Sean McVay says there are no limitations. Matthew Stafford says there's 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 crank another 741 pass attempts like he did last season to replicate the Rams' Super Bowl-winning campaign, his elbow and the tendinitis inside it are ready to roll.
As we kick off the 2022 season, Stafford’s throwing elbow remains one of the biggest (and somehow quietest) questions hanging over the league. Not just because he’s 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, it would require Stafford to take a stride forward from last season, when he played through the latter part of the schedule with enough elbow pain to require an injection during the season, then a total shutdown until training camp, then a limited throwing regimen right into last week.
After all that maintenance, we now get to see if Stafford is healthy enough to handle another slog toward 700 passing attempts. And you couldn’t have picked a more telling start than facing a Bills offense that should make the game a boat race, the kind of high-scoring affair that should put Stafford’s arm right back onto his playoff track, when he averaged 41 passes in his final three postseason wins. And lest we forget, against a defense that signed edge rusher Von Miller in the offseason and will almost certainly land some licks on Stafford’s throwing arm.
If there’s a problem in a game like this, it will become apparent on a big stage. And if there isn’t an issue, Thursday night should be the kind of test that silences questions. Until either happens against the Bills, the simple truth is that nobody knows how close Stafford is to 100 percent.
That’s largely because Stafford didn't have a typical offseason. He was held out of team passing workouts, placed on a pitch count in practice, and never took the field in a preseason game. Was his elbow pain completely 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 limitations. … I feel great. I’m ready to go play. Can always be better. Can always try to feel like I’m 21 again. I’ll keep trying. But no, I feel really good. I feel like I can make every throw.”
If your team is heavily reliant on a 34-year-old centerpiece quarterback, that’s not a proclamation you want to have to make in September. Especially when every arm should feel good enough that it’s not a topic of conversation. Unfortunately, the Rams don’t have that luxury.
What they do have is an excess of curiosity, so much so that one opposing NFC executive had two questions during training camp when a visitor mentioned that they’d recently seen a Rams practice. First, was Matthew Stafford throwing that day? And second, what did that look like?
That’s the kind of thing teams want to know when they hear that a quarterback shut down his offseason and then entered camp on a pitch count. That’s certainly not a good thing for any team, let alone a defending Super Bowl champion that just signed that quarterback and his elbow tendinitis to a massive contract extension.
Make no mistake, the state of Stafford’s elbow will impact the entire NFC landscape. If he’s healthy, or the team can manage the pain in the same fashion as 2021, the Rams start the season as the best team in the conference. But if there’s some kind of lasting issue that requires more than veteran maintenance — or worse yet, shuts down Stafford for a sustained period of time — it could reshape the NFC West and the conference’s Super Bowl picture.
Not that the Rams seem particularly worried about it. Back in July, McVay brushed away any concerns as the franchise erring on the side of caution. He was also insistent that Stafford not playing in the preseason was a matter of his ideology, and not any concerns about the elbow. As McVay has put it, Stafford will never play in a preseason game again, just out of design and intelligence. He explained that approach as something attached to lengthening Stafford’s next several years out of risk mitigation rather than simply reacting to a tendinitis issue that got worse as 2021 went along.
“It’s just about being smart with management,” McVay said in July. “He’ll be good when the season starts.”
Well, that moment is here and the health management comes to an end. Or at least, the most controllable part of it. Once Stafford steps on the field against Buffalo, the only certainty is that his season bends at his throwing elbow — right along with the top of the NFC.