer. “We're up in his face one time, he finds a guy wide open down the field and gets it to him. Other guys, they see him but they can't get it to them. He gets it to them, so he's a special player," Arians said.
Rodgers would have killed to have a new address, and though he was hugging everyone in sight after Crosby’s kick, he’ll revert to his diva self after the next loss. By waging wars with Gutekunst (over the drafting of Jordan Love) and the national media, he inherits pressure that might not end well. He’s the latest prominent sports figure who doesn’t understand the double-edged sword of criticism. When he dares to point fingers upstairs for the team’s inability to win a Super Bowl in 10 years, he’d better respond with MVP performances. He failed miserably in a lifeless Week 1 defeat, but he has responded crisply the last two games. In the process, he has lost the support of those — such as me — who expected a weekly clinic in flawless quarterbacking and a minimum of sniping.
Two victories don’t excuse his sanctimonious comments of last week, when he cried the tears of a man who thinks criticism is a one-way street that belongs only to him. “It’s absolute horseshit to give a platform to people who have no idea what they’re talking about as far as my mental state and, you know, my focus, my work habits. People that have not been around me, that are not in my life, I don’t have communication with them, are not in the locker room,” Rodgers said on his weekly appearance with talk host Pat McAfee. “That’s just chickenshit. It’s so ridiculous that people get a platform to do this, and it’s the same type of people.
“What’s crazy to me is to let one storyline, by a person who has no contact with me, zero relationship, that becomes some sort of narrative that’s out there, that now I somehow don’t care about ball because of my Zen attitude during the offseason.’’
Among those who ripped him after the opening stinker were Hall of Fame coach and CBS panelist Bill Cowher, who said, “Show me you care. Show me it’s important to you. That the team is more important than you are. And right now I have not seen that.”
Just as he lived by the blowtorch, he was burned by it, even having to explain that his new, ‘60s-hippie hairstyle is related to his upcoming Halloween costume. Rodgers has cultivated social media, so he must expect intese heat when he doesn’t play well. He made his bed, which is made of cheese. Now, he must live in it until he is traded next offseason — assuming the Packers cede to his demands, which didn’t happen last spring.
“I thought it’d be a quick no. Which was exactly what (it was),” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who recalled the team’s offer for Rodgers. “But you hear enough stuff and I think everyone knew what was going on at that time that it didn’t seem like it (wasn’t) worth the call, but I know how we would’ve felt if it was going to happen and we didn’t call. So, you call, you get a quick answer, which what was what you’re expecting and then you move on.”
The 49ers stuck with Jimmy Garoppolo and traded up to draft Trey Lance, who caught a touchdown in a 30-28 loss — but Jimmy G never will be ARod, who is 71-1 when leading by 17 or more points in a game.
“You leave him any amount of time, you never know what could happen,’’ Garoppolo said.
“I feel good about our team. Week 1 was an anomaly. I said that and I believe that,’’ Rodgers said.
That Rodgers is in Green Bay and Garoppolo is in the Bay Area only helps the Rams’ chances of powering though the NFC. And those pining for Lance should watch the horror flicks of other rookie QBs: winless Trevor Lawrence, whose slow development is an indictment of an inept Urban Meyer; Justin Fields, who almost was broken in two by the nine sacks of Myles Garrett and the Browns; feeble Zach Wilson, the latest victim of the Jets virus; and Jones, whose struggles left Bill Belichick less than enthusiastic about Brady’s return. Are the Patriots moving on to Tampa Bay and TB12?
“Right now we’re just focused on New Orleans,” Belichick said after the 28-13 loss to the Saints. “Look at the film, make the corrections on that, then we’ll move on.”
Though the NFL and NBC would love a Rams-Chiefs Super Bowl, Kansas City is vulnerable with defensive problems and the turnover issues of Mahomes and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Copying the daring script of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh last week, the first-year coach of the L.A. Chargers, Brandon Staley, let his young quarterbacking stud, Justin Herbert, throw on 4th-and-9 at the Chiefs 35-yard line in the final minute — which led to a 4-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with 32 seconds remaining. That’s how you beat Mahomes. Don’t punt it to him. Win the game with your own QB.
“Whenever you play an offense this historic, when you’re playing against historic players, you have to be aggressive,’’ Staley said.
Said Mahomes: “We have a long season ahead of us. It looks real dim right now. … You’re not going to win games with four turnovers.’’
Is it too early to wonder about a Rams-Chargers Super Bowl, in SoFi Stadium? And wouldn’t it be a perfect L.A. script, transplants trying to forge a new identity by the sea, none happier than Matthew Stafford?
How can you not be romantic about football?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.