Did Matthew Stafford bring the Lions’ running back curse to LA?
If the Rams run game sputters without Cam Akers, it'll be business as usual for Stafford
Matthew Stafford never had much ground support in Detroit. The only 1,000-yard rusher he got to play with was late-stage Reggie Bush. His most-used tailback failed to gain more than 600 rushing yards in six of his 12 seasons there. His top rusher in his final year as a Lion was a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson (604 yards).
That was supposed to change when he got to Los Angeles. It has not. On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Cam Akers, the second-year back with massive expectations for 2021, would miss the season due to a torn Achilles.
That’s a significant loss for the Rams. Akers was expected to be a top 15 running back this upcoming season. The 2020 second-round pick led the team in rushing yards despite making only five starts his rookie campaign. He racked up 221 yards in two playoff games while quarterbacks John Wolford and a broken-thumbed Jared Goff struggled to make anything happen through the air.
What can Stafford do without an emerging young back to offset his workload? What will the Rams’ offense look like without Akers?
Stafford will be the same QB he’s been the last eight years, because his tailbacks have mostly sucked
Here’s a partial list of players Detroit either drafted or acquired to handle running back duties while Stafford was its quarterback:
Oh ... no. That is a grim list, and even the guys with big names (Bush, Blount) were spending their twilight years in the NFC North. As such, there aren’t really a lot of data where you can compare Stafford “with a good top back” vs. Stafford “without a good top back.” Per Football Outsiders, here’s where Detroit’s rushing DVOA has ranked each season this past decade:
So let’s compare the two years where Stafford’s run support was “slightly above average” (2011-12) to the eight years of mostly bad and occasionally mediocre running that followed.
Stafford with decent running: 727.5 dropbacks per season (!!!), 5,002 passing yards, 4.4% TD rate, 2.4% INT rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, an 88.1 passer rating
Stafford with typical Lions running: 620 dropbacks per season, 4,307 passing yards, 4.6% TD rate, 2.1% TD rate, 7.4 yards per attempt, a 93.0 passer rating
Coincidentally, Stafford threw more and threw worse with competent tailbacks that he did with inefficient runners the past eight seasons. Some of that can be explained by the fact those two years came in years three and four of his NFL career while he was still learning the game. The presence of uninspiring offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, perhaps best known for his lack of success as the Cowboys’ OC under Jason Garrett or his 11-25 record as Rams’ head coach, also likely played a role.
Stafford now heads to an offense that worked best with Jared Goff in a similar “less-is-more” scenario. Goff’s worst season as a pro under head coach Sean McVay was the 2019 season in which he threw a league-high 626 passes. At his best -- the 2018 campaign that pushed the Rams to the Super Bowl -- he averaged four fewer passes each week while still managing to set career highs in touchdown passes and passing yards.
But while Stafford threw the hell out of the ball despite (and probably in service to) an efficient run game, Goff’s high-volume passing shift and subsequent dropoff can be chalked up to the opposite. 2019 was the year Todd Gurley transformed from “perennial offensive player of the year candidate” to “journeyman RB” thanks to injury. Los Angeles went from averaging 4.9 yards per carry to 3.7. Goff had to sling it because his running game couldn’t pick up the slack.
This points to a scenario where Stafford will have to throw the ball at a Lion-esque rate despite his new surroundings. The easiest way to limit the amount of throws he’ll have to make -- which could be the key to his late-stage efficiency -- would be to give him the kind of run game he’s never had. Can the Rams do that without Akers?
A massive piece of Sean McVay’s offense now belongs to an underwhelming RB platoon
While the passing attack gets its share of the headlines in McVay’s scheme, the run game has been similarly important. Here’s where the Rams have rated out in rushing DVOA since McVay’s arrival in 2017:
That slip out of the top 10 was the year Gurley fell off a statistical cliff before being released. You could look at 2020’s fourth-place finish and suggest the Rams still do fine without an alpha back, but that top five success rate was made possible by Akers’ late-season surge. Los Angeles is better when a top guy emerges to keep defenses from focusing solely on the passing game.
Finding that guy in 2021 got more difficult without Akers around, but it’s not impossible. The Rams spent a third-round pick on Darrell Henderson in 2019. After an underwhelming rookie year, he started 11 games last season and led the team’s running backs with 4.5 yards per carry. He’ll be handed the keys following Akers’ injury, but it’s fair to question whether or not he can handle an increased workload; he only has one NFL game to his credit with more than 15 carries and averaged only 16.5 rushes per game in his breakthrough final season at Memphis.
The situation behind him isn’t ideal, since the Rams thought Akers-Henderson would be a pretty dynamite platoon this fall (to their credit, it would have been). The team’s current RB room features 2021 seventh round pick Jake Funk, Raymond Calais, Xavier Jones, and Otis Anderson (not that one). Funk is intriguing after averaging more than seven yards per carry at Maryland, but that came via only 135 career carries in an injury-marred Terps career.
Akers’ injury likely means a trip to the bargain bin of remaining free agent tailbacks. LA could stage a reunion with Gurley (3.5 yards per carry in 2020), give Le’Veon Bell room for a comeback (3.4 YPC in 2019-20), or turn to Duke Johnson (3.1 YPC) if it’s looking for an established name. Same goes for bringing Peterson back into Stafford’s orbit. Otherwise, players like Ito Smith or D’Onta Foreman could be useful preseason additions even if their NFL careers to date haven’t been entirely inspiring.
If Henderson + ???? can produce, it stands to lower the volume of Stafford’s passing game and help prevent a return to the empty stats of his younger days. If not, well, at least he’s still got a passing attack anchored by targets like Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, 2020 second-round pick Van Jefferson, and efficiency machine Tyler Higbee to help keep the offense afloat.
But given what we know about McVay’s playcalling when his run game sputters, it probably means something in the game of 40-45 dropbacks per game for Stafford and another potential 700+ attempt season thanks to this year’s 18-week schedule. That’s great news for anyone with fantasy stock in Rams’ wideouts this winter. It’s much less so for the Rams in general.
It’s important to note Detroit’s lack of run success is more a Barry Sanders curse than a Stafford one. The team’s top runner in the two decades since the Hall of Famer’s retirement was James O. Stewart (2,890 yards, 15 touchdowns in three seasons with the team). Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna, and the safety god himself Dan Orlovsky all had little support from the backfield as they sputtered across a landscape devoid of playoff wins. The Lions have been garbage regardless of whomever they happen to trap in the gravity of their black hole.
But if the Rams’ offense languishes thanks to a rushing attack that averages 3.9 carries per game and D’Andre Swift has 1,600 total yards alongside Jared Goff, I’m gonna start to think the Stafford curse is real. -- CD