June 21, 2024

Matthew Stafford will return to Detroit, but that story already is written.

Stafford has won.

He became a Super Bowl champion with the Rams and remains beloved in his previous hometown. That won’t change, regardless of whether he leads his current team to an upset against his previous one.

The more compelling subplot in the NFC wild-card game between the Rams and Lions isn’t as heartwarming.

Sean McVay and Jared Goff will go head to head Sunday.

They will stake their reputations in ways Stafford won’t have to, as the disintegration of their once-fruitful partnership remains an ongoing saga.

Their split, and what they have done since, defines each of them.

McVay became a Super Bowl champion, vindicating his decision to dump his one-time franchise quarterback in Goff and hand over his offense to the veteran Stafford.

The discarded Goff has rebuilt his career with the Lions, the stigma associated with his unceremonious departure from the Rams diminishing with each of his team’s 12 victories this season.

On the surface, they have remained civil, McVay acknowledging he should have communicated better with Goff before trading him to the Lions and Goff saying he gained the closure he wanted when speaking to McVay in the wake of the deal.

McVay continued to downplay their history after a 21-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers with which the Rams locked in the Lions as their wild-card round opponents.

“You guys know there’s different things that occurred [with Goff] but there’s nothing but good vibes on my end,” McVay said. “We’re gonna go in there and we know we’re going against an excellent football team.”

But can it really be just that?

When the Rams signed Goff to a $110-million extension before the 2019 season, they did so with the intention of extending his working relationship with McVay, which had already produced a Super Bowl appearance. Goff was signed through the 2024 season; McVay’s deal was set to expire only a year before.

However, by the end of the following year, Goff was sitting behind previously unknown John Wolford. The Rams were in a period of stagnation, leading to speculation that Bill Belichick might have exposed him in Super Bowl LIII or that McVay ceased to be the same coach once he didn’t have a healthy Todd Gurley.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff, left, meets Rams quarterback Matt Stafford.

Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) and Rams quarterback Matt Stafford met in 2021.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

By benching Goff, McVay implied that his quarterback was at fault, not him.

Less than a month after the Rams were eliminated in the playoffs, Goff was traded to the Lions along with draft picks in exchange for Stafford. The Rams went on to win the Super Bowl with Stafford, which seemed to prove McVay’s point.

Now, as the leader of an improved Lions team, Goff will have the chance to alter the story around him.

The Rams have to know this, which explains why they did everything possible to minimize the matchup with the quarterback they once drafted with the No. 1 overall pick.

“I think that if there’s anything, I have more appreciation for him as time goes on,” McVay said. “He’s nothing but a class act and, man, did he do a lot of really great things here for us, and he’s done great stuff for them. There’s a reason why they’re in this position.”

Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff was equally, if not more, effusive in his praise of Goff.

“You can never underestimate what Jared Goff did for this franchise,” Demoff said. “No. 1 pick, comes here, made the job more attractive for Sean to take it in 2017, leads us to two divisional titles and a Super Bowl.

“People may focus on the way it ended, but he took us to three playoffs in four years, he turned this franchise around from a destitute one to a place that became desirable to play and that doesn’t happen without Jared. He’s always someone, I think, who has a special place in our hearts.”

Demoff smiled.

“Maybe not next weekend,” he added.

Demoff called the Stafford-for-Goff swap a “win-win,” saying the Rams won the Super Bowl they set out to win and the Lions collected foundational pieces necessary to rebuild their franchise.

But how Goff’s exit from the Rams is ultimately chronicled in history will be determined by the following weeks, months and years. The story is still unfolding. The next chapter will be revealed Sunday.

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