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 make another 741 pass attempts like he did last season to replicate the Rams’ Super Bowl winning campaign, his elbow and the tendonitis reading in it are ready to roll.
As we begin the 2022 season, Stafford’s pitching elbow remains one of the biggest (and in some ways quietest) questions hanging over the league. Not only because he is 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 step up 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 layoff until training camp, then a limited throwing regimen right into last week .
After all that maintenance, we can now see if Stafford is healthy enough to handle another setback to 700 passing attempts. And you couldn’t have picked a more remarkable start than facing a Bills offense that should turn the game into a boat race, the kind of high-scoring affair that should put Stafford’s arm right back on his playoff track as he averages 41 passes. his final three postseason wins. And lest we forget, against a defense that signed edge Von Miller in the offseason and will almost certainly land a few licks on Stafford’s pitching arm.
If there is a problem in 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 each happens against the Bills, the simple truth is that no one knows how close Stafford is to 100 percent.
That’s mostly because Stafford hasn’t had a typical offseason. He was held out of team passing drills, placed on a pitch count in practice, and never took the field in a preseason game. All of this raised the question of whether or not the pain in his elbow was completely resolved. As of this week, it sounds more like an ambiguous “maybe” than a definite “yes.”
“I feel good,” Stafford told reporters last week. “I’m ready to go. No limits. … I feel great. I’m ready to go play. It can always be better. Can always try to feel like I’m 21 again. I will keep trying. But no, I feel very good. I feel like I can make every throw.”
If your team relies heavily on a 34-year-old center fielder, that’s not an announcement you want to have to make in September. Especially when each 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 they had just seen a Rams practice. First, did Matthew Stafford throw a football that day? And secondly, what did that 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’s definitely not a good thing for any team, let alone a defending Super Bowl champion who just blacked out that quarterback and his elbow tendinitis to massive contract extension.
Make no mistake, the state of Stafford’s elbow will affect the entire NFC landscape. If he’s healthy, or the team can manage the pain as well as 2021, the Rams start the season as the best team in the conference. But if there’s some lingering issue that requires more than just veteran care — or worse yet, 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 Rams seem particularly worried about it. Back in July, McVay brushed off any concerns as the franchise erred on the side of caution. He also insisted that Stafford not playing in the preseason was a question of his ideology, and not any concerns about the elbow. As McVay said, Stafford will never play in a preseason game again, just by design and intelligence. He explained that approach as something related to extending Stafford’s next few years due to risk mitigation rather than simply reacting to a tendon problem that worsened during 2021.
“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 is ending. Or at least, the most manageable part of it. Once Stafford steps onto the field against Buffalo, the only certainty is that his season is tipping at his pitching elbow — right along with the top of the NFC.