The Thread: The first blockbuster trade is a win for the Lions… and a loss for Sean McVay

We know what Matthew Stafford is at this point of his career.

The Rams were perpetual losers before he arrived.

The Rams have been perpetual winners since.

Sean McVay clearly has done a lot right since becoming the youngest head coach in NFL history. Schematically, he appeared to be at the cutting edge of offensive football in turning a 4-12 team into 11-5 division champs his first year. One season later, the Rams were 13-3 and in the Super Bowl. All of the telestrators and All-22 tweets and former players on ESPN told us this was stuff the league’s never seen. His offense was unpredictable, a ticking time bomb, revolutionary. Then, there was McVay’s ridiculous memory. His ability to recall any football play that has ever happened in his life went viral.

Subsequently, the universally-agreed-upon narrative was born: McVay was the genius and if his offense ever struggled it sure wasn’t his fault.

It was the QB. Not him. Always.

Finally, McVay basically said exactly that himself.

Over the weekend, the Rams head coach gave up on the quarterback he and GM Les Snead handed a four-year, $134 million contract to 17 months prior. The first quarterback domino of the offseason fell with Jared Goff, two first-rounders and a third-rounder heading to the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford heading to the Rams. If you believe McVay is a football apostle then you most likely believe Stafford is the missing piece for this franchise.

It’s simple math to this crowd: Pair McVay with Stafford with the NFL’s No. 1 defense and, voila, this franchise is Super Bowl-bound.

I just don’t see it. For many reasons.

Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco aren’t exactly trembling in fear seeing McVay and Stafford team up in the NFC West. An X ‘n O savant on the sideline helps, no question, but the opinion here will always be that players — more than anything written on a diagram — make plays. Players drive this game. Players ultimately define everyone’s legacies. Not coaches. (And we’re seeing that, to the extreme, play out with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.) Here’s a thought: What if the primary reason for the Rams’ offensive explosion was the plethora of weapons everywhere you looked.

A No. 1 overall talent at QB, in Goff. An MVP candidate at RB, in Todd Gurley. Wide receivers galore.

Trading Brandin Cooks away had more of an impact than the Rams could’ve expected.

And Gurley’s descent hurt this team more than anything else. He went from a player who rang up 2,093 and 1,831 total yards in back-to-back regular seasons to getting benched for whatever was left of C.J. Anderson in a Super Bowl. More than anything, the reported arthritis in Gurley’s knees turned this prolific, unstoppable Rams offense into… something just above average.

Those X’s and O’s were solved in the Super Bowl, too.

That’s why some scouts around the NFL do not view McVay as a “genius” — he had zero answers for Belichick that night. None. He failed to adapt and the Rams scored three points. He was no different than, say, Marv Levy through four straight Super Bowl halftimes.

Frustration reached its crescendo this 2020 season with McVay taking public shots at his quarterback and, into the playoffs, opting to start John Wolford over Goff… even though Goff felt good to go with his broken right thumb. You know the rest: Wolford gets hurt, Goff guts out a playoff win at Seattle, the Rams then fall to Green Bay, 32-18, in the divisional round.

With those three pins in his thumb, Goff went 21 of 27 for 174 yards with a touchdown and a 105.9 rating at Lambeau Field.

That No. 1 defense, meanwhile, hemorrhaged 28 first downs and 484 total yards.

Thus, it’s strange to say all this defense needs is a stud quarterback when A.) We just saw the defense get absolutely rolled in the playoffs and B.) You rarely ever see a No. 1-ranked defense duplicate its performance the following year. There are zero guarantees this unit will be elite in 2021, especially after losing its coordinator to the L.A. Chargers.

In 2017, the Vikings had the best unit in the NFL. Now, they have one of the worst.

In 2019, the Patriots had the best. Now, they’re 15th.

Are we so sure Stafford is the quarterback who’ll elevate the Rams? Stafford has never won a playoff game his entire career and, yeah, this argument will prompt many, many blue checkmarks on Twitter to mock any of us who cite “wins” as a quarterback stat. But you better believe they’re connected. Wins matter at this position. And, by now, we know what Stafford is — his ceiling is Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Dan Fouts and the ilk. He’s bound to either throw an interception or suffer an injury. Maybe it’s all the thrilling fourth-quarter comebacks (he has 31 in his career) or the cooler-than-cool way he throws a football (he’s something like a talented Uncle Rico).

However you slice it, our opinions of Stafford have forever been inflated.

He’s been a starting quarterback now for 12 seasons.

With him, it’s been proven that your season will fall short.

And while it’s true that Stafford has had a 100-yard rusher only 11 times in 166 starts, I don’t care what’s happening around you — we know precisely what a QB is after 12 seasons.

Stafford has won 74 games and lost 90.

Now, the Rams won’t have a Day 1 draft pick until 2024. That’s quite a risk.

The closer you really look at this deal, the more it’s a win for the Lions. They know they’re not contending this season. The 2021 third-, 2022 first- and 2023 first-round picks give GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell an incredibly strong base of draft capitol to build on. They get Goff, too. A quarterback who has won a ton of games in the NFL. As SI’s Albert Breer reported, the Lions actually turned down Carolina’s eighth overall pick for Stafford.

Getting Goff in return was a major reason why, too.

It’s true that Goff is due $43 million guaranteed over the next two years. It’s also true that one agent after another will tell you, the salary cap isn’t real. The Lions can bide their time and, hey, Goff is only 26 years old. Holmes knows what he’s getting in the quarterback after spending the last seven years as the Rams’ director of college scouting.

Go Long spoke at length with Goff this season — you can read that feature here. His underrated toughness sure did endear himself to teammates. He got the snot beat out of him at Cal, and turned that program around. He got the snot beat out of him again with the Rams, then helped turned them into contenders. One of his comments in our convo back in November rings true today, too.

When I pointed out to Goff that, fair or not, all of the pressure is on him to make it work in L.A., this is what he said:

“Everybody can play quarterback and be happy and talk to the media when you’re winning games and throwing for a million touchdowns and everything’s going your way. I think that’s the easy part. It’s when things aren’t going your way, the offense is struggling, you’re struggling, the team’s struggling and there’s some divisiveness maybe going on within the team. At that point, how do you make it right? How do you take care of business and do what you’re supposed to do as the quarterback? I think that’s the part I’ve always enjoyed — making things right and being that backbone for the team when they need it.

“Off the field, you’re the leader of 53 guys. You’re the leader of the organization. You have to be able to handle those situations gracefully. And at the same time, it’s being the person you are and being genuine.”

Suffice to say, this is now the greatest challenge of Goff’s pro career. He’ll pilot a franchise in transition.

To Goff’s credit, he has handled the crassness of the trade about as well as anyone could. NFL.com’s Mike Silver detailed how poorly the Rams botched this all on a personal level, right up to how they delivered the news to the QB. But the Lions, for once, are on the path to relevancy. After announcing to the world that its franchise quarterback was for sale — which typically zaps all leverage — they came away with three premium picks and a quarterback whose 42 wins since 2017 are second only to Brady.

Most importantly, after banging their heads against the wall for a decade-plus trying to beat the Green Bay Packers with a very-good-but-never-great Stafford, they moved on. Stafford could only take them so far.

The pressure to win now, in Detroit, is dim but the future is bright.

The pressure to win now, in Los Angeles, is palpable.

McVay believes Goff was not good enough and that Stafford is… picks be damned.

I don’t think this ends well for the Rams.

Deshaun Watson Watch

If this is the price for Stafford, what is Watson worth?

Four first-rounders? Five?

Saturday night’s trade was a sign of just how epic this offseason of quarterback movement will be. As much as new Texans GM Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley may want to keep Watson around, they sure would get a historic haul by dealing the unhappy quarterback. Of course, Watson has every reason to be unhappy, too. This organization is mired in dysfunction and the QB’s phenomenal season was just wasted.

Watson’s 4,823 passing yards ranked first in the NFL. His 112.4 passer rating ranked second. He scored 36 touchdowns, threw only seven picks and completed 70.2 percent of his passes.

All without DeAndre Hopkins or any semblance of a running game or a defense.

What a mess this franchise is. It wasn’t too long ago that Watson’s private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery detailed a future that could accentuate Watson’s special gifts. Avery believed finding a head coach, first, would be best for the quarterback and the entire franchise. Houston has since tripped over itself again and again.

The first step toward cleaning this all up should be granting Watson his wish and completely starting over with God knows how many new draft picks.

Carlton Davis is not scared

Last week, Go Long chatted at length with the one player who may decide Super Bowl LV: Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis. The last time most of us remember watching him closely, Davis was toasted for three touchdowns by Tyreek Hill.

Hill mocked Davis with peace signs and backflips and fake phone calls for back-up.

We’ll see how Tampa Bay covers Hill this time around. My guess is that Todd Bowles will stick Davis on him again and want him to be as physical as humanly possible. Only, this time, the defensive coordinator will give Davis safety help over the top… which allows Davis to take more chances. Don’t get me wrong: There is no easy way to defend a weapon like Hill. He jukes and cuts and changes direction unlike any receiver we’ve seen.

But if the Buffalo Bills taught Tampa Bay anything, it’s that you absolutely cannot sit back in a passive zone because Hill and tight end Travis Kelce will destroy you.

You’ve got to take your chances to try to steal a possession here or there against the Chiefs.

Davis knows the risk involved with press coverage but he sounds ready to knock Hill around as much as he can:

“At my position, it’s the three-pointer. It’s like shooting a three. You live by the three or you die by the three. When you’re successful, it’s a big risk. If you’re playing press-man, you could lose at the line. Like 80 percent of the time, if you lose at the line, they’re probably going to complete the ball. The quarterback will probably complete that pass. But if you win at the line, you control the route, then it’s most likely you’re going to win that rep.

“I bet on myself. I trust myself and my technique. So, I’m going to keep doing me and keep being relentless.”

You can talk yourself into a Bucs upset, that’s for sure. If Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul manufacture a pass rush and if Davis can fluster Hill, they absolutely could win this game.

What’s coming?

Here’s what you can expect this week at Go Long.

  • An in-depth conversation with Hall-of-Fame running back Edgerrin James.

  • A deep dive on the juggernaut that is the Kansas City Chiefs offense. What truly makes this group special? It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen… so how did this all come together? We talk to the people who know best. (The turning point for Patrick Mahomes may surprise you, too.)

  • Columns. Why is Tom Brady still playing, anyways? Those who know him best have an idea. Also, we should alllll be talking about Devin White a hell of a lot more than we are.

  • More episodes of the Go Long Podcast with my co-host, Jim Monos.

  • Our weekly Zoom Happy Hour on Friday at 6 p.m., with a special guest to be announced soon.

Thank you to all who attended last week’s Happy Hour. What a fun time that was with former Bills general manager Doug Whaley.

Here is the log-in info for this week.

When: Feb. 5, 6 p.m.

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