Sean McVay says there are no restrictions. Matthew Stafford says there is no hesitation.
Those are the party lines for the Los Angeles Rams when it comes to their franchise quarterback’s throwing elbow entering Thursday’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills. The message? If Stafford needs to complete another 741 pass attempts like he did last season to repeat the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning campaign, his elbow and the tendonitis reading in it are ready to roll.
It is alleged that.
As we enter the 2022 season, Stafford’s elbow remains one of the biggest (and somewhat quieter) questions hanging over the league. Not only because they are the centerpiece of the reigning champion, but also because the Rams have a legitimate chance to be a better team this season. For that to happen, Stafford would need to take a step forward from last season, when he played the latter part of the schedule with enough elbow soreness that he needed an injection during the season, then a complete shutdown until training camp and then a limited throwing schedule until last week.
After all that maintenance, now we get to see if Stafford is healthy enough to handle another 700 pass attempt slog. And you couldn’t pick a more telling start than facing a Bills offense that should make the game a boat race, the kind of high-scoring affair that would put Stafford’s hand on the playoff circuit when he had averaging 41 passes in. his last three postseason wins. And lest we forget, against a defense that signed sharpshooting Von Miller in the offseason and is almost certain to lick Stafford’s hand.
If there is a problem with a game like this, it will become apparent at some point. And if there’s no problem, Thursday night should be the kind of test that silences some of the questions. But until either happens against the Bills, the simple truth is that no one knows how close Stafford is to 100 percent.
That’s largely because Stafford hasn’t had a typical offseason. He sat out of team passing drills, was placed on a field goal count in practice and never entered the field in a preseason game. All of this raised the question of whether or not the pain in his elbow had fully resolved. As of this week, it sounds more like an ambiguous “maybe” than a definitive “yes.”
“I feel good,” Stafford told reporters last week. “I’m ready to go. No holds barred. … I feel great. I’m ready to go play. It can always be better. I can always try to feel like I’m 21 again. I’m going to keep trying. But no, I feel great. I feel like I can make every throw.”
If your team relies heavily on a 34-year-old center fielder, that’s not a statement you want to make in September. Especially when each arm must you feel good enough that it’s not up for debate. Unfortunately, Aries do not have that luxury.
What they do have is an overabundance of curiosity, so much so that an opposing NFC executive had two questions during training camp when a visitor mentioned seeing a Rams practice recently. First, was Matthew Stafford throwing a ball that day? And secondly, what did it look like?
That’s the kind of thing teams want to know when they hear a quarterback closed out his offseason and then entered camp on a pitch count. Because that sure isn’t good for any team, let alone a defending Super Bowl champion who just inked that quarterback and elbow tendinitis into a massive contract extension.
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Make no mistake, Stafford’s elbow situation will affect the entire NFC landscape. If he’s healthy or the team can manage the pain the same way they did in 2021, the Rams enter the season as the best team in the conference. But if there’s some kind of lingering issue that requires more than just veteran maintenance — or worse, shuts down Stafford for an extended period of time — it could reshape both the NFC West and the conference’s Super Bowl picture.
Not that the Aries seem particularly concerned about that. Back in July, McVay allayed any concerns as the franchise was cautious. He also insisted that Stafford not playing in the preseason was a matter of his ideology, not elbow concerns. As McVay has said, Stafford will never play in a preseason game again, just by design and intelligence. He explained this approach as something tied to extending Stafford’s next several years to mitigate risk rather than simply reacting to a tendonitis issue that worsened as 2021 progressed.
“It’s about being smart with management,” McVay said in July. “He’ll be good when the season starts.”
Well, that moment is here and health management is coming to an end. Or at least, the most controlled part of it. Once Stafford takes the field against Buffalo, the only certainty is that his season is bent at his elbow — along with the top of the NFC.