A Trade that Sounds Like an Auteur Trying to be a Trade

This doesn’t happen in the NFL.

On Sunday, two number-one overall picks from past drafts were traded… for each other. Both are quarterbacks playing under “you’re my franchise guy” contracts. Combined, $40 million in dead cap space was added to 2021 rosters in a season where the salary cap is expected to significantly drop.

How is this possible?

Let’s look at the players involved. The Lions traded Matthew Stafford, the first pick of the 2009 draft. He will be 33 entering next season. He has a career record (74-93-1) well under .500 in a world where under .500 guarantees you’re holding a clipboard, at best. Quarterbacks are paid to win. Nevertheless, Stafford’s physical skills are quite impressive and his statistics, for a team that is usually inconsistent or worse at running the ball, reveal someone who is a little above average for an NFL starter.

After another season of Lions failure and another fired head coach, Stafford, who has never won a playoff game, was reportedly seeking a new home.

The Rams traded Jared Goff, the first pick of the 2016 draft. He will be 26 entering next season. His career record is very good (45-30), and he has even played in a Super Bowl (though the Patriots solved him quite effectively in that game). He did not play that well down the stretch this season, broke his thumb in week 16, came back two weeks later, despite playing with pins in his thumb, to relieve injured replacement John Wolford and won a wild card game. The Rams then lost in Green Bay a week later.

Goff was rumored to be out of favor in Los Angeles.

Statistically, both quarterbacks are good. Aside from the record, which depends on team situations, I look at interception percentage and yards per dropback when first evaluating performance. Goff is at 2.2% interceptions and 6.72 yards for his career. Stafford, 2.3% and 6.49 yards. The average for the top 50 winning quarterbacks in modern NFL history is 3.1% and 6.65 yards. Both quarterbacks have earned starting roles.

With Stafford, you see the potential for improvement in a better situation. Goff has played his entire career under an ideal situation. Analysts seem to agree that Goff is not developing as he should and Stafford is still elite.

In the NFL, the money you receive after your first contract expires generally demonstrates your perceived value. Goff signed a contract worth $33.5 million per year before the 2019 season started. Stafford signed a contract worth $27 million per year before the 2017 season started. Both were elite contracts at the time.

I can’t say what changed between then and now. Goff did not have a great 2019 season and while he improved a bit this season, the key numbers are still a bit low. My quarterback metric, which correlates quarterback stats with winning in the NFL, shows that both are solidly above average and that Goff’s 2020 season was pretty good despite a large drop in yards per attempt.

At any rate, the Rams are also giving up first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 (they already traded away this year’s) and a third-round pick this year. This suggests Goff is being valued as a premium backup or stopgap starter. That could be because he objectively is playing at that level or the Rams, initiating trades, are signalling to the rest of the league that his value, internally, is near zero.

I don’t agree with this assessment. Goff has always had accuracy issues when pressured, but he protects the ball well and is an important piece of what has made the Rams a decent team the last few years. While Stafford has this unique position in the NFL of being a sub-.500 quarterback who performs very well and is perceived as elite, I don’t know that he’s all that much better than Goff. He also benefited from having one of the greatest talents in NFL history sharing his huddle – Calvin Johnson – for much of his career.

So, what happened? What’s obvious is Rams management gave up on Goff. They committed to finding a new quarterback for 2021. They got one for two years – the first at an extraordinary cost when you consider the dead cap space added from Goff’s contract. They are about $35 million over what the cap is expected to be in 2021 and they’re essentially sitting out the draft. Somehow, they’ll figure out how to fit under the cap, but it will be a challenge to do so without losing any key pieces.

Franchise quarterbacks generally spend most, if not all, of their productive careers with the team that drafted them. Sometimes, like with Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady (and Brett Favre with the team that traded for him not that long after he was drafted), they join a new team at the end of a long career. They rarely, if ever, switch teams once they’re established in their prime.

That may be changing. Deshaun Watson just received his “you’re my franchise guy” contract and is demanding a trade. If a better-than-average 33-year-old can garner two firsts and a third, what is the value of a 26-year-old quarterback who isn’t that far from MVP level? But the implied corollary is that contracts are less binding and any guy on your team is only as valuable as what he’s currently paid. No easy re-signings, no worries about a cap algorithm that favors long-term player retention (spreading bonuses to future years). If this trend continues, teams will start focusing more on immediate salaries and less on big bonuses. In the short term, with the cap dropping so much, there will be many teams out there who won’t be able to pay more than minimum salaries for many positions – even starting positions.

Still, Rams management, through its actions, signaled a team that believed it could win championships if only it had a better quarterback. Self-fulfilling prophecy, or reality? Whenever stakes are so high, with coaches and management fired for winning less than it should, perception is paramount. The NFL is set up to reward those who convince the rest of us that they alone can orchestrate a championship.

In the film industry, with movies constructed under budget constraints, a film-maker who creates a unique vision can be called an Auteur. A coveted moniker. But what separates true artistic genius from some Poseur who decides tripods are superfluous and coherent scripts are unnecessary? I don’t know what will happen with the Rams and Stafford. This trade feels very forced, like someone wanting to make a name, rather than a solid team-building strategy. The Rams have serious cap issues and throw away first-round picks like they believe the draft is no deeper than the NBA’s version.

On the flip side, the Lions get to start Dan Campbell’s reign with extra first-round picks and if they can absorb the 2021 cap hit from this deal (no easy task, but they’re in far better shape than the Rams), either they have a decent young franchise quarterback to resign or they can use one of those extra picks to draft one. They’re in building mode, Stafford wanted out, and the Rams just gave them a late Christmas.