INGLEWOOD – SoFi Stadium’s full, official unveiling, with its long-awaited first full house, coincided with Matthew Stafford’s debut as a Ram. Both were brilliant Sunday night.
The NFL’s Inglewood palace truly is a magnificent venue, just as Stan Kroenke – and commissioner Roger Goodell, and Jerry Jones, the matchmaker between the league and Los Angeles – had intended. The effect was particularly dramatic for NBC’s cameras, and let it be noted that most of those who held the 70,425 tickets distributed were in their seats by kickoff, which indicates they’d heard the cautionary tales from the preseason and left their homes early enough to deal with the expected traffic and parking issues.
As for the Rams’ new quarterback? This could be lots of fun.
The first clue that things would be different around here came quickly, on the home team’s third offensive play of the evening. Stafford faked a handoff, rolled out to his left and flung a 46-yard strike to Van Jefferson, who caught the ball at the 21, fell down untouched at the 15, got back to his feet before either Bear in the vicinity could get there to touch him, and sprinted to the end zone.
The Rams’ first possession of the second half provided more early evidence for general manager Les Snead’s executive of the year campaign: Another play-action pass by Stafford and a 56-yard connection with Cooper Kupp, who caught the ball a full 10 yards behind three hapless Bears’ defenders and might as well have walked into the end zone.
And then there was the rapid response to a Bears touchdown early in the third quarter. After Chicago had trimmed the Rams’ lead to 20-14, Stafford directed a drive featuring a 37-yard pass to Tyler Higbee – a flawlessly executed back-shoulder toss – and a 17-yard pass to Kupp over the middle that wasn’t a touchdown only because a review showed Kupp’s knee was down before he stretched the ball over the goal line. No worries. Darrell Henderson scored on the next play.
Stafford’s first night’s work as a Los Angeles athlete: 20 for 26, 321 yards, three touchdown passes, no picks and a 156.1 quarterback rating. His high school chum from Dallas, Clayton Kershaw, has a tough act to follow when he returns to the Dodger Stadium mound Monday night.
Did Sean McVay have a favorite Stafford moment? Hard to tell.
“The first drive of the second half was what I thought was most impressive,” he said afterward. “But now I’m thinking about what an unbelievable job he did progressing (through his receivers), finding Robert Woods on the last touchdown (with 3:17 left). So there was multiple things.
“But I think the overall game management, and I think the expectation. You know, you can just see there was a look in his eye. He had confidence in his teammates. He expects to play well. And, you know, he did a great job. It’s hard to say that there was one thing. I loved everything that he did tonight.”
The most impressive thing might have been his ability to get everybody involved. Five receivers caught at least two passes, and Darrell Henderson had one catch for 17 yards as well. McVay noted his ability to “go where the coverage dictated,” and when you have a quarterback who can utilize all of his weapons, the possibilities can be immense.
“We’re going to get our best when everybody gets involved in the game,” Stafford said. “I’m not sure how many different guys had catches, but it felt like a lot. And those guys are talented playmakers, and they all do it in a different way. Hopefully we can make sure those guys are able to kind of show their abilities and then go out there and play.”
Notably, too, there was a steadiness attached to the new quarterback. No fluctuation in emotion, no flustered or desperate throws under pressure (although the offensive line protected Stafford admirably aside from one sack).
It’s only one game in, but it seems pretty obvious: The Stafford-for-Jared Goff trade wasn’t just a necessity but could be the final piece in a championship mosaic. For sure, the new guy understands.
“There was a lot of anticipation for this game, you know, for me,” he said. “You know, it’s a very cool thing, a new place, a new stadium, new fans, the whole deal. But this team has embraced me and I really appreciate that. And, you know, I just want to work as hard as I can. … They’ve wrapped their arms around me and it felt good to go out there and play with them tonight.
“Such incredible players on this team. I’m lucky to be a part of it. I’m going to do everything I can to try to lead this team to where we want to go. Obviously, this is just one. Got to keep building on this, but it felt great to get out there.”
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