ESPN

Matthew Stafford isn’t satisfied -- yet

He's on a new team, in a new city, with the same goal -- winning a Super Bowl.

For almost an hour, I've stood next to Matthew Stafford in a ballroom in an Agoura Hills hotel, asking variations of a simple question: What is it like to do something professionally for 12 years but yet not know just how good you are at it? And, for almost an hour, Stafford has said very little. He's here to sign various memorabilia, part of an endorsement deal. A room big enough to host a small wedding is populated with helmets, jerseys, footballs, cards and game tickets. Stafford works the aisles, up and down, down and up, bracketed by two staffers holding boxes of markers. Signing stuff is a weird and menial task, a hidden part of a star quarterback's life. It's also real work: Stafford has 1,500 items to sign. At one point, he looks up and sees that he is only about a fifth done, with rows of helmets and boxes of jerseys and footballs before him.

"Oh my god," he says. "Might have to take the day off from throwing tomorrow."

Stafford is tall and fit, with slim shoulders, which make his head -- a "giant f---ing dome," in his words -- look slightly more giant. He has a boyish face, but he's 33 now, and the years show in subtle ways, with gray whiskers crashing his beard's party. He's in a good headspace now, a welcome change even from just a few months ago. After last season, Stafford was ready to do something he and his wife, Kelly, had first discussed before the year began: Ask for a trade out of Detroit. The Lions had just lost to the Vikings in the season finale, and the game felt like a microcosm of his career: He had generally played well, throwing three touchdowns, but couldn't overcome his team's mistakes and a few of his own, like when he misfired on a game-tying 2-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter. Detroit finished 5-11, another wasted season.

That night, Stafford took photos with family in front of Ford Field, just in case it was the end. A few hours later -- after fighting that feeling of wanting out "as long as he could," Kelly says -- he told her that the next day he was going to do it, for real.

video
Matthew Stafford is ready for Super Bowl run with Rams

Seth Wickersham sits down with Matthew Stafford as he shares his desire to play in "as many Super Bowls as possible" for the Rams. Produced by Michael Sciallo; Edited by Nate Ayoub, Lamarr English and Sam Nicodemo.

But that morning, Stafford was emptying the dishwasher in silence -- waffling, worrying, fretting, questioning, reconsidering, carrying on conversations in his head. Was he doing the right thing? Some of his best friends were in Detroit. He had lost a lot of games, sure, but he'd also had some of the best times of his life in that locker room. The team might not have scouted talent well or hired the best coaches, but it had deeply impacted Stafford's life, paying him around $200 million. In 2019, the Lions' physician, Asheesh Bedi, had scheduled a brain MRI for Kelly -- after she had dismissed weeks of lightheadedness -- and it led to the removal of a noncancerous but dangerous tumor, big enough that it might have affected her neurological functions, leaving the Staffords forever grateful. Stafford had always been a perfect ambassador for the Lions, never once sounding off at the team's systemic ineptitude and irrelevance and pledging to himself and his city that he would do everything he could to deliver a Super Bowl.

Some players derive a sense of power and control, if not pride and joy, from waging public war against their employer. Not Stafford. Asking out would be an epic concession -- an admission that, on some level, he had failed. But the Lions were about to hire a new general manager and head coach, and he felt he couldn't go through yet another rebuild. Finally, he told Kelly, "All right, wish me luck. Say a prayer for me."

He met with the Lions brass and ownership for hours, shedding a few tears. He called Kelly on the drive home, telling her that the executives were surprised, but after listening to his rationale, they understood. By the end of the month Stafford was a Los Angeles Ram -- in exchange for two first-round picks, a third-round pick and Jared Goff, giving L.A. fans hope that they would be this year's Buccaneers, with a new quarterback leading the way to a Super Bowl win in their home stadium.

All of which led me to Stafford, in the ballroom as he signs items. He's a famous quarterback, as regular on Thanksgiving as mashed potatoes, but we know little about his vanities and insecurities, scars and ego, to say nothing about how good he really is. Some people close to Stafford felt that with a new team and lease on football, he might be willing to reveal his honest thoughts about Detroit, what so much losing does to someone, what parts of him it formed and what parts it ripped away, what he lost and what he now must rebuild within himself. But in the ballroom, I've been asking every question I could think of about where Stafford is in his career and life, and he's been politely dancing around them. When I ask about fine-tuning his throwing mechanics, he says he doesn't want to get "into all the stuff." When I ask about his film-watching routine, he says, "You know, a little here, a little there," lest he give me "all the secrets." And when I ask a question what his L.A. backyard looks out onto -- after he tells a story about a taster's choice moment when he and Kelly looked out from their new backyard and saw the first day of the rest of their lives -- he says, "I'm not telling you that."

So finally, I ask my latest version: "What do you want out of the rest of your career?" He pauses and looks me in the eye. "I just want to play in big games, you know? ... I want to have opportunities to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter against really good teams, in big moments, rather than a 1 o'clock game on a Sunday somewhere."

Left unspoken is the challenge before him: To become who he wants to be, he'll have to forget much of who he was.


STAFFORD SCRIBBLES HIS way through the ballroom, and it ends up becoming an accidental tour of his career. He picks up a University of Georgia helmet. He was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs, a five-star recruit out of Highland Park, Texas, where he was schooled in the art of throwing by his father, John, and where he emulated John Elway, Troy Aikman and Brett Favre. He went 3-0 in bowl games and was All-America as a college junior. There's a little note on the helmet requesting that he sign it with his career statistics: 7,731 yards and 51 touchdowns. He stares at the stats.

"These are not impressive numbers, to be f---ing honest," he says. "Ha. This is like every quarterback in Oklahoma's system these days."

He signs a photo of himself as a rookie. He was drafted first overall in 2009, arriving in an iconic American city when both it and the 0-16 Lions were at their lowest, with the kind of magical arm that makes people believe -- and where, it turned out, Stafford learned both the full potential and limits of his ability. "When you think about that guy," I ask, "what didn't he know?"

"Pssh," he says. "A lot."

For one, that version of Stafford didn't know a lot of the fine details of his craft. He had never really thought about throwing -- so much came naturally -- and years later joined the legions of quarterbacks who work with specialist Tom House and 3DQB, which taught him to tighten his follow-through and to keep his left foot forward in the shotgun, rather than his right, so that there's no wasted motion on quick throws. Stafford didn't know the fragilities of life, either -- the joy of creating a family and the blinding fear of a life partner undergoing an operation so serious that she had to relearn how to walk. But even after some epic performances in that first year -- like when he threw five touchdowns, the last one as time expired and with a severely injured left shoulder, to beat the Browns -- he also didn't know exactly how hard it is to win in the NFL. Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson -- they win so often it looks easy. But the Lions won two games in his first season and, after he missed most of the 2010 season with an injured right shoulder, just six in his second. Stafford felt like he was "letting down the guys, the city, everybody." He read "Lone Survivor," a memoir by retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, both for inspiration and aspiration, and in 2011, he exploded, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns and helping the 10-6 Lions to their first playoff game in 12 years. He played well in the wild-card round against the Saints, throwing three touchdowns, but the defense gave up 45 points in a loss.

“It was hard for him to motivate himself sometimes. But every year, he had me thinking that they’d have a chance.”

- Kelly Stafford

Next up to sign is a copy of Sports Illustrated's 2012 NFL preview, with Stafford and Calvin Johnson on the cover, under the headline "Mega-Arm Megatron," a portrait of two stars and a team seemingly on the ascent. But two more losing seasons followed. In 2014, the Lions made the playoffs again, but lost to the Cowboys. A year later, after another losing season, Johnson retired, joining Barry Sanders as Lions legends to walk away in their prime, broken from incurable losing. Stafford helped the Lions to one more playoff appearance -- a loss to the Seahawks in 2016 -- and he hasn't been to the postseason since. The final two years in Detroit -- marred by Kelly's surgery, a COVID-19 protocol debacle in November when one of his young daughters, Hunter, fell off a high chair and was concussed while he was in forced isolation due to exposure to someone with the virus, and Matt Patricia's three-year reign, a New England cover band based on manipulation and fear -- were hell.

Stafford won 74 games in his 12 years in Detroit, a franchise record. But professional football is and always will be a January sport. He was almost always at home during the playoffs, watching other, and sometimes lesser, quarterbacks author magical moments. If Stafford retired tomorrow, he'd merit some Hall of Fame discussion based on his numbers -- 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns -- but it's hard to make it to Canton as a quarterback if your career lacks a signature moment in a big game, or if voters don't know whether you're even capable of that mysterious mix of ruthlessness and confidence in the most critical moments that the greats possess in abundance.

What does all of that losing and untapped potential do to a guy? Stafford and Kelly speak of it in measured terms. Of Matthew disappearing into the bedroom to be alone after a loss, of the energy required and spent adjusting to new coaching staffs and learning new playbooks, of the mental gymnastics used to manufacture hope, not just entering each season but sometimes each day. Even Kelly would wonder how he kept going. "It was hard for him to motivate himself sometimes," she says. "But every year, he had me thinking that they'd have a chance." He didn't become jaded, didn't mail it in; he never concluded that he'd rather not play football than play for the Lions. But when that hope inevitably faded, he'd have to cycle himself to a mental place where he'd forget about the win-loss record and the narrative that he's the poster boy for the argument that wins shouldn't be a quarterback stat -- an argument that every quarterback knows deep down is absurd -- and remind himself that he loved the game, and that "no matter what the situation is ... I play for the guys around me."

One of the staffers slides a non-Lions jersey under Stafford's hand for him to sign. It's from the 2015 Pro Bowl, his first and only. He was named offensive MVP. This game -- a game Brady barely ever acknowledges, much less attends -- is one of Stafford's career highlights, maybe the highlight.

Two men pull the jersey tight to a table as Stafford signs it on the white of his number. I ask what it meant to be Pro Bowl Offensive MVP.

He shrugs.

"A couple good quarters."


The real impetus behind Stafford's desire to play for L.A.? "I want to have opportunities to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter against really good teams, in big moments, rather than a 1 o'clock game on a Sunday somewhere." Eric Ray Davidson for ESPN

ON ANOTHER JUNE afternoon a few days later, Sean McVay sits in the living room of his house in Encino, talking about throttled potential -- both his new quarterback's, and, in a roundabout way, his own. McVay is short and jacked, with a handshake that leaves you reconsidering the virtues of forearm workouts. The living room shelves bracketing a flat screen TV are filled with photos of him and his fiancée, Veronika Khomyn. Upstairs is a modest football room, filled with framed photos and articles from a career that feels both fully formed yet unfinished.

McVay is from a football family -- his grandfather, John, won five Super Bowls as VP of football operations for the 49ers -- and he's done well for himself, not just for a 35-year-old coach but for any head coach in his first four years in the NFL. He has a Super Bowl appearance and four winning seasons under his belt, leading an organization trying to ingratiate itself in its new city and stave off an ongoing lawsuit from its previous one. McVay is a fiercely driven coach, doing the work, reading the books, watching documentaries of legends in his profession. But he also knows that, for all the hours he spends analyzing and studying his craft, a large part of it is beyond his control. Everything in the world Sean McVay wants to be is now in Matthew Stafford's hands.

Coaches are taught to maintain an emotional detachment from players. But with Stafford, McVay gave up any pretense of distance. They barely knew each other 10 months ago, but now, they're friends. They're also mirrors of each other, in ambition more than in personality. Stafford is reserved and sarcastic. McVay is charming and sometimes a little too honest. The day before I met with McVay at his house, he said into a microphone that since Stafford arrived, he's been very happy. "Everybody says, 'Man, you just seem like you're in a better mood this offseason.' And I said, 'You're damn right I am.'" Within hours, McVay clarified that what sounded like a slight to Jared Goff wasn't indeed a slight to Goff. But the fact is, McVay is happier, and it is because of Stafford.

McVay also might be happy because the Lions bailed the Rams out of their own mistake. Only three years ago, Goff seemed to come of age, twice rallying the Rams from double-digit deficits against the Saints in the NFC championship -- something Stafford has never done. Even though Bill Belichick's Patriots exposed Goff in the Super Bowl, he still made a perfect throw down the sideline near the end of the fourth quarter that would have tied the game if receiver Brandin Cooks had hauled it in. His next throw was intercepted, and the Patriots closed the game and "ruined my life," McVay has said, joking but not. An epic defensive performance by the Rams, limiting Brady to 13 points, was wasted because McVay's offense couldn't score more than a field goal.

Still, McVay saw promise in Goff, and the team signed the quarterback to a post-Super Bowl-appearance four-year, $134 million extension in 2019. But after a divisional-round loss to the Packers this year, he decided that he needed to upgrade. Smart defensive coordinators could tell that Goff failed to read defenses as well as the very best quarterbacks, and NFC West opponents felt the Rams were in deep long-term trouble, saddled with a huge contract for a B-level quarterback -- one of the worst places to be in the NFL. After a clumsy but blunt season-ending news conference in which general manager Les Snead refused to commit to Goff, McVay and Veronika vacationed to Chileno Bay in Cabo. When they landed, McVay texted Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth, who told him that his good friend Matthew Stafford happened to be at the same resort.

“Everybody says, ‘Man, you just seem like you’re in a better mood this offseason.’ And I said, ‘You’re damn right I am.’”

- Sean McVay at a June news conference

A few weeks earlier, when Stafford had told the Lions that he wanted out, the team gave him and his agent permission to seek a trade, and the two sides pledged to keep the situation confidential and out of the headlines. That was important to Stafford, to not play the leak game. Days passed. Stafford was stressed. "We need to get away," Kelly told him. "We need to get out of this country. I don't care where. Away from football."

The Staffords considered the Bahamas, but ended up in Cabo -- and Stafford's life and career soon changed. When he landed, he texted Whitworth to meet up. Whitworth texted McVay, who had heard that Stafford wanted a trade, and had even watched cut-ups of him in case the Rams decided to enter the derby.

You're not going to f---ing believe this, McVay wrote to a group text of Rams brass. Stafford is in town.

Within an hour, Whitworth, McVay and Stafford met poolside. At first, Kelly didn't know who McVay was. He looked so young. She met Veronika and asked how everyone knew one another. "My fiancé coaches Andrew," Veronika said. It clicked for Kelly -- not only that he was the coach of the Rams, but he was also a friend of her brother's, Chad, from Atlanta-area high school football.

McVay mentioned to Stafford that two of the coaches on his staff were the quarterback's teammates at Georgia.

"You're getting old, man!" McVay said.

During their first conversation of the offseason, McVay asked Stafford about his game-winning drive against Washington in 2016 -- a loss that "broke my heart," says McVay, who was the offensive coordinator. Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Over drinks, they chatted for more than an hour. McVay asked Stafford about one of the memorable clutch moments of his career, in October of 2016, when he threw a touchdown pass in the final seconds to beat Washington, for whom McVay was the offensive coordinator. Stafford instantly recalled the sequence. Down 17-13, 1:05 left, 75 yards to go, three timeouts. First play, Stafford dropped back, moved left and winged it sidearm, off the wrong foot and over the middle -- a throw exclusive to the great arms -- to Marvin Jones crossing the opposite way for 23 yards. Next play: Stafford ran up the middle for 14. Then he hit Andre Roberts over the middle for 20. Two plays later, 22 seconds left, Stafford found the soft spot against Washington's single-high buzz coverage -- where the defense shows Cover 2 and brings one of the safeties down to cover short routes -- and hit Anquan Boldin on a seam route for six.

"Broke my heart," McVay says now. But that day, at the pool, it also impressed him. Not only that Stafford had pulled off the drive -- but also that he remembered it perfectly five years later, and after a few cocktails. It was a glimpse of a vast "inventory," McVay says, knowledge earned from reps and scars and most of all, from surviving more than a decade in a ruthless league.

Over the next few days, McVay studied Stafford on his phone and iPad, testing Veronika's patience on vacation -- or, one could argue, investing in their future happiness. McVay realized that Stafford had in abundance what he needed at quarterback: the ability to fix plays, to correct problems in split seconds -- maybe a function of witnessing disasters in Detroit, maybe part of his natural skill set -- with pocket movement, with eyes, with arm angles. Stafford had told the Lions that his preferences were the Rams, 49ers and Colts, in that order. The Panthers offered an attractive package to the Lions, and, without a no-trade clause in his contract, they could have sent him to Carolina. But he didn't want to go there, and so the team did him a solid and worked it out with the Rams. The trade came together in a little over two days in Cabo. Matthew and Kelly asked their nanny -- a virtual family member -- if she would go with them to California. She said yes, making the trade official before it became officially official in March, at the start of the league year.

McVay called owner Stan Kroenke and explained why Stafford was worth a big price.

"I trust you," Kroenke said.

It was the second time in two years Kroenke had trusted McVay with an expensive move at quarterback. McVay had gotten something as valuable as an upgrade at the game's most valuable position: a second chance. Stafford was at dinner with friends when his agent, Tom Condon, called. He left the table. When he returned, he said, "Well, I guess I'm a Ram." The next evening, McVay and Veronika met Matthew and Kelly. "Congrats to the new Ram," McVay toasted, and the night got hazier as it went on.

A few months later, Stafford was at the team facility on the day the schedule was released. Rams COO Kevin Demoff asked him, "How many prime-time games have you played?"

Aside from Thanksgiving, just a few, Stafford replied.

This year, Demoff told him, the Rams would be on prime time five nights. Stafford smiled. He got the stage he wanted. Now he just has to deliver.


Stafford's trade to the Rams was announced on Jan. 31, but the final step -- making sure the family's nanny would come to California with them -- had happened a few days earlier. Eric Ray Davidson for ESPN

BACK AT THE BALLROOM, Stafford is flexing his hand, trying to keep it loose. He's particular about his hands. His fingertips have to be sensitive enough to feel the tiny contours of the ball. His pinkie is bleeding -- if he has a cut, or dead skin, he picks at it. Quarterbacks, man.

Just then, someone enters the room. Stafford's eyes rise. "Nice of you to show up," he says, smiling.

It's Cooper Kupp, the Rams' star slot receiver, rolling in an hour late.

Kupp dives in, signing stuff on the other end of the room, while Stafford talks about how strange it's been to be the new guy on the team. He had to enter a facility address into his GPS for the first time in 12 years. He has bonded with new coaching and training and public relations staffs. He's gotten to start over, and in a way, the trade has reintroduced Stafford to us, giving us a new appreciation for his career. The trade has reignited debates over how good he really is and can be. Twice he's led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks, an astounding figure for a quarterback with a losing record as a starter. He's always been spare with his endorsements and has signed only two since becoming a Ram, with Fanatics and with Alo, a yoga apparel company. Stafford's response to the hype has been to focus on the task at hand -- and the task is to learn the basics.

Take McVay's playbook. It's brutal for quarterbacks to learn a new language, harder than most fans realize. Brady had recently admitted that midway through last year, he was still struggling to call plays in Bruce Arians' verbiage.

"I thought it was cool Tom Brady said what he said," Stafford says. "You don't just learn something new. You have to forget something else as well. Otherwise they run together."

Beyond the playbook, Stafford also has to reinvent himself as he reinvents his legacy. For as good as he's been, he occasionally commits a momentum-changing turnover. Maybe it's what happens when your team is always in a shootout, and you're the only chance for a win -- or you feel that you're the only chance for a win, which is the same thing. It's also perhaps one of the reasons he won't pop off about Detroit dysfunction: He wasn't always perfect, either. The Rams appealed to Stafford because of the talented roster on both sides of the ball -- a roster a lot like him, eager to see how good it can be, but with no guarantees. A lot needs to happen for the Rams to reach the Super Bowl, but it starts with the playbook. Terminology for protections is especially tricky for Stafford. I ask for an example.

"I can't give you too much information," Stafford says.

Broadcast audio picks up everything anyway, I counter. It'll eventually get out.

"It's hard to explain. You can't put any of this in, but ..."

Stafford puts down the marker and delves into a word for a protection from the previous Lions system that means something else now. He uses both hands to animate, and his eyes narrow, staring off into the cluttered ballroom, but visualizing shifts and alignments and cadence. With the Lions, the protection meant all five linemen slid to the right. With the Rams, it means that only three linemen slide right. Stafford goes on for two minutes about this single word. What makes it especially hard, he says, is that his teammates have been in McVay's system for years and know it cold. If he calls the protection, the players will know what to do, but if he forgets, he will leave himself exposed, and the play will be dead -- if not now, then during a critical moment in the season.

Kupp puts a cap on his marker, a pile of memorabilia signed, and walks toward Stafford.

"You done?" Stafford says, giving him a hard time. "Good work, man."

Kupp shakes his head and takes a seat next to Stafford for the next round of items. Now that Stafford is thinking about the playbook and terminology, he's locked in. Stafford is signing jerseys, but his mind is back on the practice earlier from today. He and Kupp discuss a sequence from a passing drill.

The Rams appealed to Stafford because of their coach, Sean McVay, and the talented roster on both sides of the ball -- all of them, like him, eager to see how good they can be together. AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo

"Hey," Stafford says to Kupp, "that was the correct signal for Chops, right?"

"That's it," Kupp says.

"OK," Stafford says. "Rob [Woods] was over there in a weird spot, or something, and he thought it was Shade?"

"He thought it was Shade," Kupp confirms.

Stafford knows I'm going to ask what Chops and Shade mean. "Can't give the signals away," he says.

He turns back to Kupp. "When DeSean [Jackson] broke inside, and the safety drove it, I popped back to look for Chops and I had like a Special going" -- shocker: he won't tell me what a Special is, either -- "and I was like, wait, what?"

"Yeah," Kupp says. "He said he got stuck."

As they speak in their own code, I think back to a conversation I once had with a coach. I asked on any given play, even after all those OTAs and minicamps and training camp and hours of practice and meetings, how many players actually do the task they're assigned? "Two, three?" the coach said with exasperation. Quarterbacks will never say it publicly, but calling the right play and correctly diagnosing the defense and fitting the ball into a slimming window under duress -- all the stuff we laud them for -- are only the bare basics of the job. In reality, quarterbacks have to account for which lineman might whiff on a block, which receivers might screw up routes, which running back might not look for the ball on time -- or, now that Rams starting running back Cam Akers will miss the season with a torn Achilles, which replacement will be learning on the run and making mistakes along the way. Quarterbacks have to think about all the ways a play can fail before it can succeed. It often leaves them with one true option on any given play, and they have to find a way to use their eyes, feet and talent to shake the receiver open. This is why NFL teams will always whiff on college quarterbacks. It's impossible to know who can problem-solve at that level and at that speed -- and still make the throw, in the most critical games, against game plans from Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin and Todd Bowles, who know the opposing offense's weaknesses better than the quarterback does and have already devised ways to make him panic for a split second, enough time to ruin a play.

“You don’t just learn something new. You have to forget something else as well. Otherwise they run together.”

- Matthew Stafford on learning a new playbook

Stafford has the type of wondrous arm that's allowed him to problem-solve at a high level -- mostly in the regular season. Chad Hall, the receivers coach for the Bills who played wideout in the league and is Stafford's brother-in-law, caught passes from Michael Vick and Colin Kaepernick, but when he catches for Stafford, he marvels about how he has never seen a ball take on such a metaphysical quality, a spiral so flat and tight that "spins on its own spin." All the stuff Mahomes is celebrated for now -- landing inconceivable throws from impossible platforms, shifting arm angles to exploit situation and circumstance, the 40-yard flicks of the wrist, the casual indifference to stepping into passes -- Stafford has been doing for years, only on a smaller stage.

As they chat, Kupp finishes signing the stack of photos in front of him. "Look at that," he says to Stafford. "I already caught up to you."

Stafford flips off Kupp, then peers over and looks at Kupp's signature.

"What are we working with?" he says. "C-line, K-line?"

Both men look at Kupp's autograph. It is indeed C_____ K___. Kupp looks guilty, as if caught taking shortcuts.

"Classic," Stafford says. "Classic receiver signature."

"That's why I'm catching up to you," Kupp says. "You got too fancy."

"I'm just trying to let the kids read it, man," Stafford says. He takes this stuff seriously. When he suspects that someone is hawking his autograph, he scribbles something illegible, a spaghetti plate of letters. But when it's for a kid or a true fan, he writes in cursive his entire 15-letter name, capping it off with his number 9.

"You don't give a s--- about the kids," Stafford tells Kupp.

"Ha," Kupp says.

"Trendy millennial, you are," Stafford says.


Stafford has been rejuvenated with the Rams, his wife, Kelly, says: "This is the pressure he wants. In Michigan, he couldn't mess up." Eric Ray Davidson for ESPN

NOW IN THE third hour of signing, Stafford is gaining steam. The staffers surround him in an assembly line of sorts to push smaller items -- mini helmets, cards, game tickets -- in front of him and then into a box. It's smooth and efficient. His conversation with Kupp turns to the Manning Passing Academy, the annual quarterback camp in the Louisiana sticks that both of them attended as counselors. Two memories stand out for Stafford. One, the Mannings took him out to a dive bar, leaving him "feeling great" and "sweating your you-know-whats-off" the next morning with a fierce hangover, he says sarcastically. Two, Stafford once coached kids in a passing drill, and two of them collided, sending a tooth rocketing through the air like a comet.

Kupp tells a different story from his visit at the MPA. One morning, he says, Peyton and Eli took all the receivers into a classroom and let them ask them anything they wanted. Signals, routes, the hidden advantages only the immortals see and exploit, anything.

Stafford looks up, suddenly paying closer attention. Any insight into the Mannings is gold, even if it's secondhand and aged. As we said: Quarterbacks, man.

Kupp says Peyton went deep into how he organized red zone practices, how he'd correct mistakes. When Manning hosted offseason workouts with receivers, they would work on only three routes per day. They'd run those three routes 10, 20, 30, even 60 times each session, against different coverages, different variations of coverages -- until they were perfect.

"One of the coolest things," Kupp says.

"Yeah, it's pretty cool," Stafford says.

Stafford and Kupp end up applying some of those tenets to their own work, discussing the routes the Rams will run in the red zone when it's third-and-goal from the 7. It's a tricky down and distance: too far to call a run, but hampered by tight passing windows. Stafford wants to come up with a few more route options. He starts to spitball ideas with Kupp, but then looks at me.

"You can't write this," he says.

Stafford sees my irritation. He's sorry, but not sorry. He's not trying to be vanilla. In his career, he's been unafraid to speak his mind about more important issues. Last year, in the months after George Floyd's murder, he authored a Players' Tribune essay titled, "We Can't Just Stick to Football." He described two moments when he was practicing with receivers at an Atlanta-area park in the summer of 2020. When it was just himself and receiver Danny Amendola -- two white guys -- nobody cared. When it was Stafford and four Black teammates, someone told them that they were trespassing and called the cops. Stafford felt enraged and embarrassed -- and guilty, as a person of more inherent privilege than he had realized -- and put it all into words, unafraid to piss off fans and sponsors.

But with insider football stuff, Stafford won't share much. He feels like he can't risk it. One of the things that years of losing does to you -- one of the things the Lions do to you -- is that you learn all the ways a football game can go wrong. He's been so happy with the Rams, so rejuvenated, that maybe, Kelly says, "he looks back and thinks he was lying to himself" about believing that he could win in Detroit. "This is the pressure he wants," she says. "In Michigan, he couldn't mess up." Now, he's surrounded by a true team -- on paper, anyway.

I suggest to Stafford that if the Rams win the Super Bowl, it might be time to loosen up. Maybe then he'll finally level with us about Detroit? Or tell us that he believes he was the league's best quarterback all along? Or really go wild and confess a protection word or two?

"You may not be able to find me," he says.

No, really: What will you do if you win the Super Bowl?

"Throw my phone in the ocean," he says.


A DAY AFTER his memorabilia extravaganza, Stafford is at SoFi Stadium, site of Super Bowl LVI in February, on stage before the team hosts an open practice for fans. Broadcaster Kevin Frazier introduces Stafford, who enters out of a luxury concession area and onto the field. Stafford sits on stage, in a hoodie and pants, while McVay is powerwalking across the field. He then takes a seat next to Stafford.

"I can't even follow my own rule," McVay says sheepishly. "Be on time."

That draws a laugh from the assembled crowd. The event not only gives Stafford and McVay a chance to see fans for the first time in a year, but it also forces them to face expectations. It's one thing to hear a radio host talk about Super Bowl hopes or to read a headline about it in the abstract. It's another thing to have to discuss it before a mass of believers. At one point, Stafford says that he's been "fortunate to be a part of some great teams" in his career. But the fact is, he hasn't been on great teams. Not one. If Stafford hasn't been on a great team by the end of his career in L.A. -- if he's not the missing piece for the Rams -- it'll be reflective of both himself and his coach.

"Bring us the rings, man," Frazier says. "We expect them, all right?"

McVay and Stafford both smile, look down and then back up. Neither says anything. There is nothing to say. There's only the season ahead. Soon the event is over. The crew starts to disassemble the stage. The crowd dissipates. The music dies down. Chairs are folded. The media is ushered away. Stafford and McVay walk across midfield alone, just the two of them, both with a question and both hoping they've found the answer.

Seth Wickershamis a senior writer for ESPN. He can be reached at Seth.Wickersham@espn.com and @sethwickersham.

Styling by Jill Lincoln & Jordan Johnson/The Wall Group; Grooming/Hair+Makeup by Jenna Nelson/The Wall Group; Production by Suzette Kealan and Jake Richtman/Crawford & Co.; Smiley face sweater by Joshua Sanders; check pants by Dolce & Gabbana; geometric sweater and red pants by Dolce & Gabbana; button-down by Missoni; navy track pant by Alo; shoes by Vans; t-shirt and track pant by Alo.

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