Matthew Stafford effect: How Rams QB transforms wide receivers

It’s no coincidence.

In 2012, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions established an NFL record for yards receiving in a season.

It’s not unexplainable luck.

In 2021, Cooper Kupp of the Rams achieved the so-called triple crown of receiving by leading the NFL in catches, yards receiving and touchdown catches.

It’s becoming a trend.

This season Rams receiver Puka Nacua established NFL rookie records for catches and yards receiving.

“It starts with a common denominator — all those things,” Kupp said. “And it’s Matthew Stafford.”

Stafford, the Rams’ veteran quarterback, is one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. The 15th-year pro ranks 11th in passing yardage (56,047) and touchdowns (357), according to

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates his touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp (left) in 2021, the year the receiver won the “Triple Crown” of pass catchers.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Stafford, 35, played 12 seasons for Detroit Lions before he was traded to the Rams in 2021. In his first season with coach Sean McVay, he led the Rams to a Super Bowl title. After an injury-plagued 2022, he has led them back to the playoffs.

On Sunday the Rams will play the Lions in an NFC wild-card game at Ford Field, Detroit’s first home playoff game in 30 years.

It is a homecoming for a quarterback who had the major hand in historic seasons for Johnson, Kupp and Nacua.

“It’s not a coincidence,” McVay said. “Those guys are all great receivers … and they earned the credit that’s come their way. But I don’t think that that’s occurring with just anybody, and that’s one of the things that makes Matthew special.

“The best elevate people around them.”

That is what Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner did when he starred for the St. Louis Rams. Warner directed “The Greatest Show on Turf” offense that helped the Rams play in two Super Bowls, winning one.

Great players cannot maximize their talent without other great players around them, said Warner, a two-time NFL most valuable player.

Stafford and the record-setting receivers mutually benefited from each other.

“When you do things that are historical, that’s not just, ‘Oh well, one guy was really good and anybody could have done it,’ ” said Warner, an NFL Network analyst. “It took two, and Matthew being as good as he is, and those guys being as good as they are, put them together and that’s where we see the greatness that they’ve been able to accomplish.”

Johnson, Kupp and Nacua are “different players, different people, three different kinds of receivers,” Stafford told The Times in October after Nacua got off to an historic start.

“I just feel lucky to play with guys that talented that can get open and make plays,” Stafford said. “Just fun to be part of those seasons with those guys because they don’t happen all the time. They’re tough to accomplish.

“It takes a lot of dedication, takes some good fortune and a lot of other things. Just humbled to be a part of it.”

Zac Robinson, the Rams’ quarterbacks coach, is not surprised by Stafford’s role in historic performances. Robinson first saw Stafford up close during the 2008 Manning Camp, an annual quarterbacks confab organized by Peyton and Eli Manning. Robinson was going into his junior year at Oklahoma State, Stafford his junior season at Georgia.

Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson talks with Matthew Stafford.

Zac Robinson, left, now the Rams quarterbacks coach, was astounded when he first saw Matthew Stafford throwing the football.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“As soon as I saw him throw live, I’m like, ‘That just looks different than anybody I’ve ever seen throw a football,’ ” Robinson said.

In 2010, 17 months after the Lions selected Stafford with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, the Lions claimed Robinson off waivers. Stafford had suffered a shoulder injury, but his growth as a quarterback astounded Robinson.

“He was in Year 2,” Robinson said, “but the amount of knowledge he had about the offense and knowing every single person’s job, I was like, man, this guy not only is super talented, but I had no idea how bright he was. He had total mastery of the system.”

Stafford was primed for a big season in 2012. The season before he passed for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.

Johnson, at 6 feet 5 and 237 pounds, proved a perfect target and perfectly suited for the nickname “Megatron.”

The Lions' Calvin Johnson (81) is congratulated by Matthew Stafford.

The Lions’ Calvin Johnson (81) is congratulated by Matthew Stafford after breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season record for yards receiving.

(Duane Burleson / Associated Press)

“Calvin was extremely dedicated — one of the hardest-working guys on our team and unselfish,” Stafford said of the Hall of Fame receiver. “And, obviously, he had all the physical tools that were probably second to none of anybody that’s ever played the position.”

Attempts to reach Johnson for this story were unsuccessful, but Stafford has vivid memories of the Week 15 game against the Atlanta Falcons when Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 yards receiving. After a 26-yard gain, the game was paused for an on-field celebration and video tribute from Rice.

Kupp was a redshirt freshman at Eastern Washington at the time.

“I watched Calvin for entertainment because I couldn’t do any of that,” Kupp said. “I remember getting to near the end of that, where every week you’re checking like, ‘Is he on pace? Can he get there?’

“It was like a kid waking up in the morning to see cartoons. You wanted to check what Calvin had, and what he went for.”

Johnson finished the season with 1,964 yards. He and Stafford played together through 2015, then Johnson, worn down by injuries and frustrated by the Lions’ losing, shocked the football world by retiring at 30.

After the 2020 season, Stafford was ready for change. An organization rebuild was starting. He met with the Lions and they agreed to seek a trade.

“I was dedicated to the city of Detroit, the people of Detroit, the fans, the team, everybody,” Stafford said. “I wanted to bring a winner there really bad. And we had our chances a few times and weren’t able to get it done and it was tough. … I didn’t know how much more football I had left and figured it was probably best for both sides.”

The Rams jumped at the chance to send quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to Detroit for Stafford.

“I felt a huge weight of responsibility, not only for the guys in the locker room, but the team stuck their neck out to come and get me and I wasn’t blind to that fact,” Stafford said. “So I wanted to make sure that I’d come in and do my job as well as I possibly could.”

Stafford teamed with Kupp during a historic season on multiple fronts. Kupp led the league with 145 catches, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdown catches, only the fourth player in history to achieve the feat.

The Rams won Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium — Stafford connecting with Kupp on a pivotal, no-look pass and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) catches a touchdown pass in front of Bengals cornerback Eli Apple (20) in Super Bowl LVI.

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (10) catches a touchdown pass in front of Bengals cornerback Eli Apple (20) in Super Bowl LVI.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“It was just consistent,” Kupp said of his connection with Stafford throughout the season, “like ‘Hey, let’s just execute our job, do our job over and over again.’ And I think we did a good job of that.”

Said Stafford: “The coolest thing about that was being able to do that with all the team success we had. It was unbelievable to be able to get that done.”

Stafford’s experience, vision and ability to make throws from every conceivable angle — “He has every club in the bag,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur quipped — are among the characteristics that set him apart.

But Kupp said there is more.

Rams Cooper Kupp (10) and Matthew Stafford celebrate after their Super Bowl victory over the Bengals.

Rams Cooper Kupp (10) and Matthew Stafford celebrate after their Super Bowl victory over the Bengals.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Sometimes, he’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s go do something sweet,’ ” Kupp said. “He wants to get you open and hit you in stride so you can go do something cool with the ball.

“And there’s an attitude that he builds with people. It’s like, ‘I’m going to be back here moving in the pocket, ducking and diving and weaving and side-arming the thing, so when you catch the ball go do something with it.’

“And that’s a healthy challenge. Puka’s done that. Calvin certainly did that. It’s something I pride myself on as well. All the receivers he’s played with have been like, ‘[No.] 9’s back there doing some stuff. When you get the ball, he set the standard the first half of the play, you better bring it the second half.’”

Nacua, an unheralded fifth-round draft pick, indoctrinated himself from the moment he arrived for offseason workouts.

“He comes to work every day eager to learn,” Stafford said. “That’s the only way you have success this early, is having the right attitude toward, ‘Hey, I don’t know everything. Let me learn.’ ”

With Kupp sidelined the first four games because of a hamstring injury, Nacua started fast. Through four games, he had 39 catches for 501 yards, including a game-winning touchdown catch in overtime at Indianapolis.

The Rams' Puka Nacua (right) celebrates his touchdown catch with a Matthew Stafford headbutt.

The Rams’ Puka Nacua (right) celebrates his touchdown catch with a Matthew Stafford headbutt.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

What Nacua was doing was unprecedented. What Stafford was doing was not.

“We always called him the most underrated player in the league when he was in Detroit,” Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, “because they weren’t necessarily going to the playoffs and he wasn’t getting all the accolades.

“But as quarterbacks, when we watched the tape, it was, ‘This guy is unbelievable.’ ”

Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy guided the Green Bay Packers for 13 seasons. He saw plenty of Stafford in twice-yearly NFC North matchups.

“He’s like a fine wine,” McCarthy said. “He’s only gotten better.”

In a Week 13 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Stafford called what Nacua described as a “sweet audible” for Nacua to run a route across the middle.

“I remember like, ‘Run as fast as you can to green grass because there’s no chance No. 9 is going to miss you,’ ” Nacua said. “I was like, ’Man, just trust it.’… He hit me dead smack in the center of the chest. I just cupped it right here and thought, ‘I’ve got so much momentum. I just got to keep it going.’ ”

Nacua dashed for a 70-yard touchdown. He finished the season with 105 catches for 1,486 yards, both NFL rookie records.

The question now is how many seasons, record-setting or otherwise, will Stafford play?

“As long as I’m still excited about putting in all the work that it takes to play at a high level and not just come out here and roll the ball out and see what happens,” Stafford said, “then I’ll keep playing. … As long as the hits don’t add up too crazy, then maybe I’ll keep going for a little bit.”

The Super Bowl title that Stafford won with the Rams has bolstered a résumé that could send Stafford to the Hall of Fame.

He does not think about it but said he sometimes is reminded by defensive players on opposing teams.

“They say, ‘Hey man, watched you growing up. You’re a Hall of Famer,’ ” Stafford said, laughing. “And I’m like … ’Thanks, I guess.’

“But I appreciate that.”

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