Matthew Stafford hoisted the Super Bowl trophy for the first time in his life on Feb. 13. He’d never even made it beyond Wild Card Weekend as a member of the Lions.
For its part, Detroit was able to recoup two first-round picks, a third-round pick and placeholder quarterback Jared Goff for Stafford’s services.
In the context of recent NFL history, the Lions certainly came out well in the deal. In contrast, stars Khalil Mack (Bears), Jamal Adams (Seahawks), and Laremy Tunsil (Texans) each cost two firsts for the franchises trading for them and wound up stalling the progress of each team. So, yes, the Lions got value in the Stafford trade.
But the Rams got more. In fact, even if the Rams hadn’t won the Super Bowl, they changed the entire tenor of the franchise with the trade.
The lesson they taught the rest of the NFL is clearly underscored in the number of teams that were happy to trade their first-round picks — three teams had multiple top-13 picks in this year’s draft, and seven teams had amassed 14 of 32 first-round picks before the draft began.
This all-in, grab-the-ring approach has changed the league. The “parity-heavy” NFL is becoming a place that instead features dominant teams exploiting windows of opportunity. Haves and have-nots. Players have noticed that playing next to other good players benefits both their stats and their standing. General managers have followed suit.
Stafford ratcheted up the production for Cooper Kupp, who had been stuck with Goff for years. Kupp caught just three touchdowns in 2020, but with Stafford — thanks in part to a steady diet of breakfast visits with the star quarterback — Kupp won the receiving triple crown in 2021 with 145 catches, 1,947 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
Stafford clearly re-invigorated his career in Los Angeles, but then, so did pass-rush savant Von Miller. Miller had been anchored to a rudderless Broncos team since Peyton Manning retired in 2016. The Broncos had never come up with a real quarterback replacement until they traded for Russell Wilson this offseason. Miller was in the last year of his deal, looked at the trade market and saw opportunity in Los Angeles.
Miller became a force multiplier next to Aaron Donald, getting some of the biggest sacks of the season and getting four pressures and two sacks in the Super Bowl.
Then there was the case of Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham, a Cleveland Brown at the start of 2021, didn’t officially set foot on the field for the Rams until Nov. 15. Beckham’s father created a stir in the Browns’ locker room by posting clips of Baker Mayfield failing to find Beckham on plays where he was open. The Browns made a decision to waive Beckham with a settlement to save them some money if he cleared waivers. Nobody claimed him. In fact, Texans GM Nick Caserio was asked about claiming him on a local radio station and laughed at the idea.
Beckham’s contract, to be sure, was fair but not of real value to teams. But once he cleared waivers, he had his pick of any team in the league. And he signed with the team that had traded for Stafford, Jalen Ramsey and Miller. Beckham then became an important part of the Rams’ stretch run, scoring the first touchdown in the Super Bowl vs. the Bengals before tearing his ACL.
This was an example of the bandwagon effect in the wild — players sensing a championship opportunity and gathering to make it happen.
For most of modern sports media’s existence, such bandwagon-jumping was a source of shame. You need look no further than the reaction to LeBron James’ decision to join the Heat to get a sense of how public sports culture, which is obsessed with championships, reacts when great players join forces to try to win one.
That’s not the right way to do it, some say. That’s not the story that the sports media want to tell, nor the story the public wants to hear. But the lure is obvious.
The Patriots famously wound up with players like Darrelle Revis and Randy Moss largely because of Tom Brady. Brady’s un-retirement this offseason immediately swayed most of Tampa’s big free agents back home.
Unless a player has an inordinately high amount of money available to him, like Tyreek Hill did this offseason, he will often go ring-chasing.
Related: The Wildest NFL Offseason Ever
JuJu Smith-Schuster was coming off a season mostly lost to an early shoulder injury. He could have signed with the Jaguars or Eagles, and he probably would have made more guaranteed money in the short term. Or he could do what he actually did — pick the team where he’ll be a part of the public consciousness and catch balls from Patrick Mahomes in an attempt to rebuild his value. As long as there isn’t someone willing to overpay you, it’s an incredibly easy decision.
Then there’s the relevancy of the team. While some of the NFL’s teams are blessed with a large and devoted fan base — the East and North teams, your New Orleans, Denvers, Seattles and so on — many of them need to win to make their way onto the general public’s radar. The Rams, a recent transplant team in a huge city with many competitors for attention, were a team that couldn’t really afford to sit on their hands.
Another case in point: Houston Texans games were deserted last season. This is not to slam the moves that got them there; most of the people who made them are gone. Nor is it to slam the moves the team is making now; at least they have some picks to start to build something.
But the Texans once had a 10,000-deep season-ticket waiting list, and now you can get a PSL on their public marketplace for the price of a couple of pizzas. Not only are they bad, but they’re also boringly bad.
It’s become harder than ever for teams to retain the attention of their fan base, let alone anyone else, and in light of that reality, being a team that’s actually good is a prerequisite for some teams to stay relevant.
These factors have created a new NFL culture that has uprooted what once was the established conventional wisdom of drafting and developing conservatively. Once you develop momentum towards a championship as a franchise, you start to pick up extra benefits.
The Bengals could be held up as conventional wisdom’s response to this, as they drafted a vast majority of their core. But they also were 10-7 and won three one-score playoff games. And unlike in decades past, the Bengals have actually splurged in free agency in the last few years. DJ Reader was a huge piece for them in controlling the running game. This year, they used some of the momentum from the Super Bowl run to lock on to offensive linemen La’el Collins and Alex Cappa, addressing major issues that they had with protecting Joe Burrow last year. Would those guys have signed there if the Bengals were coming off a 4-12 season? Probably not.
Now, you obviously can’t keep every star player when you’re dealing with the cap, but that’s fine. The Rams are happy to make the complex choices, and then they’re aggressive with the remainder of their money. They wanted to bring back Super Bowl difference-maker Miller, but Miller got a deal he couldn’t refuse from Buffalo. Well, they crossed him off and went right out and got the next-biggest difference-maker on their mind, receiver Allen Robinson II. Robinson made Robert Woods, a good player coming off a torn ACL, expendable. So they sent Woods to the Titans to free up a receiver spot and cap space. They then used those savings on former All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner. They will likely get Beckham back on a small contract as he recovers with an eye towards playing in the middle of the season.
It’s almost impossible to get every offseason move to fall exactly the way you want it to. But the Rams did an impressive job in pivoting to retain an extremely talented core of top-flight players.
When Denver brought in Wilson, it became a key selling point for defensive reinforcements like D.J. Jones and Randy Gregory. And the moves from the Broncos and the Chargers — who traded for Mack and then signed J.C. Jackson and Sebastian Joseph-Day, among others — made it harder and harder for the Raiders to envision a world where they could compete by standing pat. So they pulled the trigger on a mega-deal of their own and traded for the best wideout in the NFL, Davante Adams, giving him what was the most expensive contract for a wideout in history. At least until it was topped about a week later by another team looking to stay in the playoff race, the Dolphins, who were willing to give the NFL’s most unique weapon, Tyreek Hill, nearly $75 million worth of guarantees.
If it feels a little like “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” to see great players like Hill and Adams get traded to teams going all-in, note that both the Chiefs and Packers received pretty great value for top-of-the-line contracts.
The Packers absolutely would’ve given Adams the same deal he got from the Raiders. He just wanted to play in Vegas with former college quarterback Derek Carr. The Chiefs had reached a point in their budgetary plans where Hill’s demands were more than they were willing to pay, and they acted accordingly. The Chiefs and Packers both know they were better teams with those players, but it became an issue of those players having more power than they ever had before.
The future of the NFL will continue to bring about situations that require quicker movement and more understanding of how players want to be treated and what they actually want. Coaches talk in almost every press conference about wanting to instill a culture, but the players are the culture.
This shift in focus toward a player-centric model would have happened with or without the Rams. But this offseason, it sure seemed like their success woke everyone else up to the fact that, yes, players want to play with other good players, and the novel idea of employing as many good players as possible would have secondary and tertiary benefits beyond just amassing talent.
As this new reality unfolds, we’re going to see football move further away from parity and more into team-building windows that maximize opportunity and seize the moment.
Either you’re going for it, or you’re trying to create something you can build around. The teams that try to occupy the middle ground are decreasing in number. Often the ones trying for a middle ground are deluded into thinking that’s where they are, when they are actually lower than that.
We haven’t really talked about the Deshaun Watson trade yet because the allegations made against him added another layer of depth to the conversation beyond just money and better players, but once the NFL was reasonably satisfied that he wouldn’t be indicted, it went right back to those two things. The Browns guaranteed him more money than any other team was willing to — a record $230 million — and they were by far the most talented team on his radar. The team that Watson fled, Houston, has lost a star-level player or two almost every offseason and serves as a warning for what might happen if you make one of these all-in trades and lose. Without its first-round picks because of the Tunsil trade, and without bringing in major reinforcements in free agency, the team decayed in front of Watson’s eyes.
The goal of all these all-in teams is to create a situation where that never happens — where their stars are either continually happy, or they’re replaced by other stars. It’s a difficult needle to thread in reality, and it’s an exception to an NFL old-timers’ ethos where the players are to be managed and not really listened to.
But it’s not impossible to pull off. The NFL is figuring out that teams benefit from their star-level talent in ways that extend beyond just the talent itself. The goal is no longer to figure out who is irreplaceable, but to figure out just how many superstars can be on the roster at one time, and at what price.
It’s death to parity, one offseason at a time, as stars are surrounded by as many young, cheap pieces or incentive-laden prove-it deals as possible.