If you’re the type of person (I am definitely that type of person) who prefers a big game to put a neat little bow on long-running storylines—in this case, to either fully redeem Matthew Stafford’s frustrating, unrealized potential, or to confirm the knocks on his game—the Super Bowl was not entirely satisfying. Stafford’s bag was mixed as hell: Two picks but three scores; a 30ish-minute stretch of play that was downright Goffian, but, hey, 283 yards; looking utterly lost after losing his WR2, but a damn Super Bowl ring. That last one is ultimately the one that matters, and if he looked like Original Recipe Stafford for a while—occasionally heedless, a little reckless, but utterly fearless—it served him well when it counted the most. Fuck it, I can make that throw is a positive attribute when you can, in fact, make that throw.
The play-calling on the final, fateful Rams drive, where “get it to Cooper Kupp no matter what” became the watchword, owed a lot to necessity. Without Odell Beckham, the Rams offense had sputtered to a halt. Before he left with injury, they had found the end zone twice in four possessions; after, they went seven drives with just a lone field goal to show for it. The ground game was nonexistent: At one point, after Cam Akers got stuffed on a crucial third-and-1, his line read 13 yards on 12 carries. The Bengals’ man coverage on Kupp had been effective, and it was functionally double coverage because they knew that no one else was capable of beating them like the NFL’s best receiver. Stafford, perhaps leery after a pair of interceptions, shied away from Kupp, right up until that final drive when the Rams made a big, bold decision. If they were going to lose, Sean McVay said, they were weren’t going to lose with the regrets that they didn’t even try to let Stafford force it to Kupp.
“You said, ‘Let’s not bang our head against the wall again,'” McVay said. “You put the ball in your best players’ hands when it matters the most. That’s what we did with Matthew. He delivered in a big way, and he’s a world champ.”
They made Stafford’s job a bit easier on the game-winning drive by going up-tempo, forcing the Bengals into zone coverage and exposing, as Kupp put it, “some soft spots” in the secondary. But what Kupp and Stafford consider soft is not what most QBs might consider soft. The biggest single pick-up on that drive, a 22-yard slant to Kupp, came on a throw into heavy coverage, an on-target bullet through tiny windows in both time and space. And it was Stafford’s veteran craftiness and innate aggressiveness that made it possible.
Stafford double-clutched and looked off safety Vonn Bell, who bit on the QB staring down TE Brycen Hopkins. He only bit for two or so steps, but it was enough. With Bell off-balance and Kupp having a step on the cornerback, Stafford let sail a no-look ball that found its target in the only space there was—and there wasn’t much of it. Watch the first video of that play again, and pause it when Stafford lets it go: There’s zero window, and wouldn’t be for another three quarters of a second, which feels like an eternity at game speed.
It was the “best no-looker of [Stafford’s] life,” said Kupp, who admitted that even he didn’t realize until the last moment that the ball was coming his way.
A clever quarterback can create his own windows. A sharp quarterback sees windows before they open. A confident quarterback trusts what he sees. But a bold quarterback acts on it. Say what you will about Matthew Stafford, but he has never lacked faith in himself.